"When the bad combine the good must associate"

Ernst Roets makes the case for civil disobedience in the face of injustice

The South African political dispensation is increasingly characterised by destructive policy ideas and unfettered lawless behaviour by those in power. As one observes the current trajectory of the South African government, it is increasingly difficult to discern anything that resembles a coherent strategy beyond a short-sighted grasp for power.

The image of the ANC as the “ready to govern” party of Nelson Mandela, committed to nation building, cooperation and sustainable development, has long been shattered. Instead, what we have today is a political landscape marred by empty promises, consistent failure and scapegoating – a flourishing civil society under a hopelessly incompetent government.

It is increasingly difficult to find historical examples of movements exhibiting such a stark absence of strategic foresight. The ANC’s approach, it seems, is characterised predominantly by immediate political expediency at the expense of tomorrow’s political and economic stability. South African political discourse is increasingly shaped by emotionally charged debates about proposed government initiatives that almost never reach implementation, and the extent to which events that happened half a century ago should be blamed for the current government’s failures.

Public frustration with government failure is usually responded to with announcements of new and even more grandiose proclamations, such as president Ramaphosa’s notorious “smart city”, the claim that expropriating private property would create the “Garden of Eden”, continuous assurances that loadshedding and corruption would soon be a thing of the past, and never-ending government commissions to “look into” problems that require immediate and decisive action.

These announcements about change on the horizon consistently dissipate into thin air because they remain just that – announcements. This is because announcements have zero consequences if they are not the result of realistic plans. These announcements are almost never accompanied with anything that resembles a plan to achieve what is proclaimed, not even considering whether it is realistic or not.

The cycle of empty announcements without execution underscores a deep-rooted problem in South African political discourse. This problem can only be one of two things: Either a belief in the supernatural performative power of words over actions (that announcing something is sufficient for it to become reality), or, perhaps more troubling, a genuine indifference to progress.

Analysts remind us that the ANC is an ideological movement committed to implementing a National Democratic Revolution – a strategy that entails using liberal democratic mechanisms in the short run to promote socialism in the long run. While this remains true, this perspective becomes increasingly insufficient to describe the current-day ANC.

Another much more simple analysis is that the ANC has become a parasitical movement devoid of political or ideological depth, merely clinging to power as long as possible. This is probably to allow the cadres to loot as much as they can from the state coffers for as long as is possible, but it might also be that the ANC leadership is so incriminated with corruption that losing power could lead to major consequences for these cadres. Regardless of your analysis, the underlying fact remains that the ANC has become a political movement stripped of anything that resembles a sense of justice.

The situation strikingly reminds of the famous words by St Augustine that “justice being taken away, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”

That said, a somewhat unexpected silver lining presents itself that will probably shape the future of political discourse in South Africa. As a result of government incompetence and the persistent erosion of the state’s ability to enforce what it demands, the efficacy of the policy ideas of the South African government increasingly depend on the public’s willingness to comply.

The question thus often boils down to whether we are prepared to do as we are told, even when we know that such action would be injurious to ourselves and the public at large. This is by no means a new question. It is the classic debate of an appeal to positive law (the law as written), as opposed to natural law (the law according to basic principles of morality).

As Christians, we tend to be uncomfortable with the notion of civil disobedience. Render unto Caesar what Caesar is due, says Matthew 22. That doesn’t change that fact that sometimes disobedience remains the only morally acceptable path to take. This is not only evident Augustine’s discussion of justice in The City of God; the Bible is full of examples of moral disobedience.

This includes the Hebrew midwives of Egypt refusing to comply with the Pharaoh’s command to kill all Hebrew babies, Daniel’s refusal to comply with King Darius’s decree that no god or man should be worshipped other than the king, Christ picking up grain on the Sabbath, and the apostles disobeying commands about evangelisation.

Other than these Biblical examples, history is inundated with significant political change happening as a result of civil disobedience. This includes the tax revolt of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, which paved the way for American independence; the famous Salt March in India, led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1930; the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s; the activities of the Polish Solidarity Movement in the 1980s; the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989… and of course, the ANC’s very own civil disobedience campaign during the 1980s.

Hannah Arendt once remarked that “civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience” (own emphasis). With this she pointed to the fact that obedience to destructive, unjust laws perpetuates harm and injustice, and sometimes the true crisis that underpins society is its compliance with unjust laws, rather than disobedience in the face thereof.

This sentiment has already echoed throughout South African society where non-compliance is by no means a new or merely theoretical idea. In fact, the impact of disobedience or non-compliance is especially evident under the ANC government. This has already led to the collapse of the e-toll system and the faltering of TV licence enforcement.

Large-scale civil disobedience served as the final straw that forced the South African government to abandon the Covid-19 lockdown. Today, business interest organisations openly advocate for “maximum achievable non-compliance”, not as an act of pointless rebellion, but as a safeguard against policy ideas that would be detrimental to society at large if we were to comply.

In fact, even though they would not present it in such terms, the ANC has repeatedly made it clear that they regard issues such as civil disobedience and non-compliance as major factors to be considered in their own political programmes. Policy and action based on what the “balance of power” allows might even be described as the cornerstone of ANC strategy – a factor elaborated upon in virtually every ANC discussion document.

It is because of an unfavourable balance of power that the ANC abandoned its plans to change Pretoria’s name, for example, and not to implement a long list of destructive ideas that were initially announced with great enthusiasm. These include plans for a government-controlled media tribunal; the notorious “Secrecy Bill”; the “one hectare, one family” land reform proposal; and the renaming of the street in which the U.S. Embassy is based to Fidel Castro Avenue, to name a few.

Even though expropriation without compensation is still on the table, the ANC has significantly watered down its rhetoric in this regard as a result of the flood of presumably unexpected condemnation. Remember that they started out in 2018 with government leaders openly claiming that they plan to exclusively confiscate property that belongs to white people, because skin colour was presented as a sufficient indicator of whether ownership should be regarded as legitimate. Since then, their rhetoric has been toned down remarkably. There are many such examples.

As South Africa approaches the 2024 election, we are already witnessing a resurgence of threats to implement destructive policy ideas as a tactic to win short-term political support. These include the National Health Insurance Bill, a renewed push for expropriation of private property without compensation, and the BELA Bill, in terms of which government seeks to take control of school governing bodies.

We need to recognise the fact that if these ideas were to find their way into legislation, the consequences thereof would still predominantly depend on whether the public complies. This is because – as Koos Malan poignantly argues in There is No Supreme Constitution – the law is shaped by reality, much more than the extent to which reality is shaped by the law.

This is not to say that the concept of civil disobedience should be approached lightly. It certainly is not to say that non-compliance is always as easy as refusing to pay e-tolls or protesting against a proposed name change. Nonetheless, it has been and remains a potent force in the shaping of the social and political landscape.

As disconnected individuals working in isolation, we are powerless against destructive laws enforced by the state. On the other hand, it is difficult to overestimate the potential consequences of large-scale non-compliance with regard to glaringly unjust laws.

Edmund Burke is often quoted to have said that the only thing necessary for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing. The truth is that Edmund Burke did not say these precise words, and the quote we so often attribute to him is a shortened paraphrasing of what he actually said. As strong as this statement is, I would venture to say that his actual words were even better – and even more relevant to our current predicament:

“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”