Written by: Terence Corrigan
For years, there has been a cartoonish debate around whether South Africa is a ‘banana republic’. ‘This is banana republic stuff’, sniffs one journo, more often than not relating to the conduct of a former president. ‘South Africa is no banana republic’ hisses an indignant headline defending the country’s sullied honour.
The term was invented in the early years of the 20th century by the America author William Sidney Porter (otherwise known as O. Henry). It referred to poor, underdeveloped and unstable countries, under oligarchic rule, with extreme social inequalities and an economy based on a single crop. As the original objects of this term were in Central America, and the stereotype was of banana plantations, the term ‘banana republic’ stuck.
By this definition, South Africa doesn’t really qualify. Thankfully. South Africa’s is hardly a monocrop economy. But one would be forgiven for thinking so in light of the way the ‘land question’ has been discussed. And we’re a functioning democracy under a world-renowned constitution.
Still, when President Cyril Ramaphosa took the podium, late-night on 31 July, there was more than a whiff off the caudillo about him.
Heading up a banana republic – we tend instinctively to understand – is about imperiously waving away the rules. They are for the peons. Those who preside over things from on high get to make their own. (And they get to travel in big, noisy blue-light convoys that shoulder other motorists out the way, which is a bonus…)
Appearing on television as the leader of his party, not as the President of the whole country, he announced that his party would drive a constitutional amendment. To the Bill of Rights, no less.
Think about that. A keystone provision of the guiding compact of the society, the document of which we are supposedly so enormously proud (and which Mr Rampahosa played no minor part in writing) is to be changed because of a decision taken at a meeting of the leadership of a political party.
This may not be quite as bad as the CEO of a foreign fruit company placing a call to the President and demanding that this or that law be changed. But the echoes are still there. The President essentially shrugged off the niceties of democratic procedure, making it pretty clear that the ongoing hearings (deficient though they may be) really don’t count. There is an objectionable brazenness – something that screams that ordinary conventions don’t apply here – in the failure even to pretend.
Mind you, a stiff challenge to the fruit-flavoured nature of the announcement of the President (party or country? – Ed) was reported in the Sunday papers: “City Press has learnt that the NEC has given the green light to its deployees in government, specifically the department of rural development and land affairs, to forge ahead with the process at the Land Claims Court, in which the state will for the first time refuse to pay market value for identified land portions in various parts of the country.”
“The NEC has given the green light…” Adelante!
A party structure has issued an instruction to civil servants as to how to exercise their powers. One would have thought that civil servants should take their instructions from their superiors in accordance with the rules governing the civil service. This is, surely, one marker that separates a constitutional republic from a banana republic.
One would also have thought that for a political party to ‘deploy’ – let alone to instruct – civil servants in their duties would fall foul (stinkingly foul) of the Constitution. Here again, this may not be quite as bad as the chief of the army marching into the President’s office and demanding that education spending be directed into defence, but as a middle finger to constitutional governance it’s plenty bad enough.
We also learn that “the ANC has targeted 139 selected farms” for expropriation without compensation. No details given. One can only hope – fervently, with invocations to God Almighty, the Ancestors, the Great Spirit or the Infinite Randomness of the Universe – that the ‘ANC’ here is some sort of sloppy journalistic fudge, and that it’s really the government that has ‘targeted’ the farms. What business a political party would have in identifying properties of other people that should be confiscated is best left to the imagination. It’s not a pleasant imaginary…
South Africa as a banana republic? Well, if the sombrero and chaqueta fit…
At least we have a better than average shot at guessing what crop some of those 139 farms produce.
Author: Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.