"Fidel Castro is dead, long live the Russian revolution"
The coming year will be the centenary of the Russian Revolution. On the 90th anniversary ten years ago, Jacob Zuma, Blade Nzimande, and Zwelinzima Vavi stood side by side at celebrations in Bekkersdal on the West Rand to mark the occasion. Maybe they will sink their differences for a joint celebration towards the end of 2017 as well.
One of those unlikely to celebrate is Donald Trump. When Fidel Castro died last month, the American president-elect was one of the few Western leaders to brand him the "brutal dictator" he was, while expressing the hope that the Cuban people would be able to move from "totalitarianism" to "live in freedom".
In South Africa, predictably, the official reaction to Castro's death was exactly the opposite. President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa led the fulsome tributes. No doubt they will do the same when it comes to commemorating Lenin, who led the Bolshevik putsch in Petrograd, as it then was, in 1917. South African communists will of course join the tributes, along with many trade unionists and the usual fellow-travelling intellectuals on campus and in the media.
Although Stalin is usually made the scapegoat, it was Lenin who created the Bolshevik dictatorship. Nor did he waste much time. Within little more than two years he had introduced rule by decree, established a political police force, dissolved the legal profession, replaced the courts with revolutionary tribunals, closed "counter-revolutionary" newspapers, shut down the constituent assembly, launched a one-party state, started mass executions, required all citizens to register for labour, inaugurated concentration camps, and instituted the Red Terror anticipated by Karl Marx - not forgetting to butcher the Czar and his family and rob the state bank. Instead of nurturing the infant democracy that was struggling into existence in the years before the revolution, Lenin wiped it out.
When South Africans in positions of power hail people such as Castro and Lenin, we are told about the role their countries played in the liberation struggle in southern Africa. But the important question is not whether their contribution should be acknowledged, but whether elevating them to heroic status tells us something useful about those who do the elevating. Apart from what the Cubans and the Russians supposedly did for education or health care, is there something else about them our own rulers in their heart of hearts admire? Their methods of rule, perhaps?
The African National Congress (ANC) and its communist partners in government have steadily increased the powers of the state over the private sector. They are slowly eroding property rights. They have turned the police and the prosecuting authorities into political instruments. They have passed laws to reduce the independence of the legal profession. They have probably now tamed the public protector's office. They threaten the judiciary. They have emulated Soviet methods by subordinating the state to the party. They are busy with legislation to limit press freedom. They aim to bleed private health care to death.
When rival parties win victories in provincial and municipal elections, they threaten to make these areas "ungovernable". They periodically threaten to bring non-profit organisations under state control. They fail to account to Parliament. They plunder the public purse. They vow to implement a national democratic revolution. They tilt our foreign policy against the liberal democracies and against institutions designed to protect human rights.
None of this comes close to what Lenin did. The ANC cannot act that fast, even if it wished it could implement some of his policies. Its arrogance and corruption have had the healthy consequence of alerting more and more complacent people to the need to defend their freedoms and the rule of law. But the ANC's public idolisation of these implacable foes of democracy also has a healthy consequence. It reminds us of the need for perpetual vigilance.
*John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.