‘I am the state’
THE issue of legitimacy of governments and their actions has preoccupied mankin
d throughout all its history. And governments have sought different ways to justify their legitimacy and their actions.
Every leader will claim legitimacy to justify their rule and define their perception of authority to govern. In modern-day politics leaders call for elections and winners immediately proclaim themselves legitimate leaders. Or are they?
Whichever way a person or group of people are brought to power, they need to legitimise their actions.
Students of history will remember French absolutist monarch Louis XIV who equated his own personality with the state in his infamous statement; “L’etat c’est moi” (I am the state).
That was in the 18th Century but leaders today still justify their actions by the strength and passion of their own beliefs even though these are personal matters close to their hearts. These personal feelings are often construed by demagogues to be a law which is then imposed on the rest of the people.
This quest for legitimacy is oftentimes associated with institutionalisation of an individual to the effect that the person holding office cannot do wrong.
Medieval monarchs – and their subjects – regarded their anointment by the church as a carte blanche to do as they wished. To entrench this belief system the omnipotent leader would seek ways to justify attacks on perceived opponents.
“Off with their heads” was the usual solution!
The system continues, suitably adapted, today. The simple way to deal with dissent is to proclaim their victim an “enemy”. Once the victim is labelled an enemy any action against him is seen as legitimate. Anybody attempting to defend the “enemy” is labelled as an “enemy” himself.
Drastic measures can be taken in the process of dealing with the enemy. “Mistakes” as drastic as genocides – remember our own Gukurahundi—can be justified using political convenience as an excuse. They justify their actions by saying “we had to do it that way, because it was politically convenient”. This is quite a common way of justifying government failures and abuses of power.
However, having no practical ways to deal with abuses of power by government, people just turn away from the politicians in disgust.
This is called stonewalling which governments, including our own, use to ignore complaints against their actions or raising of inconvenient issues.
It is a fact that people might not have enough zeal or resources to go through all the hassle of fighting the government bureaucracy, which could be a very time-consuming and costly business.
Our government has perfected this art. That is why it has become normal for residents to live next to heaps of uncollected garbage, to cross rivulets of sewerage water on their way to work or drive on badly-potholed roads. To avoid the hassle of fighting such misfeasance by public officials we pay taxes, rates and levies without standing up to question how they are used.
We are afraid of being labelled enemies of the state by criticising the state or speaking out on social justice. We have allowed the government, parastatals and local authorities to make drastic decisions about our lives because they feel that it was politically convenient to do so. Britain became our enemy once President Mugabe declared Tony Blair an “enemy” and an “unholy man”. Zimbabweans were suddenly turned into passionate proponents of the land reform programme as government sought to justify its actions, notwithstanding the devastation this has caused to the economy.
Security laws like Posa and of late the Suppression of International Terrorism Bill have been promulgated because politicians have told us we are under threat from foreign aggressors.
The continued subtraction of our sacrosanct rights has continued to take place because the government says it has a legitimate right to govern by virtue of being elected.
But there is more to legitimacy than just an election victory. A truly legitimate government is one that can efficiently fulfill its obligation to provide basic social services like affordable health and education.
A government should ensure there is potable water for both rural and urban people. Power supply should be efficient to drive industry and commerce. The railways system, roads and air travel are pre-requisites for the proper functioning of industry. A legitimate government works towards reducing unemployment and not enacting laws to close companies.
Zimbabweans have submitted themselves to government and its orders and laws through fear, necessity, or as a result of manipulation of their emotions (hatred or fear of a real or imaginary enemy, expectation of a receipt of benefits, ruler deification, etc), or just because they consider it a hassle to deal with the incompetence and abuses of powers by government officials. That is why we have accepted Zesa’s “advice” that we have to live with the intermittent power cuts during this crucial World Cup period.
That is how we have legitimised the system. And we have only ourselves to blame.