It’s the system, not the dictator

By Magari Mandebvu


I HAVE heard, and probably many readers have heard, complaints that some people pray for one man to die because this might open a way out of our present problems. I don

’t think there is any certainty that will help. I believe my reasons don’t depend on whether you believe praying for something will have any effect.


In fact, there are a lot of good arguments on both sides of this issue. For example, is death always bad? Is a timely death at the end of a long active life a bad thing?


We all have to die, so we can’t complain if someone dies in a good way at a suitable time: quietly, without much pain, among a loving family, including a good number of grandchildren. One old lady I knew had six great-great grandchildren. However sad they might have been at her going, nobody could deny that, for her, it was a good death.


If a person’s death meant a lot less suffering for a lot of other people, wouldn’t it be positively good? And if you believe that the dead are treated by a merciful God according to how they have lived, I don’t see that praying “God, take X” is the same as saying “Let X rot in hell” because the merciful God probably has other ideas about that.


I myself become more reluctant as I grow older to say any person is evil and therefore deserves to rot in hell. He may have done many wicked things in his life, but, if you look closely, he is more likely to prove sick than evil.


The more I hear even of Adolf Hitler, the more convinced I am that he was terribly sick in his mind. Some people like to spread stories about Hitler’s perverted sexual activities, his rages when, in his anger, he would chew the carpet and other examples meant to show us how evil he was. They all make me feel more sorry for him, because they show he was so sick that he did these disgusting things.


That doesn’t make me any less sorry for his millions of victims, but it does suggest that even he might not be roasting in hell for all eternity. The merciful God might prefer healing him to punishing him.


That might take God ten thousand years where a good psychotherapist could probably sort you or me out in a year or two to make us much nicer people. It would certainly be painful for Hitler, but it would be for his good in the long run. So praying for even the most terrible dictator to die is not the same as wishing him harm.


Then why don’t I favour praying for a dictator’s death, if it would mean less suffering for many and no certain harm to him?


I don’t believe that a dictator could do much harm without other people to help him. Hitler, in his sickness, needed the support of many people with minds almost as sick as his own in order to carry out his evil plans.


His evil works ended with his death, that is true, but he didn’t die of a nice quiet heart attack. He killed himself inside his last fortress as the Red Army made a final attack on it amid the ruins of Berlin, with the Americans racing in from the west, trying to get a share in the final battle of the most destructive war the world had seen.


Hitler didn’t die alone. He died with the system he had created. He himself had done a lot to destroy that by declaring war on all his neighbours.


If he had died of a heart attack before he started that war, would his system have lasted? It might or it might not. That depends on how strong his party was. If he held it together by playing different interests among his followers off against each other, so the only thing that held them together was the thought of what he could do to them if they fell out of line, then his death in those circumstances could have caused chaos.


That might be the end of his system, but not the end of the people’s problems. They might even have preferred a stable dictatorship to that kind of chaos.


This all adds up to saying that the main problem in a dictatorship need not be the dictator himself. Of course, it makes life simpler, and especially it makes political arguments simpler, if you can name one person and pin all the blame for what you dislike on that person.


We know how some people in this country like to shout about the evils of Tony Blair. That makes it easier to rouse a crowd against what they really hate: a rag-bag of policies, some of which the speaker has misunderstood or misrepresented, some that Blair may have inherited or that he could argue he was forced into.


The shouts and slogans usually include some things, like the weather, which have nothing to do with the man named after a toilet. That sloganeering against him wouldn’t get very far if Blair was in court charged with what the speaker is accusing him of.


I suspect that unthinking strings of “Pamberi naNhingi” can be just as dangerous as strings of “Pasi naNhingi“. Nobody is as bad, or as good, as those slogan-shouters make out.


In fact, many a dictator started out with everyone cheering for him and proclaiming he could do no wrong. The man wouldn’t be human if he didn’t discover how that gave him a cover to get away with a bit of corruption here, or torture there and to take advantage of that. Then he gets bolder, gets away with bigger crimes — and then people begin to notice what is going on.


Eventually all those people who used to cheer for “our glorious leader” are crying out against him, even declaring him “the worst dictator ever”. That is a bit over the top. There was a lot of competition for that title in the last century and you’d have difficulty proving our man is at the top of that league.


After all, the problem isn’t only the man himself. It is the system he has created, and which in part created him. He may even have inherited it.


So, if you want to pray for an improvement, pray not for the removal of one man but for the removal of the system of dictatorship. And if you want to work for improvement, work not for the removal of one man but of the system of dictatorship.


And wasn’t a part of the system the hero-worship we used to shower on that one man? If you never did that, you were wiser than I was. If you did, we deserve what we get.


So, praying or working for something better should lead us to examine ourselves. I don’t believe much in prayer that doesn’t lead us to action, but taking either action or prayer seriously should make us seek out the mistakes we made and don’t want to repeat. Otherwise, we can’t expect anything better because that is all we deserve.


 Magari Mandebvu is a Harare-based writer.

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