Building a Bastille instead of fixing poverty: SA government trying to imitate Louis XVI

Political parties debated President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address in Parliament last week. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Political parties debated President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address in Parliament last week. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Feb 21, 2023


The past two weeks in politics in South Africa have been most disheartening and anger-inducing.

Parliament is becoming a house filled with aristocratic strangers, some in expensive suits and others in fake overalls, all claiming self-enriching privilege as millions of South Africans linger in destructive poverty and live in violent war zones.

This is not the country we founded in 1994. This is not the country we dreamt about. This is now the country of self-enriched politicians. When I read the origins of the French revolution, I see a similar seething hostility between the classes of state and society.

Towards the end of the 18th century, France’s King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, who embraced extravagant lifestyles and reckless spending, had brought France to the brink of bankruptcy. South Africa has a government that is foolishly trying to imitate Louis XVI.

Not only was France on the brink of bankruptcy, but years of mismanagement of state resources led to disease and rocketing bread prices that bred unrest among the rural and urban poor. Ordinary French people went on the rampage. They expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes on poor people but failed to provide any relief.

While the French king tried to calm matters with a call to hold a meeting in 1789 with the clergy, nobility and middle class, it was evident that he was fast losing all political and moral power.

The middle class, bigger in number than both the clergy and the nobility, rallied the poor and together this group, known as the Third Estate, launched la Grande peur, the Great Fear, which led the wave of revolutionary fervour that swept the entire country.

Revolting against years of exploitation, people looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the aristocratic elite. Later, in August 1792, the people marched on the king’s residence and arrested him. He and his wife were executed by guillotine, nine months apart, in 1793.

The French people of 1789 had had enough. South Africans in 2023 have had enough. It is evident that political fear and weakness have paralysed the state. Fearing to offend Russia and China and bowing to political pressure groups inside South Africa has given us an impotent government.

Political assassinations accompanied by more than 80 civilian murders a day and increasingly violent streets have shown that we do not have a government that is willing to do the good that the people are calling for.

At election time they will visit homes to dish out loaves of bread, while they do nothing about the thousands of breadwinners that have been callously murdered in South Africa. They will hug and kiss the electorate while they won’t touch the burning issues the electorate are faced with.

Louis XVI, along with his nobility, was out of touch with the ordinary citizens. Their fake calling for an assembly of the Estates General to appease the nobility and the clergy, underestimated the anger of the ordinary people.

No one in South Africa, other than politicians, will tolerate these levels of poverty and violence much longer. No one, other than politicians, will sit and fall asleep in the national Parliament while life-preserving decisions ought to be made. No one, other than politicians, will leave their office for long lunches while it is within their powers to change the lives of millions of people with the stroke of a pen.

Louis XVI thought he was invincible. Louis XVI underestimated the anger of the people. Louis XVI was removed from office and paid with his life for his self-enriching leadership.

South African politicians must realise that they are in office amid a brewing revolution. It is their duty to use their pens and their power to change the fortunes of the poor, not enrich the comforts of the wealthy. Time is running out.

* Lorenzo Davids.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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