Which is worse, to be ruled by a corrupt dictator or by an ideological fanatic? The 20th century provides a clear answer. For our own continent, all the answer gives is the miserable consolation that we should be even worse off if we had been ruled after colonisation by pure fanatics instead of the corrupt hypocrites who actually took over.
I was brooding this question during the holiday season when I decided to become the last person on Earth to read The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Being cowardly, I had delayed this wonderful, terrible book. It describes in horrible detail the slave political prison camps established all over communist Russia by Lenin and Stalin to work to death and kill tens of millions of innocent people from 1917 to the 1960s.
I shall not give much ghastly detail since I’m sure all educated people know it already. Solzhenitsyn describes a typical transition Gulag cell. It was designed for 20 people but actually had 323. They were squashed so close together they couldn’t move. They didn’t have a ‘latrine bucket’ in the cell. They had nothing in the cell. They were allowed to go to the lavatory once every 24 hours. So when a man in the top bunk, so weak with dysentery he couldn’t move, evacuated his bowels, his runny faeces dropped onto those below. When a man died, which happened regularly, the other prisoners hid his corpse under the bottom bed until it stank too much, so that they would still get his food ration of a piece of mouldy bread and a few ounces of thin gruel.
What were the offences for which these people were sentenced to 10 years, 25 years or death? Solzhenitsyn gives the example of a young virgin girl, engaged to be married, who refused to sleep with her Communist boss. So she was arrested for being … an enemy of the people, a social reactionary, a Trotskyite, or whatever piece of Leninist Marxist jargon you might like to use. In prison, awaiting trial, she was repeatedly gang-raped. Then she was sentenced to years in the Gulag and used as a slave prostitute by the commissars.
While this was happening, pampered academics in Western universities, including the University of Cape Town, which I attended, were telling us about the marvellous, humanitarian successes of socialist Russia and how superior it was to the wicked capitalist West.
At about the same time as I was reading Solzhenitsyn, I listened to a YouTube interview with the American historian, Steven Kotkin, who had just published a biography of Joseph Stalin. He had uncovered transcripts of the actual words that Stalin used in privacy with his closest colleagues. In public, everybody knew the Communist ideology that Stalin used. But what did he say in private? Exactly the same. Kotkin made this startling revelation: Stalin was a communist. He really believed the rubbish he spouted.
Lenin, the father of modern totalitarianism, the exemplar for Stalin and Hitler, was personally incorrupt. He cared nothing for personal enrichment. He had no vanity. He had a massive personal integrity. Hitler and Stalin were the same. The three of them slaughtered over a hundred million people with never a thought for what it might benefit them personally. All three lived frugal, even austere personal lives, almost like monks
Kotkin describes how Stalin forced through the collectivisation of the farms, which led to the worst man-made famine in history (only exceeded later by Mao Tse-Tung). Stalin knew private farms produced more food than state farms but felt that capitalism was inherently so bad that it was better to have starvation under socialism than full bellies under capitalism.
This sort of frugal fanaticism never happened in post-colonial Africa. Corruption ruined much of Africa but saved it from an even worse fate. Stalin really believed his own propaganda; African despots never believed theirs. Robert Mugabe also seized private farms for the state, but, whereas Stalin lived like a monk and kept his Communist colleagues under tight rein, Mugabe lived in lavish luxury and gave the farms to his rich cronies. Stalin never looked outside Russia for inspiration. Mugabe railed against Europe but worshipped everything European, dressing like an English gentleman, preferring the English language, driving German cars, wanting white teachers for his children and white doctors for his own medical care. The famines in Zimbabwe have not been as bad as the famines in Russia in the 1930s.
Our own country has not done as badly as Zimbabwe and other countries to our north. The African National Congress (ANC) is a mixture of corruption and a default ideology of African nationalism and Marxism – as represented by the National Democratic Revolution. ANC leaders don’t believe a word of their own propaganda about ‘African solutions’; they all choose white teachers using a European language for their own children. They tend to live in sumptuous luxury, laden with European goodies.
Our most corrupt leader so far has been Jacob Zuma. He was much less disastrous than Joseph Stalin.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the IRR.
If you like what you have just read, become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.