FRIDAY, 13 June 1986: the day the State of Emergency was declared. The Weekly Mail carried on its front page a picture of grim-faced policemen, sjamboks at the ready, marching on Khotso House in Johannesburg. The headline read ‘Rule of the big stick’. It took considerable editorial courage to print those words in the climate of the times. A great deal has changed in the last quarter of a century. Or has it?

Last week in Pietermaritzburg striking public servants, armed with sjamboks and threatening violence, cleared government buildings of workers. A flying picket of people, allegedly teachers, moved from school to school telling principals to evacuate their premises and close for the next few days. They had a police escort. So over the course of 25 years not much has changed: the thug with the big stick still rules.

In some ways the situation has worsened. Then we lived under a neo-fascist regime totally out of step with the modern world and disintegrating under the weight of its contradictions and confusions. It was just a matter of time and circumstance. Now we enjoy equality as citizens of a constitutional democracy. But, as it turns out, some are more equal than others. Those who are clearly second class are teachers and health workers wanting to work; and children wishing to go to school. Currently their rights don’t seem to count for much at all. And the government goes to court to obtain an interdict restraining strikers from intimidation and damage to public property. No one takes any notice and the authorities fail to implement existing laws designed to prevent such criminal activity.

People with loud voices, a threatening manner and weaponry (a Witness story reported strikers armed with guns) are strangers to democracy. They belong to a world of anarchy in which power lies with the menacing and the unscrupulous. All societies are burdened with such people, but the civilised ones render them ineffectual. It’s called the rule of law. This, it appears, has ceased to operate in South Africa, and no one seems inclined to do much about it. A group of right-wing clowns called the Boeremag have been on trial for years on treason charges. It’s a nice piece of political theatre. But the government is incapable of reining in its own supporters, the cowards who intimidate little children on their way to school.

Those intimidators, undermining the constitutional rights of fellow South Africans, are a greater threat to the security of the state than the Boeremag. The police escort the enforcers and people do what they are told, apparently indifferent to the fact that their rights to act according to their conscience are being taken away from them. Why are police not protecting the decision of schools to stay open, teachers to teach and children to learn? The most alarming part of the current situation is not the anarchic behaviour of many strikers: South Africans are well attuned to that by now. The real concern is the lack of anyone in authority, whether they be politicians, officials or professionals, willing to stand up for the Constitution and the law. Most are apparently too afraid even to say anything significant.

When the World Cup ended, just a few weeks ago, South Africa was congratulating itself as a nation of remarkable people. But organising a football tournament is easy. What takes real character, guts and ability is defence of the hard-won fruits of a liberation struggle from the crooks and opportunists who think it is their sole preserve. Democracy belongs to everyone. But there will be none in South Africa while the non-strikers, and everyone else going about their lawful business, exercise fewer rights than the striker. Until then we live in a state of sjambokcracy; and as the Weekly Mail put it so aptly all those years ago, under the rule of the big stick.

This article was first published in The Witness on 27 August 2010 and entitled ‘Rule of the big stick’.