Folly of not distinguishing between party and state

Today, somewhere in a Zimbabwean jail cell is a magistrate whose crime it was to apply the law as he understood it.

Today, somewhere in a Zimbabwean jail cell is a magistrate whose crime it was to apply the law as he understood it.

Livingstone Chipadze allowed MDC leader and deputy agriculture minister-designate Roy Bennet to post bail while his terrorism case is being processed by that country's supreme court.

The police say the magistrate is guilty of "criminal abuse of office".

As Bennet's lawyer commented: "It is frightening if a magistrate is arrested because he has passed a judgment that's not popular with the state".

I can imagine you shrug despairingly and accept this as yet another "normal day" in Zimbabwe.

For many South Africans, it is difficult to see a similar situation occurring here. Ours is a strong constitutional state and according to many pundits, we have a strong civil society that would never allow such a thing to happen.

I am afraid I don't share this optimism. There are just too many examples of those in the ruling party failing to make a distinction between party and state and making those on the wrong side of that equation suffer.

Just as Zimbabweans did not just wake up one day to find those in charge confused about what was in Zimbabwe's best interests and what was best for Zanu-PF, there seems to be a worrying trend for those close to power to think that party and state are synonyms.

Let us look at a few examples. The president of the ruling party's youth formation calls on South African Airways chief executive Khaya Nqula to be fired. Whereas there are many reasons in terms of corporate governance to sack Nqula, our youthful hero says he should go because he is not loyal to the ruling party and suggests that he should go and work for companies owned by the opposition.

More alarmingly, nobody among those who know warns him of the folly of confusing a state-owned entity with the state, even less so those in the ruling party.

In Giyani, our gallant heroes were at it again. They wanted the name of the MW Makhubela police station to be changed back to the original name, Giyani police station, because Makhubela has ditched the ruling party and joined forces with the opposition.

Again, the powers that be fail to rein in those intoxicated with youthful zeal.

Needless to say, these transgressions are minor compared to what Zimbabwean party activists in charge of state resources are doing. But that is precisely why we need to nip it in the bud.

We don't want these kids growing up with the silly idea that they or their party is the state. While it is good to learn from our own mistakes, it is even better to learn from the mistakes of others.

In this case we should learn from the errors of a people who once were brave and resourceful enough to fight and decisively defeat a racist settler-colonialist regime. Zimbabwe has to its added credit one of the biggest middle classes in Africa, proportional to the size of its population.

For all Mugabe's many faults, he has created one of the better educated cadre of citizens than any of his peers in the region.

Yet Zimbabwe continues to go down the drain because of party activists who love their party more than their country.

Why would we in South Africa - who were willing to go and listen to the O'Jays and Millie Jacksons at the height of the cultural boycott - we who have lost almost every civil society campaign from pressing against spending billions on arms we didn't have an immediate need for, to the death of the Scorpions and to arbitrary drawing of lines demarcating provinces, now assume that we would be able to take on those who might get too drunk on power?