Of Many Things

Faced with a growing pro-democracy movement led by intellectuals, journalists and the labor movement, King Mswati III of Swaziland (a small African country surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique) has cracked down on dissent and declared a state of emergency. Press censorship, arrest of dissidents and even the overturning of judicial rulings favorable to the movement have made the point clear: the king is above criticism, above the law. Like the biblical patriarchs (or their medieval emulators), he is God’s anointed.

Swaziland does not rank high among world hot spots. But it provides a useful example of what happens when “traditional authority” is challenged and declines into imposition of will backed by force.


In some traditional organizations (both Christian and non-Christian), authority has been closely linked to the idea of divine right—it is God’s will. To be critical of such an arrangement is to open oneself to accusations of heterodoxy or heresy, agnosticism or even atheism. Small wonder, then, that most of the architects of modern liberal democracy have tended to be religious skeptics or members of small “dissident” religious groups in their society whom the establishment has sought to root out by whatever means are necessary.

All print and electronic media that promote sedition must be censored. Intellectuals, those dangerous troublemakers who have nothing better to do than stir up discontent, must be carefully monitored. What they say and particularly what they write must be controlled. It must be made clear to them that their careers as educators and formers of public opinion will be adversely affected if they persist in their lies. Anything they contribute to the public debate should conform to the minimum standards set by those in authority. And some self-evidently true matters (like the unchanging truths of traditional authority) are no longer to be raised for discussion.

Dissidents, troublemakers and malcontents must be denounced (whether openly or covertly) to the authorities. Because of their threat to public order and discipline it is quite legitimate to act ruthlessly, adopt a position of “guilty until proven innocent” or even “guilty by association.”

Traditional elites who listen to their constituencies and respond with incremental change tend to be long-lived. But all too often, when regimes appeal to their “traditions” (about God, Reason or Revolutionary Utopia) too loudly and become coercive and intimidatory, their days are numbered. People are radicalized; reformers become revolutionaries. Since they know they will be persecuted anyway, why not go whole hog? Even some loyalists begin to doubt the rightness of the old order, sickened by the regime’s excess. They bide their time. And slowly or rapidly, as the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats put it, “things fall apart.”

Should we then cast aside the notion of traditional authority? No. Human beings and organizations need stability. Anarchy cannot work, particularly in a closely interrelated world. Nor can tyranny, as the last few decades of global democratization have shown. We need to be realistic: there is not, has never been and never will be a “perfect society,” whether in church or state. We delude ourselves and perhaps commit blasphemy if we think of creating a “city of God.”

Traditional authority is an essential link joining the past, present and future of any country, organization or institution. Paradoxically, traditional authority is about change: as authority is handed on, it affects and is affected by those giving it and those who receive it. Its truth and value lie in its mediation.

The king of Swaziland may succeed in his efforts to halt the pro-democracy movement. For all we know, his deepest intentions and motives may be good. But if he thinks the status quo can remain fixed forever, he is sadly mistaken.

In this he is not alone.

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