“The government is a cover for corruption.”
In the dying days of 2021, working with Al Jazeera playing the background, these words in the subtitles of By The People, a documentary by Fatima Lianes about an indigenous community in Mexico, made me look up from my screen.
That one sentence (which you can see about 20 minutes into the video) is breath-taking in its simplicity. And it encapsulates so much that people feel is wrong with the world we live in now: instead of serving the people, governments simply serve as the façade behind which corruption flourishes.
The documentary tells the story of the way in which the village of Cheran in central Mexico tackled this problem. It opens with bookseller Tatamexte saying that the community does not vote any more (“We consider the voting process corrupt.”).
The video chronicles the takeover of the town by “narcos”, who illegally plundered the local forests and terrorised the village, with the collusion of the town’s governors. An April 2011 uprising pitted the townspeople against the illegal loggers. “Led by women elders, Cheran threw out the narcos, as well as the police and the politicians.”
The documentary has various leaders describing how the entire community now decides on things that impact them, in discussions held round a campfire. Cheran is described as independent of the rest of the country, and as maintaining its own militia. (More on the Cheran uprising here.)
As 2021 turned into 2022, I’ve been thinking on and off about Cheran. It’s easy to dismiss the story of this town’s radical form of government as an outlier, as something that would only work in on a small scale, or that could only work in a rural area, and so on.
It is also easy to wring one’s hands and say that nothing can be done, that there is no way to change the way the world is run.
I don’t have solutions to that feeling of helplessness.
But because I am who I am, it struck me when I first heard those words – “the government is a cover for corruption” – that at least one place to begin is the uncovering of that corruption.
“The problem is the people who are in power want to stay in power… Power is like a disease,” says Imelda Compos, a healer and leader in the 2011 uprising.
In South Africa we are no strangers to the disease of power, and its best friend, corruption (defined as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery”). It underpinned the apartheid government and sadly it is now writ large in our post-apartheid society.
But we have reporters and writers and publications who just keep doing the work of exposing the rot. As Annie Kok, a doctoral candidate and researcher at the Centre of Criminology, University of Cape Town, South Africa, writes in a blog post for the Royal United Services Institute:
whilst state apparatus falter and individuals vie for power, investigative journalists have been uncovering state capture, corruption, fraud and other illicit activities to hold the upper echelons of the state – as well as their accomplices in organised criminal groups – accountable for their involvement in corruption and other illicit activities.
As we enter 2022, let us light a candle to democracy and good governance. And then ten more for the journalists who keep working at bringing light into the depths of corruption.
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