In full control


guest column:Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

WHEN many years ago I got to know a little boy of three years of age I said to him: “Michael, let’s go for a walk. I would like to see the fish in the dam.” Michael refused. “Handidi,” he said (“I don’t want to”). Practically everytime you invited him for a venture, he would reply, “handidi”. He was no longer Michael, I started to call him “Handidi”.

He liked the fish. But he did not like to be asked to go and watch them. He wanted to do “his own thing”. Young as he was, he wanted to be “in control” over what to do and not to do.
It is part of our growing up that we want to be in charge and take control. A boy loves his mother. But he also loves his freedom. She loves her son, too, in fact she is so concerned and anxious about him, that she is inclined to deny him this freedom to which he thinks he is entitled. Parents must not regard their sons and daughters as their lifelong babies. As the little ones grow up, warm loving care and affection may stifle their independence.

The time comes when parents must let go. Their love must turn into friendship and tolerance. They cannot retain “full control”. The children must mature into grown-ups, no longer controlled, but released into freedom and able to follow their own paths. Giving freedom and responsibility to children, with confidence in them, that is perhaps the greatest act of parental love, provided it is based on guidance when they were young, so they are now trusting their elders.

The relationship between husband and wife is not one where the two try to exercise power over each other; it should not be a rivalry for control, one trying to control the other. Total control and the ambition for unlimited power does not join man and woman together. Respect does and affection; empathy and loving kindness are like a welding torch bonding the two together and making them one.

Control and power, force and violence — that is the stuff of politics.

The settlers and immigrants did not know that this was Zimbabwe. They gave it a name they had invented, Rhodesia, and regarded it as their “own, a white man’s country”, and they were determined with enormous intransigence to keep it that way. Even settlers who had sympathy for the locals, many of them their workers and employees, insisted that they, who had developed a farming industry here, must remain in control and retain power, even with the use of military force.

They lost the war and were ejected from the seat of power. But they bequeathed their obsession with power and absolute control to those who had vanquished them. They buried their guns only to dig them up again for a very bloody war with their enemies (Gukurahundi, 1983–1987).

“Regime change” was “out” for owners determined to retain control of the land for ever. The new democratic constitution knows “regime change” only by the ballot, which is the democratic way. But the “ruling party” considered itself as being entitled to holding on to power and retaining total control on the basis of their military victory which cannot be undone. “The ballot cannot be more powerful than the bullet”.

A peaceful change of government is a tremendous achievement. A leader who steps down from power when his time is up according to the law, is indeed a great Statesman (or — woman). Such a leader is aware that he has been merely a servant for a time, not an autocrat in control forever. He is a man (or woman) of peace, who has brought harmony to her people, like a mother to her family. A Statesman who hands over to a newly elected leader graciously will go down in history as a great benefactor. He does not resort to violence in controlling and overpowering his opponents. He does not bring war to his country for selfish reasons. He does not send the “forces of law and order” to beat and brutalise the very citizens who voted for him.

It is most alarming that a president of one of the largest democracies in the world shamelessly refuses to concede defeat, thereby damaging the democratic ethos in the whole world. Challenged to step down and hand over the reins to his elected successor, he stubbornly maintains the election process was fraudulent. He acts like that little friend of mine “Handidi” (‘I don’t want’). He just won’t let go.

“Regime change” by the ballot is an antidote to war, genocide and bloodshed. That the political class is so obsessed with power and total control and cannot let go, unable to respect the freedom of citizens, is what kindles the fire of war and violence time and again.

A leader, who claims total authority has no compunction not to brainwash his people and control, not only political behaviour, but even their thinking through relentless propaganda. China and other one-party States force “dissidents” and any independent thinkers into ideological straightjackets.

But control freaks are not only found in “ruling parties”. A man guilty of domestic violence will produce violent children, who, like their violent father, will beat and mistreat their wives. Teachers should be non-violent and tolerant of students who wish to enter into conversation and dialogue with their masters. By merely raising their voices they may intimidate their students, so the youngsters will be afraid of speaking their minds. But in a democracy that respects freedom of speech and honours human dignity, young people should be unafraid, open-minded and ready for public conversation and be able to enter into disciplined dialogue.

Certain professions are prone to cow those under their charge. I have great respect for doctors and nurses and medical workers in general. But nurses can be bossy and humiliate their patients who, for the time of their illness and hospitalisation, are completely dependent on their carers and at the mercy of those who can save their lives. The dependence of workers on their employers, of students on their teachers, of the poor and destitute on welfare officers, of women on men reduces those to slaves and mere tools for the use of their superiors, unable to choose their own way of life.

Even religion can be misused as an instrument of power and oppression. Ministers may abuse their church members, by threatening them with the unlimited power of the Almighty, or terrorise them with fear of the devil or eternal punishment for their sins and misbehaviour in this life. Or blackmail them into making excessive donations to the church or even for their own personal enrichment.

The abuse of power of the military or bureaucratic “control unlimited” turns this beautiful world, given to us by the Creator as our paradise, into absolute hell.

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