Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase found in the work of the Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires.
Although in its modern usage the phrase has widespread and enduring solicitations to concepts such as tyrannical governments, uncontrollably oppressive dictatorships, and police or judicial corruption and overreach, within the context of Juvenal’s poem it refers to the impossibility of enforcing moral behaviour on women when the enforcers (custodes) are corruptible.
In posing the famous question, the Roman author, Juvenal, was suggesting that wives cannot be trusted, and keeping them under guard is not a solution − because the guards cannot be trusted either.
This phrase is used generally to consider the embodiment of the philosophical question as to how power can be held to account. It is sometimes incorrectly attributed as a direct quotation from Plato’s Republic in both popular media and academic contexts.
I ask and discuss the question in the context of a series of rebuttals to Spencer Mogapi’s Watchdog column and what is widely and generally perceived to be his hatred to Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and of late, an attack on the opposition collective and the need to protect fundamental freedoms over an overly hushed change of government. Mogapi posits that fundamental freedoms ought to be respected following what he deems to be unwarranted attacks on his person because of the different opinions he holds which are not favourable to the opposition.
In this regard, and given the level of intolerance to his views and the desire to close the space within which to express them, Mogapi holds the correct view that the opposition collective may well be out to kill and jail all those who are against them. He finds the waves of attack on his person intolerable. Whilst we may not agree with Mogapi’s views, we must accept that he has the right to express them and that this right we must defend. Necessarily therefore, we must attack his ideas and their basis in the most constructive and dignified manner.
Let us now come back to the initial problem, the need for guarding the guardians. Juvenal’s cynical question suggests either that there is no way to guard the guardians, or that, in addition to having “guardians of the first level” (those guarding the wives), one must also, according to him, presumably have “guardians of the second level” to guard the guardians of the first level. But the need to guard second-level guardians conjures the image of an infinite regress of guardians. Since an infinity of guardians is not usually available, this seems to preclude enforcement! Even if some guardians have multiple clients (and that means that you don’t need an infinity of them), the capacity for guarding may be exhausted, precluding successful enforcement.
So, from Juvenal one gets a very pessimistic view of human nature. But the question is, “Is it quite so bad?” Let’s look at this question using Mogapi as a case study. Is the intolerance expressed by the opposition and directed to Mogapi so intense as to remotely suggest that upon taking over the reins of power, the first casualty will be freedom of expression and journalists? If it is, how do we ensure that media freedom is guaranteed irrespective of a political party in government?