The buck starts here
30 September 2014 13:41 (South Africa)
Opinionista Carien du Plessis

Fight uncertainty with uncertainty, and avoid being flavour of the month

  • Carien du Plessis
History repeats itself and sometimes opportunistic politicians repeat history – their own version of course – because it suits them or it’s simply what they choose to see. Clever, but not very visionary.

It’s like this. Just on Tuesday ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema told students at the Walter Sisulu campus in Mthatha that, in the 1940s, it was the ANC youth, led by Nelson Mandela, that toppled ANC president Dr AB Xuma and replaced him with James Moroka.

Xuma had called the youngsters “disrespectful” and chased them out of his house. He was kicked out the next day. “At that time, not everybody was qualified to be a president, unlike today,” Malema said.

It wasn’t the first time he’d made this speech. Almost two months ago, shortly before his disciplinary, he said the same thing at a gathering outside Pretoria. Except then defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu, who spoke after him, told him his version of history was wrong. After ousting Xuma, Mandela admitted he had made a mistake by acting out of anger.

Moroka, famously, was such a newcomer to the ANC that he called it the African National Committee. He was a disaster – and quite contrary to the high standards Malema was purporting the ANC presidency to have been subjected to at the time.

The young lion’s somewhat twisted version of history is not necessarily related to the D he got in matric for the subject (standard grade), but it’s more about what he wants his audience to believe, and what he wants to convey about President Jacob Zuma (whose surname is conveniently much like “Xuma”) without landing in deeper hot water.

Of course the ANC can’t exactly discipline him for giving a history lesson or a “lecture”, as the League is calling his series of appearances in its mobilisation campaign ahead of next week’s “economic freedom” march. But Malema is also human and might be suffering from a case of what psychologists call “confirmation bias”. That means he is attracted to things that confirm his world view, and he ignores facts that don’t.

It’s a common affliction. Even you, dear regular, brainy reader, suffer from it, because unless you’re a thorough bladdie agent or spook who gets paid for reading everything, you’re probably perusing iMaverick because it corresponds with your stance on things. You might not agree with every word, but you agree with enough to make for smooth and feel-good sailing.

Confirmation bias also goes some way towards explaining why South Africans find it so difficult to change their vote, although, of course, identity and history strongly flavour the mix.

Confirmation bias in leadership, though, can be limiting. In the DA parliamentary caucus – and also very much outside – there’s a debate about whether a leader has to be struggling, unemployed, black and young to represent struggling, unemployed, black youngsters. Lindiwe Mazibuko, who is challenging DA parliamentary leader Athol Trollip for his job, doesn’t think so, and Trollip’s supporters don’t either. And they’re all right.

A good leader should be able to look beyond their immediate circumstance and conviction, avoiding flavour-of-the-month politics. Such vision could also ultimately go some way to preventing our political (and race) history from repeating itself.

Which brings us back to Juju. At a recent ANC national executive committee meeting, Malema reminded Zuma that he was using similar strategies to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, to get rid of political foes – by prosecuting them. Malema was of course referring to his own disciplinary hearing in the ANC, and also to the law enforcement agencies that are on his case for his dodgy dealings.

Zuma’s detractors add that Zuma’s promises to appoint an arms deal enquiry and release the Donen Commission report into the oil-for-food scandal are ways of ensuring his potential challengers (Tokyo Sexwale and Kgalema Motlanthe, amongst others) are either in court or on the back foot come the party’s elective congress in Mangaung next year. They also whisper that rising star Paul Mashatile could find himself in Mangaung-related trouble with the law soon.

Motlanthe’s latest plane troubles (he had to, gasp, get on a commercial flight with plebs after his SA Airforce plane broke down as he was about to depart for Finland on Monday), combined with previous close escapes – in 2009 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and last month with his double-take landing in New Zealand – have conspiracy tongues in the party paranoidly wagging.

Of course, paranoia is also a form of confirmation bias. If you believe the whole world is scheming against you, it uncannily appears that way. Zuma, who has claimed assassination plots against him at least twice in the past five years, suffers from that himself, and state security agencies have suffered in turn.

Of course us journalists, thoroughly opinionated, are not un-afflicted by confirmation bias.  Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, in a statement to commemorate Black Wednesday, said journalists accuse Zuma of being indecisive when he takes time to consider matters before him, and when he acts, he’s accused of vindictiveness.

“This stereotyping and pigeonholing does not constitute fairness and objectivity that is expected of their media and misinforms the public,” he said. Opinions shouldn’t be passed off as facts. Although Maharaj was generalising in his statement, and while the reported views are also held in the ANC, it’s good to be reminded of this: that a story has many sides and much nuance can go missing if reporters are blinkered.

A colleague recently posted this Bertrand Russell quote: “Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.” It’s good advice. In uncertain times, it appears it’s best to seek uncertainty. iM



Disclaimer: please note that anything disproving the confirmation bias theory of SA politicians in writing of this column has been conveniently ignored. – CdP

  • Carien du Plessis
carien du plessis

Jill of all trades but really, mistress of none, Carien loved her job as political journalist so much that she decided to get married to it. For now, in any case. She’s a party animal and you’ll often find her at gatherings of the ANC, SACP, Cosatu, and the DA, amongst others. Loving children greatly, she also runs after the ANC Youth League a lot of the time. More often though, you’ll find her just running aimlessly, and she has earned herself the title of Comrade by partaking in the annual jog between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

After spending her student days at political rallies, campus newspapers, and in lecture halls, and after an extended overseas working holiday, Carien started newspaper reporting in 2003, pissing off (the issue of female dogs apply here) and even pleasing some of her subjects. Then the age of enlightenment dawned on her, too, and in 2011 she crossed the floor to work for the Daily Maverick full-time.

Her ultimate ambition in life is to become a travelling chocolate writer of international fame.

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