South Africa

Op-Ed: Dear South Africans … let’s talk frankly

By Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 14 September 2015

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane’s book Let’s Talk Frankly cuts through the clutter and culture of acquiescence in South Africa, through frank conversations with 22 influential leaders. It invites the reader to join in a revival of the culture of debate that brought the country freedom. It is also an expression of what freedom of expression should mean, uninhibited by political correctness or the kind of politeness that borders on being less than frank. This is the book's introduction.

I may shut up for some time because of fear yet even this will not make me feel ashamed. For I know that as long as the ideas remain unchanged within me, there will always be the possibility that, one day, I shall burst out and say everything that I wish to say in a loud and thunderous voice. – Nat Nakasa

Since the dawn of democracy in 1994 the national conversation has changed and deteriorated tremendously. Many people are afraid to express their views frankly, for fear of reprisal. Many fear being labelled unpatriotic for pointing out what is wrong in our society. Yet I know that, like Nat Nakasa, even this does not make many ‘ashamed’ and one day they will burst out and say what they wish to loudly and clearly.

Within the ruling party one can easily conclude that internal democracy has died a slow death largely as a result of debilitating factionalism. When one speaks out one is immediately labelled a Zumarite or an Mbekiite and this superficial labelling has become an acceptable tool of discourse in the movement. This has poisoned many a debate and has resulted in a horrible poverty of ideas. But even this state of affairs does not completely kill ideas – it only suppresses them temporarily. As the people’s poet Mzwakhe Mbuli has often said, “you cannot put a lid over a boiling pot forever”.

However, the result of such a suppression of ideas is the utter disdain for introspection within the ruling party, causing principle to give way to patronage and the moral high ground to be replaced by a festival of laissez faire. Issues such as the attitudes towards the rule of law, the judiciary and the media are hardly ever debated properly because there is an unwritten assumption that if you bring these issues up you are anti-Zuma, given the hostile relationship the president has with both the media and the judiciary. This is a sad state of affairs and bodes ill for democracy.

The opposition parties are no different. The Economic Freedom Fighters and the Congress of the People have been rocked by infighting fuelled by demagogic leaders whose word is final. Even if these leaders deny it, those who have left both organisations have shed light on the shenanigans going on within them. These rumblings are again a result of the failure of internal democracy. The United Democratic Movement and the Inkatha Freedom Party have had the same leaders since their establishment, which tells you plenty about how democracy is viewed in those parties. There is a culture across many political parties of deference to leaders instead of robust engagement. The Democratic Alliance as the official opposition also showed similar tendencies when then-leader Helen Zille simply overruled her parliamentary leader’s decisions on crucial policy issues – something you would have expected to be canvassed differently in an organisation that prides itself on its democratic traditions.

In academia a different problem persists: loud silence in the midst of so much going wrong in our society. The same can be said for other parts of civil society. While the religious institutions were once vociferous in the fight against apartheid, today our faith leaders spend too much time ingratiating themselves with the powers that be. If they had behaved this way towards the apartheid state we would never have tasted freedom.

Casting our eyes over our continent we see a culture of closing ranks instead of proper peer review has taken root. When the president of Botswana dared to speak out against the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe a few years ago it made headlines. African leaders adhere to a misguided principle of so-called ‘non-interference in domestic matters’. This is why we recently experienced an embarrassing fiasco related to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, undermining the International Criminal Court’s warrant of arrest. No African leader has yet had a frank conversation with Bashir about how he intends to account for his atrocities. It is not in our nature to be so impolite. Even with laws that are patently unjust and laced with prejudice against gays and lesbians, as in the case of Uganda, don’t hold your breath expecting even a murmur of condemnation from other African leaders.

While these leaders sit around the table journalists are languishing in African jails, yet not a word from one president to another. And so, whether at home or abroad, the absence of frank conversations persists.

This book is a small contribution in cutting through the clutter and culture of acquiescence, through frank conversations with 22 of South Africa’s most influential leaders. I have had the privilege of engaging with the majority of the recipients of these frank letters directly or indirectly in the public sphere. And I will continue to engage them after the publication of this book because I believe that collectively they can move our country forward.

Through these letters, corruption, internal democracy, racism and other important issues facing our nation are explored in a politically incorrect manner. This book is not a history or reference book but only my ‘arrogant opinion’ (to steal from Khaya Dlanga). I don’t seek so much to be right as to be true to my own belief system, guided by my upbringing. Where I got anything wrong I am happy to receive feedback. My conclusions, expressed strongly in these letters, were arrived at through observing South African politics over the last three decades.

I am also guided by what Mother Teresa taught her followers:

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you.
Be honest and frank anyway …

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough.
Give the best you’ve got anyway …
You see, in the final analysis it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

I don’t deliberately go out of my way to offend but there are no sacred cows as I speak frankly to leaders in politics, the faith sector, business and the arts about the state of our nation.

In what passes for debate or dialogue in our society, we tend to take ourselves a tad too seriously, so I invited the excellent cartoonist Sifiso Yalo to take the mickey out of everyone. His cartoons are not necessarily an illustration of the substance of the letters but rather his own take on these persons of influence and what they stand for. Between his cartoons and my letters we hope to give satire a leg up in our national discourse.

The book, Let’s Talk Frankly, is an invitation to you, the reader, to join in a revival of the culture of debate that brought us freedom. It is also an expression of what freedom of expression should mean, uninhibited by political correctness or the kind of politeness that borders on being less than frank. I have decided that my freedom means I shouldn’t accept living in a country where I am afraid to speak my mind because someone else has granted themselves the right to be more equal than others.

Martin Luther King once said:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

It is my dream for our country that by opening these conversations about the state of our nation we will get to the Promised Land of a truly new South Africa, where everyone can enjoy the true fruits of freedom.

So please join me: let’s talk frankly. DM

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane’s Book Let’s Talk Frankly is now available at Exclusive Books, CNA and Amazon. The Book Launch for Gauteng will take place on 23 September at the Hilton Sandton at 18:30. If you want to attend please e-mail [email protected]


In other news...

July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.

In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."

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