Social Media: where facts die and divisions break the country

By Stephen Grootes 5 August 2019
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Netwerk24)

In the ‘war’ between Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane and President Cyril Ramaphosa, facts no longer matter. Weaponised by the social media, it is only the tip of a Brobdingnagian-sized iceberg which could sink South Africa.

Within SA politics at present, there is a series of interlocking arguments about how certain problems should be resolved. Various actors and politicians (and other office-bearers) try to give the impression of managing to convince a majority to support their point of view. In the middle of this complex set of simultaneous battles is a bulging contest between Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane and President Cyril Ramaphosa and his allies.

It is clear that this is a fight in which facts are casualties. Facts no longer have the power to change minds and win arguments. The actors in this conflict are not trying to convince “the other side” of their point of view or expect to have their “views” changed. Instead, the aim is to double down on their own position and keep getting ever-more energetic support from their own core constituencies. South Africa is an already divided society. A conflict of this kind only serves to deepen that chasm.

On Sunday 4 August, it emerged both in a Sunday Times report and in a report by the SABC that Mkhwebane is gearing up for a fight. She says the Constitutional Court ruling that she should personally pay for a portion of the costs incurred by the Reserve Bank in the Absa/Bankcorp case is wrong. This she says, is because the court should have seen her as being on the same level as a judge. And judges, she says, do not have to pay if they get rulings incorrect.

This is another case where the “facts” stated are incorrect.

If the Office of the Public Protector were on the same level as a judge, it would be impossible for her findings to be overturned by a judge. And yet it is clear that her findings can be overturned by a judge, as have other findings by previous public protectors. The fact that she accepts the authority of courts by presenting arguments is in itself proof of this.

Second, if this office had the same status as a judge, she would have been appointed in the same way, through public hearings by the Judicial Service Commission. This is not the case: the public protector is appointed by Parliament.

If Mkhwebane’s claim were to be correct it would mean that the Office of the Public Protector, and only the public protector, would be above the courts, while the person who held the office would be appointed by Parliament.

This is not sustainable – a fact that is apparent to anyone even remotely interested in reality.

Mkhwebane’s is a similar argument to the one advanced by several of her supporters about the use of the word “nonsensical” in the ruling by Pretoria High Court Judge Sulet Potterill last week. As Professor Pierre de Vos has described, it is far from the only ruling to use this word to describe a legal finding. Still, the word “nonsensical” was claimed to be an insult by her supporters.

The point here is simply to garner sympathy and support. However, there is little evidence that this is changing the dial, or moving the needle in terms of broadening that circle.

Rather, this appears to be an effort to entrench and solidify her backing among those who are already there. It is about firing up her base and ensuring that their commitment remains unwavering.

It would be wrong to single out Mkhwebane as the only person who uses these tactics – it has a very long history in South Africa.

In the years after Schabir Shaik was found guilty of paying bribes to former president Jacob Zuma, Zuma did the same thing. He made very little attempt to change the minds of those who disagreed with him. Instead, he played to his base, with claims of his innocence. While his claims that he was the victim of a political conspiracy were shown to have some basis in fact with the conduct of former NPA head Bulelani Ngcuka, that did not make him innocent. As his presidency wore to an end, he went closer to his base and made fewer attempts to change the minds of those who disagreed with him.

It could be argued that a similar dynamic is now playing out around Ramaphosa and the emails that show some of the details about how his ANC leadership campaign was funded going into the 2017 Nasrec Conference.

He is right to complain that only his campaign was investigated by the public protector when there were other candidates in that race. And it seems obvious that the other side, coalesced around Zuma and now Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, also received money in large quantities.

It is disingenuous to say this means it doesn’t matter and the donations to Ramaphosa’s campaign accounts should be ignored. In a democracy like ours that doesn’t make sense.

Why then are people doing this? What is the point of intensifying support only from people who already back you, rather than broadening your support?

Right now, South Africa’s political map consists of interest groups which are so far apart that it is nigh impossible to broaden support from people who don’t currently support you. Or perhaps it is not worth the political effort.

But there’s an even more worrying implication: because facts don’t appear to matter as much, the cold facts can’t change minds any more.

That simple fact can translate into a hostile space where the political groupings we have now could become almost set in stone. If people no longer change their minds, they will get stuck in certain political positions, and nothing, and nobody, will be able to convince them to change.

It will be followed by a monumental deepening of the divisions in our society, with serious implications for our democracy. Such a fractured space would also work as perfect protection for any number of criminal acts committed by the leaders. If you can’t convince the membership of a party that their leaders are lying and stealing from them, even when you present them with incontrovertible proof, then our entire system has a massive problem.

Of course, we are not alone in this problem. The same dynamic is playing out in the US around President Donald Trump and in the UK with Brexit, Europe with Poland and Hungary, Asia with Turkey and the Philippines, South America with Brazil and Venezuela. Facts no longer seem to matter.

Social media, and Twitter in particular, amplifies this trend to the point where it may be impossible for it to turn back.

Political movements come and go, divisions can be breached by new developments and situations. But the longer this particular chaos continues, the more terminally divided our society will become. Now, that is a process that can’t continue for a long time without a catastrophic societal breakdown. DM


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