First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The day was Wednesday, 29 March 2017, and I had a dream. It was a heavy dream, and although I could not remember what it was about, its soundtrack walked with me over to the real world when the alarm cut it off.
It was the famous beginning of New Order’s Blue Monday and the ominous first line: “How does it feel…?”
The almost hypnotic rhythm of these words kept surging while I was in the shower, and it blended with the thoughts of Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral, now only hours away. In an act of ultimate insult, Uncle Kathy had barred President Jacob Zuma from attending his laying to rest.
How does it feel… How does it feel, Mr Zuma, to be told by your own Robben Island comrade that you have betrayed the ANC and forever scarred the nation you were trusted to lead, the nation you twice swore an oath to protect?
So the idea was hatched and I immediately asked Marianne Thamm to write an editorial along those lines.
And, sure enough, by the time I arrived at the office 45 minutes later, the “How does it feel, President Zuma?” editorial was in my inbox, word-perfect and spot-on in sentiment.
A few minutes later, it went on to become a top story on Daily Maverick, and straight into the annals of our editorial writing. It was widely read, a sombre measurement of the nation’s aggravated pulse.
Our intention was to force Zuma to reflect on just how far he had mutated away from his old comrades and how badly he had betrayed his oath to protect South Africa’s people and Constitution. To feel ashamed.
From that point of view, our editorial was a perfect failure. Zuma remained Zuma and it took a massive fight to get him out.
Many times after that experience, I have grappled with perhaps one of the defining issues of our times: How does one deal with the wholesale collapse of shame as a weapon to fight corruption, depravity and moral degradation?
It used to be relatively easy: we expose corruption, evil intent and/or incompetence, the offender either resigns in ignominy or goes into hiding in Tunguska.
But that was then, before the advent of social media and the new crop of politicians in power and their enablers – the people who just don’t care.
Today, it works roughly like this:
- Got exposed for stealing from your own people? No problem, your bot and troll army will attack journalists personally and accuse their publications of racism/elitism/Nazism. And you will also ask your donors for more money because, you know, Globalists/Soros/Gates.
- Your incompetence laid bare? These accusations are all coming from the haters with their agendas paid for by the (insert place of origin) spies. It would be so much better if it wasn’t for the powerful people who spend their every waking hour thinking about how to stop you from working for ordinary people. You know, because you are so important.
- Your anonymous campaign to spread xenophobic hate busted? Well, well, well, look over there! There’s xenophobia in Nigeria and no one is writing about it! And it is you, the media, who should all be punished, together with the foreign criminals you’re protecting.
This, of course, is a gross oversimplification of the incredible richness and imagination of the counterattacks that happen every day. Somehow the internet became not a liberator but a weapon that might end up ruining us all.
How does one counter such ugly yet professional cynicism? How do we, as the media, hold the line for South Africa and indeed the world in these days when truth is literally meaningless to a major section of society?
It is obvious that we must reverse the Death of Shame. But how do we do it?
We will not be able to make shameless people feel emotion about their crimes. The likes of Zuma, Julius Malema and Iqbal Survé (or Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Rupert Murdoch, for that matter) will not wake up one morning and feel awful about the lives destroyed, violence stoked and billions stolen.
As I said before, they are beyond caring and need to be emphatically and forcefully exposed for who they are.
But it is the people who were tricked into believing that being shameless is being right – as long as it benefits their immediate interests – that we need to bring back into the fold of humanity. We must reinforce the boundaries of what is right and what is wrong as though our democracy and our lives depend on it. Because they do.
The traditions of decency and fairness may seem obliterated right now, but at least we still have the institutional memory to fall back on. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.