DM168 Reflection

How does it feel … to be shameless?

Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Getty Images / Neville Hopwoo)

How do we, as the media, hold the line for South Africa and indeed the world in these days when the truth is literally meaningless to a major section of society?

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.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • JV SL says:

    How does it feel … to be shameless???……

    GREAT, of course !!!! What a rhetorical question!!!……..NOBODY joined “the struggle” to be poor!!!….And poor we won’t be !!!!….

    Then: “How do we, as the media, hold the line for South Africa and indeed the world in these days when the truth is literally meaningless to a major section of society?”

    By ‘telling the truth being unbiased while covering both sides of the spectrum, leaving the reader to decide for him/herself’, comes to mind……Of course, if the current trend is to look “liberal”, “politically correct” and “fashionably lefty”, then I guess it might be difficult…..

    • Darryl van Blerk says:

      Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Brings to mind the event some years back when President Jacob Zuma in his wisdom decided to engage a bunch of local gang leaders in an attempt to wrest political control of the Western Cape from the DA in order to drag it down into the dark hole being dug for the rest of the country at the time by the ANC. The incident was described in the DM and as I recall the assorted gangsters were waiting in one of the posh lounges at the presidential home in Cape Town having been invited for dinner and surreptitiously passed through the entrance courtesy of Zuma’s son, Edward. In walks the “president” causing the curious assembly to fidget nervously like schoolkids. To break the ice and help everyone relax someone stood up to reassure them they were in good company and had nothing to worry about; “Hy’s ‘n naai nes ons.” he said.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    One way to counter is to strengthen the opposition, treat them fairly and not look at their policies in bad faith.

    • Edwin Blake says:

      Which opposition? If only there were one.
      Or were you thinking of the kamikaze DA? You don’t perhaps think “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” applies to you then? The DA is too incompetent and/or bedazzled by the FF+ to be any kind of opposition.

      • Karl Sittlinger says:

        Complete hogwash response…DAs track record of governance and corruption speeks for itself.

        • Paddy Ross says:

          Thank you, Karl. One has only to look how the Western Cape has handled and is handling the pandemic to acknowledge that living in the Western Cape is like living in a different world to the other provinces. Thank you, DA.

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    ‘Telling the truth’ is a huge statement. Rather try to stick to the ‘subjective truth’, and acknowledge that the media cannot possibly tell the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
    The subjective truth is the best any human being can strive towards. We are human agter all, and therefore subjective by default.
    The piece also highlights the plight and frustrations of honest journalists, which is not often thought of when reading a story.
    It is a most enjoyable piece. Thank you.

  • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

    Good piece! Our collective morality is at an all-time low in this country, if not the world. Your one problem is that you are preaching to the converted and getting the “truth” to the masses is very difficult.

    From a practical perspective, however, you have to keep on exposing, over and over again, shining light into all the secret and dark corners. Darkness, thankfully, still runs before the light. Never give up.

    And we, who love this country and see that it can be so much better, so much more for all who live here, have to keep on supporting you. Good journalism seems te be our last defence.

  • Bruce Watney says:

    Absolutely correct ! The feeling of helplessness prevails in most of SA society. At the deeply low state, the only word that comes to mind, for all of them, is Treasonous, the destruction of State Institutions, by whatever means, is Treasonous, and should be dealt with accordingly. Definition of Treason “ the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or government “ *the action of betraying someone or something “ They have all betrayed someone or Something. I would say. 😷🙏

  • Philip Armstrong says:

    Trouble is there is NO accountability, no sanction, no penalties. So what do they have to fear – absolutely nothing. I would suggest that most if not all the ANC leadership is woefully compromised. Hence, the age old question of who is going to throw the first stone…………! Very, very sad!

  • Andy Miles says:

    The old saying goes that “that the pen is mightier than the sword” and so it is, or should be, in a functioning modern liberal democracy…but where do we go when the pen fails us. Not I might add because of the writers, the investigators and authors of the stories bringing the information to us have failed. Far from it. They are the knights wielding the pen as sword. I’m no historian but my observation is that when corruption and wrong exposed leads to no corrective action, and acceptance of the puss of corruption, evil and immorality become the norm be it through denial or simply acquiescence, it takes a few good people taking dramatic action to save the day. We have seen a few good people in South Africa using institutionalised, and thus what is regarded as legitimate action but they are inhibited from taking the dramatic action required. In simple English the use of the legitimate corrective system seems rather like taking a knife to a gun fight. I find myself asking the question. How long can this rising frustration persist?

  • Bruce Kokkinn says:

    Zuma has run out of excuses not to testify and now contemplates the alternative of facing shame in the courts and jail time or fleeing to Cuba. My guess is Havana!

    • Dr Know says:

      Ha ha yes, real thriller plot this would be ‘Zuming to Havana’, smuggled to Maputo via Swaziland in the dead of night, wait for it, in a coffin with bio-hazard stickers. Then by tramp steamer to Cuba with a suitcase full of used dollars and a rusty Tokarev. Makes for a best seller.

  • Johan says:

    “How does one deal with the wholesale collapse of shame…?”

    A good place to start might be at the roots: WHY did shame die?
    And a sub-question for the media to answer: How did we contribute to the death of shame?

  • Alley Cat says:

    I ask myself this question every time I read about the incredible corruption and subversion of state resources. My answer… In order to feel or exhibit shame one has to have basic morals and principles, neither of which are present in our ruling party or many of their supporters. They have lost their moral compass (if they ever had one to start with) and are totally shameless.
    The answer is consequences. i.e. prosecution. Then MAYBE all the other cadres lining up to feed at the trough may rediscover their moral compass. Until then it will continue until we all go down the toilet!

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