Opinionista Aubrey Masango 23 August 2012

Shut up! The verbal bullets of repression

Words are like bullets, and our leaders need to use them wisely. When fired, they ricochet and can harm those who most need officials to act responsibly and civilly. 

At a special sitting of the National Assembly on 21 August to debate the killings at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana a disturbing trend in South African discourse reared its ugly head. Minister of Minerals and Mining Susan Shabangu, pressured by heckling and opposition criticism of her handling of the killings (a normal process in any democratic forum of debate), cracked.

She lost all sense of decorum associated with “the Parliament of the People” and snapped in a manner not befitting her office, the occasion, the context or her role as a widely respected woman in our politics. “Shut up!” she yelled, degenerating into an ill-disciplined, irrationally aggressive, rank-pulling tirade of ineptitude, incompetence and entitlement. She reduced the debate to a depressing, childish bun-fight.

Some might argue she demonstrated the same callous attitude exhibited by the police who recklessly shot dead 34 miners on that fateful day, forever to be known as the day of the “Marikana Massacre”.

Parliament is understandably a hard place for any governing party. It is a forum designed for the robust debate of issues facing a democratic state and its people. So all the scrutiny (often antagonistic), crafted in the relentless minds of those who have little else to do but probe and (hopefully) constructively criticise, is focused on ruling party. The ruling party further pressed by its responsibility to respond to such scrutiny in a satisfactory manner, all while seeing to the effective management of state resources.

This is indeed a tall order. But it is also the inescapable reality of the nature of democratic governance. It is a discomfort that cannot be avoided by those who would want to govern. Those with the minds and temperaments suited for this job can articulate the government’s position without succumbing to the derailing tactics of the opposition. Let me emphasise this point unequivocally: It is the function of opposition parties to attempt to destabilise the arguments of the governing party, and it is the function of the governing party to skilfully rebuff such attempts with the cogent articulation of their position.

This is how democracies deepen their credibility and legitimacy. An ideal I suppose we should all be striving for.

There is, however, in the general discourse of our beloved country a tendency towards the use of strong arm tactics in situations where popularly held assumptions are challenged. As a result, people will irrationally defend a position on any subject without knowing or understanding its basic tenets. In many instances, this way of thinking is supported by a misguided majoritarian sentiment which says “if the majority support it then it must be correct”. 

That is why, I suppose, proponents of this kind of thinking never speak in terms of: “I think” or “I say” or “I believe” they always speak in terms of “we say”, “we believe” etc. This conveniently serves to deflect individual and personal responsibility and invariably hangs it on some illusive unaccountable collective. Furthermore, to then disagree with the “we” position, however lucidly and logically, is regarded to be blasphemous because “The collective which I represent is infallible therefore that makes me infallible.” SO SHUT UP!

The obvious danger with this pattern of thinking is that the main criterion for choosing representatives is not their knowledge or a critical analysis of a subject to find practical solutions, but their popularity with the most influential faction of the Party. 

I submit this is why we have a dysfunctional government on almost all levels. We have leaders such as Susan Shabangu and Nathi Mthethwa who are genuinely taken aback when called upon to account for the mess that is Marikana. Did Shabangu not sign up for being asked tough questions or, God forbid, having to answer them? She’s here to look fly in state sponsored conspicuous consumption!

We have ministers such as Angie Motshekga who shrug off responsibility when asked to account for the textbook crisis. And who can forget the famous words of convicted, now released, fraudster General Jackie Selebi, when asked about the probity of his relationship with a known criminal, Glen Agliotti, while he was national commissioner of police. “Glen is my friend,” he said. “Finished en klaar!” Sounds like SHUT UP to me. 

Former National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele’s “shoot to kill!” mantra was a definitive SHUT UP in the face of all the warnings against the remilitarisation of the police service. The list of figurative and literal SHUT UPs is endless.

A week ago, 34 miners were shot dead by a police force which in a hail of bullets said SHUT UP to protesting workers. A few days earlier, the same miners burned two guards to death and hacked two policemen to pieces, telling them to SHUT UP in no uncertain terms. 

This should not come as a surprise. This seems to be the language of our so-called democracy. This is our ready response to any dissenting voice.

I doubt that our honourable minister of Mining and Minerals would agree with my clumsy assessment of her ill-advised utterances in parliament. The issue, however, is the need to understand the far-reaching implications of leadership. Leadership sets the tone for the values of our country. The utterances, the behaviour and attitudes of our leaders inform those of the general population. Some will argue that Shabangu was provoked and therefore reacted appropriately. 

I say grow up and stop crying! If you can’t stand the heat then get out of the kitchen! The people do as you do, Madame Minister. Whether you believe this or not, your words are like bullets. Use them wisely. Your misbehaviour reverberates, it is echoed and amplified a billion-fold in the lives of those who look to you for leadership. Your country needs you to be responsible with your words; populist attitudes are not helping, especially at this time. The Truth will not SHUT UP! DM


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