Opinionista Ryland Fisher 28 January 2013

Getting the numbers right: Broadening SA’s intellectual and political discourse

Recently, since I became a retired or former editor, I have attended quite a few events. They were mainly in the Cape Town CBD and mainly to do with political issues, and they are, mainly, attended by elderly whites.

In my book, Race, I confessed to being a racist and I suppose I must confess to being an ageist too. But I can’t help but notice these things. At many of the events that I attend, my subconscious starts adding up the number of whites, Africans, coloureds and Indians. Then I start looking at the number of young people as opposed to old and middle-aged people; the number of men as opposed to women. Sometimes I even go so far as looking at how many disabled people there are at the event.

I suppose I am weird like that, but my suspicion is that I’m not the only South African, scarred as we are by our past and uncertain about our future, who plays the numbers game. Quite often our comfort levels depend on being surrounded by a majority of people who look and sound like us.

But this column was not supposed to be about my peculiarities or the peculiarities of South Africans in general.

A month or so ago, just before the ANC’s Mangaung conference, I attended the launch of Adriaan Basson’s book, Zuma Exposed. I looked at the mainly white and elderly audience and found myself thinking: Why are these people so interested in Zuma? Why are they so interested in the ANC? Will they still be interested after Mangaung or will they be packing for Perth? Were they just attending to check whether they should be booking their tickets to Perth already? What are their backgrounds? Are they expired activists, like me? If they are so interested in the direction the ANC is going into under Zuma, why don’t they join the ANC and try to effect the changes from the inside?

I must admit I took the liberty of assuming that most of the people in the room would probably not be ANC supporters, or maybe they used to be ANC supporters, but went off the rails a few years ago. But, again, that could just be the racist and ageist in me.

The point I am trying to get at is that a large part of our population do not attend discussions and book launches in the city centre, whether it be in the Western Cape or Gauteng, and who probably do not even know of the existence of the venue of the Basson book launch, the Book Lounge, which, in my opinion, is one of the best marketed book shops in the country.

However, these excluded or peripheral people are often the ones who decide the future of the ruling party and ultimately our country. They are the ones who potential ANC presidents and presidents of South Africa depend on to make sure that they get first or second terms. And, if your name is Thabo Mbeki, you might even try your luck at a third term.

They are the ones who have the numbers to vote governments into and out of power, in whose name the ANC chose their leadership at Mangaung and in whose name it purports to be championing change in our country.

A major problem with the intellectual space in South Africa, and here I include the media and large parts of academia, is that it often happens in a vacuum, out of the reach of the majority of South Africans. The discussions happen among people who have access to resources, who can afford to buy newspapers and who can afford to pay R210 to buy Basson’s book.

The newspapers target these people too because they are driven by advertisers to chase certain markets, the ones with money.

As a result, a large part of the South African population, by far the majority, find themselves outside this intellectual discourse. Their voices and views are often not reflected.

It does not mean that they are not engaged in intellectual activity. It is just that it is happening outside what is considered the mainstream.

So when Basson raises his concerns about Zuma in front of a mainly supportive white audience, I wonder what would have happened if the book launch was in the townships, and not even at a fancy venue in the townships, but a place where working class people gather.

Would he have been so bold in his assessment of the president’s failures or would he have been a bit more circumspect? Would he maybe have found positive things to say about the President and not just fed into what the ANC calls the negative discourse that has become part of the middle class South African narrative?

In some ways, FNB found out this week the dangers of feeding into what is perceived to be the popular discourse. It touched a raw nerve with its “You can help” advertising campaign which was roundly criticised by the ANC and its allies. In the end, the bank apologised to the ANC and withdrew parts of the campaign.

There are fears that this could establish a worrying trend of business people, in particular, not being prepared to criticise government or the ruling party in future.

There are many people in South Africa, and they include some ANC members and leaders, who are concerned about some of the negative things that are happening in our country today. The negative detracts from the many positive things that are happening in South Africa.

A recent, probably more scientific study than the FNB study, the SA Reconciliation Barometer, commissioned by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, showed that many young South Africans lack trust in the integrity of national leaders. It shows that, with or without evidence in hand, many also believe that corruption is taking place in our communities.

Worryingly, the SA Reconciliation Barometer survey found that increasing numbers of young people believed the law is open to interpretation and bending.

This is the worrying thing that young people are looking at what their elders are doing and saying: if they can get away with corruption, then so can we.

Despite the many problems young people face, the SA Reconciliation Barometer survey found, most remained positive about the future.

This is what FNB was trying to say about its campaign, that more than 70% of what they found was positive. Yet, the 30%, or even less, is what attracted the ire of the ANC and its allies. FNB’s campaign appears to have been a classic case of good intentions gone wrong.

The ANC has a mandate to deliver to all South Africans, but particularly to the poor and vulnerable, who make up the bulk of the electorate. However, it needs to understand that in a country as divided as ours, it will always face criticism, even when, in its own opinion, it does something good.

This is why it is important to create spaces where the problems in our country are discussed in groups that do not only represent the same opinions. This is why the “mainstream” intellectual discourse needs to be taken to the poor and vulnerable.

If we do this, people like the mainly aging whites who attend discussions and book launches in the major urban areas of our country might be better exposed to South African realities and will not base their judgments on the views of people who, in the main, reinforce their views.

And the majority might be able to better understand the views of the minority, who are seen to oppose everything done by the government and the ruling party.

It is important for us to talk to each other to try and understand each other better. However, at the same time, South Africa would be a decidedly more boring place if all of us agreed with each other all the time. DM


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