Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 18 June 2014

The triumph of the technocrats: Boredom as a political strategy

The real critique of last night's SONA is not that it was boring, it is that the speech was boring on purpose because it sought to depoliticise meaningful things and subsume them under the rubric of “fast-tracked implementation” “stakeholder engagement,” and “delivery mechanisms.” In other words, Zuma deliberately deployed technical language that alienates people to seem both sophisticated and ‘rational’ and to blunt the edges of increasingly politicised demands from the public.

I have learned to approach President Zuma’s speeches with low expectations. It’s a sort of defence mechanism: if I steel myself for the blunders and the boredom, then he might surprise me as he did during the February SONA where he had a good story to tell in a pretty snazzy manner.

To be sure, if the president used his speeches to lay out important national objectives, then his tone and approach, the timbre of his voice and the pace of his speeches, would matter far less. But I have come to believe that the president – and his Cabinet – are not interested in punchy speeches that address strikes and pocketbooks and the state of race relations. The abysmal speech yesterday is simply the latest in a series of deeply (albeit blandly) flawed political statements by this president and his cabinet about the nature and scope of our nation’s problems.

Last night the nation watched as the president swathed himself in a blanket of statistics about “work opportunities” and “fast-tracking implementation”. He fed us numbers devoid of meaning. They were designed to cushion the body politic from the sharp edges of the truth. And atop the blanket, he pinned silly words; strung them together like so many cheap gaudy ornaments; glittery dangly bits and bobs. The use of jargon and inaccessible language was ostentations. It was garish, aesthetically jarring, and entirely lacking in obvious utility.

But, of course, it does serve a purpose. Empty statements like “We will implement the undertaking to build housing and other services to revitalise mining towns, as part of the October 2012 agreement between business, government and labour,” must be understood, not as the ramblings of an insipid speech-writer, but rather as an act of subterfuge and obfuscation, the workmanship of a brilliant strategist.

The ruling party increasingly relies on a technocratic approach to fend off overtly political questions. William Easterly (I’m not a huge fan, but he says some things worth paying attention to) suggests that the technocratic approach is based on the idea that “poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilisers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements.” Easterly argues that this technical approach ignores the fact that the “real cause of poverty” is “the unchecked power of the state against poor people with rights.” I would add that in the South African context, as the platinum wage standoff has illustrated, the unchecked powers of corporate entities also play a significant role in creating and maintaining poverty.

So, when the terms ‘water and sanitation’ ‘bucket system,’ and ‘mud schools,’ creep into Zuma’s speech, it is because he and his advisers are deftly co-opting the language of a new crop of activists who have challenged his government on its failure to address poverty and human dignity. His speech answers their anger with technical fixes.

He will learn in time that this will no longer be enough.

Listening to the speech last night, it might have been easy to forget that ours is a country that is in the midst of a bitter human faeces battle, dubbed the ‘poo wars,’ by those of us who peddle in sanitising the truth. Activist groups like Equal Education have insisted on the eradication of mud schools and toilets and they have been heard. But the festering reality they present to us is not accepted as a stain on our national conscience. It is addressed as a simple matter of policy.

Zuma is not alone. Collectively, our leaders have devised a programme here, a policy framework there, but they have failed to rise to the challenge by having honest, political conversations about the stark choices that confront them.

In part, this technical approach is what allows ‘good people’, like Naledi Pandor, Ebrahim Patel, Nhlanhla Nene and others to be part of the leadership, when the political stench is so rotten. Perhaps they are convinced that they can busy themselves with quantifying the efforts of the state, with moving the pieces around without really making a move.

And so Pravin Gordhan could serve as Minister of Finance while the shame of Nkandla glittered in his president’s eyes. He could issue a directive that government departments must undertake “cost-saving measures”, while ignoring the political problem that stared him in the face. The bureaucracy saw to it that Nkandla would be delayed and then ultimately diminished, while the Minister could be seen to be “acting.” Technical fixes allow our ministers to feel as though they are doing something; they allow them to pretend that they are not fiddling while Rome burns.

And this busy-ness, this bland rhetoric, the barrage of numbers, they confuse us. We resort to superficial analyses about the delivery of the speech, or about the fact that the president has said these things before, or that he seemed tired, or that this or that number was wrong.

The real critique of the SONA is not that it was boring, it is that the speech was boring on purpose because it sought to depoliticise meaningful things and subsume them under the rubric of “fast-tracked implementation” “stakeholder engagement,” and “delivery mechanisms”, and this is increasingly a strategy of our leaders.
There is of course, a place for technical matters. When babies die in Bloemhof because a contractor did not prevent sewage from contaminating drinking water, there must be a technical solution to the problem. But there must also be a deeper and more important political honesty on the part of the state if we are to genuinely assess the state of the nation.

The trouble is that honesty isn’t part of the technical tool kit, and I don’t imagine that will ever make it into a SONA. DM


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