Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 11 January 2016

Public debate, a bridge too far in South Africa

Daily Maverick is the most recent casualty in the war to keep the spirit and purport of excellent news and analysis free from hate-speech in the public comment section. On Monday the online newspaper, announced that, like many other online media platforms before, it would be shutting down its comment section and would rather revert to the ancient system of letters to the Editor.

The Daily Maverick is one of SA’s final bastions for true freedom of expression, truth and the “little guy” taking on the “big, powerful guy”. The editorial team really tried – and tried they did – to flatten South Africa as a society and give anyone – provided they used their real name – the opportunity to interact with political, economic, civil society and thought leaders. This opportunity was golden, as it gave you and me the opportunity to ask, as an example, Mmusi Maimane real questions about him as a leader and the party he leads, as opposed to “who let the dogs out?” via a social media platform that limits you to 140 characters and that leads to #AskMmusi going haywire.

The assumption is that if you read the intelligent comment, analysis and articles presented via Daily Maverick, you do so because you are intelligent and want to feed your brain with critical thought and participate in a debate larger than yourself. In other words, you take the opportunity to use your voice in shaping a South Africa that is in a desperate need for a serious shift from its current trajectory.

It is not an elitist exercise for the ‘chattering classes with access to the internet’, but active, participatory democracy that gives everyone an opportunity to engage on issues that affect us all, for free. In other words, your participation in this democracy is therefore not limited to voting once every five years and then moaning about what is going wrong behind pursed lips and clenched teeth. You had a chance to attack or defend #FeesMustFall, #ZumaMustFall, #RacismMustFall, #RhodesMustfall, e-tolls, Nkandla, Marikana massacre, Waterkloof landings and a litany of other issues on its merits and have the powerful pay attention. Like a disgruntled youth, you could tag someone else’s wall and have your perspective on display, for the world to see.

The idea gave meaning to a right so many were tortured for, incarcerated for decades and died for. This gives meaning to Freedom of Expression for us ordinary folk, people who would be otherwise ignored. Freedom of Expression is not always about an Ayanda Mabulu or Brett Murray painting, or ‘Black Tuesdays’ in defiance of the ‘Secrecy Bill’. It is about you, the reader, making intelligent statements and asking tough questions on the few truly public spaces in the country.

Instead, we turned this sacred space into trolling grounds, where insults, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, bullying and even hate speech became the default response to what we did not agree with. Sadly, this type of speech is not only limited to the online comments sections of the various websites. The entire nation is up in arms in the wake of racist comments in person and via social media; truthfully, and tragically, this showcases South Africa’s poor ability to have introspective, intelligent conversations about the delicate relationship between the various social strata and races that call home this piece of arid soil at the bottom tip of Africa.

Even political parties have joined the fray, but rather than provide exemplary leadership, they have resorted to cheap politicking and capitalised on divisions that exist along racial and class lines. The fact is that back in 1994, despite the recent spate of 20/20 hindsight, Nelson Mandela and those he negotiated with – both as antagonists and protagonists – decided on national unity and reconciliation. They figured that whether you came here on a ship from Europe in 1652 or 1820, or you called this land your home anyway and had to give way to ox wagons and muskets, your ancestry lay in a mix of races, or you were the product of indentured labourers from India; we are all South African and instead of wishing each other away, we would have to accept the fact that at some stage we would have to find a way to get along like equals. Sure, the land debate was never finalised and ‘white capital’ and black poverty are hallmarks of our deeply unequal society, but if we maybe focused on real solutions rather than hurling crap at each other, we may have solved some of these issues. In fact, they gave us the constitution, freedoms and – most importantly – the responsibility to address these very issues. Their job is done; we are failing at our end of the rainbow bargain.

Corruption and maladministration are not afflictions attached to darker shades of melanin, but rather an issue of governance. Nor is litter, violence, crime, HIV, single parent households or poverty hallmarks of blackness. Highfalutin experts on everything are most certainly not helping the debate either. Sure, the study or theory by “so-and-so” was developed over decades and has had much research and debate and is highly respected. But this is my question: Will it answer key questions such as how wealth will be equitably distributed, or will we all finally call this country home and be proud of it?

Sadly, it is a virtually impossible task when my social media pages, on a daily basis, are still occupied by people that vehemently believe that a deliberate, orchestrated ‘white genocide’ is to blame for increasing poverty amongst all racial demographics, or that crime, an issue that touches every echelon of South African society, is specifically directed at white farmers. It is not just inaccurate nonsense, but the type of nonsense that fosters hate and suspicion across racial and class lines and nonsense that has everyone barking up the wrong tree, rather than dealing with real and immediate issues, such as economic crisis, crime, lack of government delivery across sectors, the list is way too long. Or when wealth redistribution is discussed, people default to “you would still be wearing skins and hanging from trees” retorts. Guess what: people were happy in their skins and perhaps if Africa was left to develop on its own, there wouldn’t be so much anger and resentment.

But hey, history is exactly that, history, and it is really the future we need to fix.

Velaphi Khumalo, and his ‘Hitleresque final solution’ for dealing with white people is about as helpful as putting out a fire with petrol. But, when Penny Sparrow is called out on her racism, I really do not think that the caveat needs to be that there was also that black guy that said those horrid things via his social media. It is all bigotry and all those guilty of it must feel lonely and crap for their thinking – not just their public utterances.

The issue is that the debate has gone to pot! Dangerous misinformation, teetering on racist and hate speech-fuelled propaganda has taken our public discourse – mostly visible via social networks and online fora – by storm. Solutions are ignored as we are grabbing at each other’s throats, blaming each other rather than facing the reality: we have serious work to do, to make this country work the way it is supposed to.

So freedom of expression gives us the ability to hold to account and debate those that have chosen to lead, or those that have grandiose ideas for solving the many problems we face. This space is being restricted more and more, leaving us with less space to debate. Why? Because we screwed up: we let the idiots hijack the debate and allowed their voices to become the loudest. All the way, the hard-working people of South Africa kept their heads low, not adding the value that was so needed. We need to something about it, and soonest.

Sadly, I will not be able to see if you agree with me today, or be enlightened about what we could all do to improve the discourse in South Africa. But I also won’t have to read the vitriolic comments either. DM

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