Opinionista Marianne Thamm 5 April 2016

Wilful blindness: The downside of collective group think

In 2006, five years after Wall Street darling Enron declared bankruptcy taking with it hundreds of millions of dollars that belonged to shareholders and employees, a US court found that those in charge who failed to check the massive corruption that was unfolding could not use the defence that they did not know – that they were wilfully blind. The term “wilful blindness” was introduced into US law in 1861 – a clause that essentially reads that the law doesn't care why you remain ignorant, only that you do. ANC MPs might take an instructive lesson from the concept.

In 2011 CEO and author Margaret Heffernan published “Wilful Blindness – Why We Ignore The Obvious at Our Peril” exploring the forces at work that enable individuals or groups to “deny the big threats that stare us in the face?”

The response by the current ANC leadership to the damning Constitutional Court ruling on Nkandla and that President Zuma and the National Assembly had violated their oaths of office as well as the constitution during the long and drawn out saga of the abuse of public funds to upgrade the president’s home, falls neatly into the mindset of “wilful blindness”.

The result of the vote on the impeachment of President Zuma in the National Assembly on Tuesday might provide further evidence of how in choosing to be wilfully blind “ideologues refusing to see data and events that challenge their theories, doom themselves to irrelevance.”

Whether individual or collective, wilful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many…. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves,” wrote Heffernan in the introduction to the book.

It takes courage, as Deputy ANC Gauteng chairperson and Gauteng Premier David Makhura reminded us on Monday, for the party to take heed of the ordinary voices of South Africans and not only listen to leaders when dealing with the crisis the 104-year old party now faces because of its current leader, President Jacob Zuma.

Makhura, who was speaking at the funeral of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) veteran Shirish Nanabhai also told ANC veterans in attendance there is no value in denialism.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela too suggested that if there was one thing ANC and the President could learn from the Constitutional Court ruling it was that good leadership does not surround itself with compliant yes men and women who would lead it towards a cliff.

Collective voices that have been raised asking President Zuma to do the right thing and resign have come from various quarters including ANC veterans, who have taken great pain to speak out publicly, the clergy, civil society, business leaders as well as ordinary people.

But rather than heed these voices it appears that, for now, the ANC leadership is being wilfully blind and deaf.

In her book Heffernan refers to US psychologist Stanley Milgram, best known for his controversial experiment on obedience conducted in the 1960s during his professorship at Yale. Milgram distinguishes clearly between “obedience” and “conformity” in that obedience involves complying with the orders of formal authority, while conformity is the action of someone “who adopts the habits, routines and language of his peers, who have no special right to direct his behaviour”.

While those ANC MPs who vote against impeachment might believe they are acting in the long-held tradition of democratic centralist ethos of the ANC, in this instance, in a constitutional democracy, they are acting against the greater good of a South Africa many ANC leaders fought and died for.

They have adopted the habits, routines and language of ANC peers who have no right to direct their behaviour or conscience particularly in relation to the ruling by the Constitutional Court. This is no “ordinary” crisis of government, it is a Constitutional Crisis that faces the entire country, all its citizens and those the voters who have entrusted their vote to the ANC.

Heffernan quoting CEO advisor Saj-Nicole Joni’s research that “leaders who don’t build the networks that bring them the truth will make big mistakes. Having a small network of people who will bring you the unvarnished truth and with whom you can have unfettered exploration, they are a partial antidote to wilful blindness”.

Finally, Heffernan writes that “Heroic leadership styles, companies highly focussed on the power and influence of a single individual, provoke the kind of second-guessing among executives that stops them thinking or analysing what they know to be true.”

It takes courage now to face what we all know to be true: that President Jacob Zuma has violated his oath of office and the constitution. The judgement by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is there for all to read and absorb. Interpreting it for your own nefarious ends and out of cowardice must rank as a monumental act of wilful blindness.

The price of wilful blindness ultimately is irrelevance. Nature hates a vacuum and right now there is a vortex at the centre of the ANC that threatens to take us all with it. DM

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