As we consider what sometimes looks like our broken politics, it is also important to consider the words that are used. The level of discourse can sometimes represent the level of politics that is happening in a country. It is surely impossible to deny that the level of public discourse has deteriorated dramatically over the last few years. It’s not just that people are dissembling the truth, it’s that they are lying outright and getting away with it. But a worse dynamic is beginning to make itself felt. There are now many people in positions of authority who have simply become figures of fun, clowns, for the middle-classes. This is a very bad sign.
On Monday morning, the nation’s favourite broadcaster, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, gave an interview to Jacaranda FM. It is astounding in the first place that he was speaking to a broadcaster who has the most to gain from his 90% local content diktat, but these things have started to fly past us so quickly, we just don’t notice any more. Halfway through the conversation, he uttered this immortal phrase: “I don’t believe in scientific research”. It was in response to a question, not about the local content decree, but about the decision that is his, and his alone, to ban footage of violent protests from being shown on SABC news bulletins.
Coming from the person who runs the most important and the most valuable broadcaster in the country, it is a complete renunciation of every single aspect of good governance there is. It has become accepted, correctly, that decisions in business, science, sport and many other fields need to be made using the best evidence available.
One wonders if just this public musing should be enough to have him kicked out of his job by a court. But we all know that Motsoeneng ignores court orders anyway, so it will have to be someone with an infinitely big budget who tries that route, not that Mr Motsoaneng would ever accept the existence of the term ‘infinity’ in the first place.
Strangely, this comment isn’t crazy wacko get-out-ofhere mad, if compared to our current standards. The secretary-general of the ANC claims to believe that the US funds scholarships for young people at its universities in a bid to force regime change. The Deputy Minister of Defence claims that the public protector is a spy for the CIA, based on a few ‘articles’ posted on a dodgy ‘blog’ that no one admits ownership of; the State Security Agency then spends serious resourcs investigating such a batshit insane claim. (It has been for over a year, in a probe that will no doubt continue until that either she, or Number One, leaves office.)
Last week the ANC Women’s League issued a statement in support of Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who has found herself in a spot of bother for breaking a dozen of our laws by smuggling a young woman into the country (one wonders how we would all feel if our Defence Minister was a man and had done this?). In that statement, ANCWL suggested, in all seriousness, that the law should come secondary to other considerations in this case.
There are many more examples that we could go through, but it surely undeniable that there is a rise in the level of talking total rubbish, and a frequency of someone saying something that is surely and certifiably (and yes, Hlaudi, scientifically) untrue or just plain crazy.
This, of course, is bad for all of us. It almost goes without saying that this poisons our politics, it means that all are tainted by it.
When Mzwandile Masina, the ANC’s Ekurhuleni region head, claimed last month that his members had prevented the DA from holding a meeting outside a clinic because “they had heard the DA wanted to burn down this clinic”, he was not only inventing stuff as he was talking, he was also hoping that some of the mud would stick, that everyone in politics would be tainted by what is happening around us.
However, the reaction of much of the middle-classes is simply to laugh. When Motsoeneng speaks, people laugh at him, they poke fun. When Malema speaks, there’s the middle-class thrill of being scared, in a controllable nonthreatening way. A lot like watching Stephen King’s It during the day. When the ANC Women’s League speaks, people smile, and then yawn. And when someone hears that Mantashe is making wild claims about the US or the CIA, they scratch and reach for the phone “designed in California”.
This dynamic is becoming encapsulated in the middle-class reaction to Zuma, and anyone connected to him. He is no longer respected as the president; watching him speak in public, on TV, is simply an exercise in frustration at his lack of resignation (if you are of the middle class and would like to see your prejudices confirmed, a five-minute viewing of this should do it). This may be fun for some, but it is actually very damaging.
The problem is, as a general rule, it is a bad thing for a country when a large number of people lose respect for the person(s) in charge. It has a cascading effect, they lose respect for all the people appointed by that person as well. Particularly over time. Would you like your children to become a lawyer, yes or no, an advocate, yes or no, head of the NPA? Do you think it is good and right to use one’s talents for the good of the public broadcaster? And the SABC right now?
Imagine how very many people feel about the top brass of the police service/force/we can’t even remember what it is now. Many people surely feel that Riah Phiyega has been at best a failure and at worst a murderer after Marikana. And the Hawks? Led by a man, we say this again, found to be a liar by a high court judge before he was appointed. Who is now talking about his “mandate to harass communists”?
How does this translate into the attitude of your average middle-class Gauteng ANC or DA supporting voter when they are next stopped by a police officer on the side of Sandton Drive late at night?
In the end, the bad behaviour, and the lies and continuing scandals of the people occupying the top positions in these institutions have a huge impact on the perceptions of those institutions themselves. The SABC is no longer trusted. We could probably live with that, there are other places to access news (Like… this one! – Ed). But there are no other places where you can access justice, or services provided by the police. And if you don’t respect them, you don’t use them, and that means you look for other ways to get what you want. Whether they are illegal or not.
There is another problem to this. The behaviour of some of our politicians bears a remarkable similarity to that displayed by Donald Trump. The lying, the grandstanding, the awfulness of the name-calling. The middle ground, the middle classes, are not paying attention. They have given up on the people who do this. Which means they are not listening to what they are saying. Which means they might one day be surprised when certain things happen. At a time when we probably all need to be more informed than we ever have been, this is a huge risk.
All in all, no matter where you stand politically, this is a negative development. Not just for our leaders, the people who are doing this, who are themselves responsible for the lack of respect they receive, but for all of us. And there is not much hope of it changing in the short to medium term. Because for the moment, like in the US, lying seems to be working. DM
Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.
There are more skin cancer cases related to tanning beds than there are lung cancer cases to smoking.