Opinionista Edna Molewa 5 April 2017

Dezinformatsiya rife in toxic public space

Were a casual observer to hear what is currently being said in the media about our democratically elected government and democratically elected President, they would be forgiven for thinking we are in an Orwellian dystopia at best, and at worst, a dictatorship. By EDNA MOLEWA.

The reality is that we are living in a modern functional state with strong institutions, a transparent and accountable government, a free and vibrant civil society and media, and an independent judiciary.

Most important, we are living in a country with a rule of law, with a Constitution that provides checks and balances and holds the executive to account.

These diametrically opposed parallel realities have been brought into sharp focus by the recent decision of President Jacob Zuma to realign the Cabinet in line with his constitutionally granted powers; a Constitution certified by the Constitutional Court and promulgated by President Nelson Mandela on 18 December 1996, that clearly and unambiguously outlines the scope of the President’s powers to make appointments to the executive.

In light of the above, it becomes hard to sustain a narrative that some form of illegality or unconstitutional act has taken place, and so a situation has arisen where there is a need to peddle Orwellian alternative facts.

Without a shred of supporting evidence, all manner of analysts have been appearing on television and radio shows stating that the so-called Cabinet reshuffle is the result of a hitherto unknown list drawn up by unknown elements in some unknown location.

Whereas a few days ago this was couched in the careful language of allegation and second-hand source attribution, it has now been elevated to a statement of fact.

This is classic dezinformatziya – a form of propaganda better suited to autocratic regimes.

Apply the dictum of Josef Goebbels, that a lie repeated often enough becomes truth, punctuate it with references to the long-standing corruption that is allegedly rife across all tiers of government and the ANC, and you have a toxic mix of disinformation aimed at whipping the reading public into a frenzy.

It is not without irony therefore that some are threatening to take to the streets in response to the President of the Republic exercising a function in accordance with the Constitution.

Equally Orwellian is the prevalence of what may best be characterised as Groupthink. When it comes to anything with the word Zuma attached to it, far too many people become passive receptacles of alternative facts.

Unfortunately, the Groupthink phenomenon includes the media.

By failing to challenge or at least present two sides to an argument, the media is increasingly behaving in a partisan manner.

Speaking at the ANC 50th National Conference in 1997 President Nelson Mandela observed that “we have to confront the fact that during the last three years, the matter has become perfectly clear that the bulk of the mass media in our country has set itself up as a force opposed to the ANC… consistent with the political posture it has assumed, it has been most vigorous in disseminating such information as it believes serves to discredit and weaken our movement”.

One would caution against a state of affairs where the media has assumed the role of the political opposition, and where anyone who challenges the flawed narrative of a country on the brink is branded either a lackey or bought off (by parties unknown of course).

Healthy democracies thrive with plurality of voices – stifling healthy debate runs counter to democratic principles and is unhealthy for our public life. As with everything, context is key.

As the ANC National Conference draws near, so the jostling for position and influence grows, as does the abuse of mainstream and social media platforms to suit narrow factional and other interests. The attribution of information to anonymous sources has become worryingly commonplace.

One would caution against a state of affairs where the loud voices of a minority with unfettered access to the airwaves should peddle alternative facts of a South African government where everyone is corrupt, every Cabinet Minister or high-raking official is a suspect, and that the Head of State is personally dishing out favours on a whim.

South Africa is neither a banana republic nor a petty dictatorship. Far from it.

To quote Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron who in 2013 commented on the health of our democracy: “… we have more freedom, more debate, more robust and direct engagement with each other, and certainly more practically tangible social justice than 20 years ago.”

That certainly does not tally with the image our political analysts currently seek to portray in the media of (yet another) gimcrack African state being led to its ruin by tin-pot leadership.

South Africa is regularly cited in international policy instruments for its commitment to sound governance, including economic governance. As the 2015 African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) country report notes, South Africa has acceded to and ratified a number of international economic governance and management codes.

We have a sound framework for managing public finances and a solid legal framework for curbing corruption, including but not limited to the Protected Disclosures Act (2000) the Financial Intelligence Centre Act (2001) the Promotion of Access to Information Act (2000) and the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act (2004).

This is conveniently omitted by those who appear on radio and television to make wild claims that South Africa is on the road to dictatorship.

Such an allegation is nothing new.

Virtually from the moment the African National Congress (ANC) assumed power in 1994 there have been those who have tried to advance a narrative that the organisation’s policies and leaders are geared towards implanting our pluralistic democracy with a one-party state.

Equally, all the leaders of the ANC from Mandela to Mbeki and now to Zuma have been accused by these same elements of running the country by diktat.

However, repeating a lie often enough does not make it the truth. South Africa is a democracy and government is run as a collective. Where decisions are taken individually by the Head of State they are fully in line with the Constitution.

The progressive forces of change in this country should not be swayed in their mission to realise a non-racist, non-sexist, democratic, prosperous country by those who are trying to sow divisions and create discord with their dezinformatziya.

Amidst mounting public concerns around corruption, any initiatives or ventures to assist us in performing our duties better should be welcomed. No government can afford to be indifferent to the scourge of corruption or its role in undermining public confidence.

At the same time, there should be an awareness that even the best and most noble intentions can go awry and that what starts of as a grassroots movement can be prone to hijacking as part of the political power play of various vested interests.

It remains to be seen whether the vanguard of these new movements popping up like so-called Black Monday will be the people of South Africa of all races and social classes, or the skimpy numbers the Democratic Alliance (DA) stringed together for its now regular #ZumaMustFall events.

Nevertheless, when allegations of corruption of such a serious nature are made, the expectation should be that they are supported with evidence. A commitment to truth and facts should not be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. DM

Edna Molewa is a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC

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