Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 23 May 2017

The perilous state of our national discourse – in search of argument

Discourse is how we express our thoughts into words. Those words can be written or spoken. It is the current quality of our national discourse which is my concern.

I have just returned from the Franschhoek Literary Festival. Yes, that place in the drought-ridden Western Cape where the vineyards manage to retain a remarkably healthy postcard green.

Where the festival participants are only discernible from the whitewashed background by their outfits.

I was pleased I was there and struck by our nation’s sincere need for honest, robust and critical engagement in these trying times.

As a discussant on a panel on our stubbornly high levels of inequality in South Africa, I realised that these issues also preoccupy our white compatriots at their respective dinner tables and various gatherings. I am not painting all whites with the same brush, mind you. There are those who only concern themselves with sports and religion and steer well clear of politics, keeping their heads firmly in the sand. However, this I believe cannot be said for the majority of patrons to the Franschoek Literary Festival. I look forward to engaging them again next year, where I can indeed interrogate various uncomfortable truths. They too, after all, deserve to be part of our national discourse and meaningfully contribute where they can as fellow South Africans.

So, what do I mean by national discourse? Discourse is how we express our thoughts into words. Those words can be written or spoken. It is the current quality of our national discourse which is my concern. In recent times I have noticed how much of what we say is absolute. It is certain. Definite. Irrefutable. We spew gross generalisations and leave little room for caveat or complexity. We resort to threats of violence, intimidation or ridicule to make our points. This is neither healthy nor helpful. Why do we seem to have reached this state? I have a few possible underlying causes.

Some argue that displaying anger and shutting down debate among certain privileged groups is essential. They (whites, men, heterosexuals, or those not sharing our view) have had centuries of opportunity to express themselves. Our state is so dire that they must be made to be uncomfortable. Force their silence, and preferably their exit. Proponents of this view frequently argue that there is no common ground. There is no basis – no secure base script – from which we can proceed.

Is there any common ground?. I think the answer is an unequivocal yes (some might disagree). It has taken time and effort (and historic wounds run deep), but the Constitution of this our Republic, our Bill of Rights and indeed the spirit of the Freedom Charter and Ubuntu strike me as common ground among almost all South Africans.

Defending the Constitution is common cause for many of us. Yes, there will be times when the executive or national legislature misinterprets certain clauses of the Constitution. Differing interpretations will come from individual citizens and/or organisations both civil and private. And we all may agree on a few things we would like to change. And sure, writing a constitution with President Nelson Mandela in mind, giving lots of power to one person, may have led to a few problems… Of course our courts may also at times be found to overreach. There remain mechanisms to bring things back on track. The current debates on the separation of powers as outlined in the current Constitution are a healthy sign of an engaged citizenry. Failure to engage and reflect on how we test and enact our commitment to a separation of power will also threaten our fragile democracy.

So there are some documents that bind some of us. But we are all too easily and frequently torn apart by our views on race, class and gender. I cannot discuss each in any depth, but let me at least illustrate.

On race we have a very long way to go. Racism and racists continue to undermine our fledgling democracy. Statements about the so-called positive elements of colonialism for us blacks, black South Africans being monkeys on our beaches and we must somehow not feel entitled as it relates to our need for land acquisitions and private property relations continue. These calls are made in a country founded on black dispossession of land and of citizenship, by forced removals, the 1913 Land Act and against a backdrop of colonialism and the slave trade. In fact, we are told, we blacks must refrain from mentioning the past and “stop blaming everything on apartheid”. Is it any wonder that black anger is harnessed to ask for silence (and some listening)?

On the class front, there similar problems. We comprise both white and black. Some of us have better memories of poverty and parents who know the struggles of unemployment, and lack of decent work. But setting that aside, one could be forgiven for thinking that, sharing a middle-class lifestyle, we would have common approaches to furthering our ambitions, as a class. We cannot pretend that the middle class does not play a big role in shaping the national landscape in most democracies.

Let’s focus first on the elites. In Mzansi, the political and economic elites pass each other in broad daylight, let in alone the dead of night. It seems that the economic elite are simply interested in how they can increase their profits at the expense of all else and the political elite is preoccupied with governance and corruption to emulate their economic elite counterparts. The political elite, being drunk with power and access to the public purse, will ultimately lead our country to ruin; similarly, the economic gluttony of the economic elite will have the same resultant outcome. Work together or fall together! You decide.

Unable to escape our racism, the black and white members of the middle class cannot find each other. In so doing we offer no leadership or clear vision to which the proletariat/working class can subscribe. This we do and continue at our own peril.

Gender too has appropriately been in the spotlight in the last few weeks. We have made significant strides in promoting non-sexism and providing a legal basis for freedom of sexual orientation. The continuous and stubbornly high levels of abuse of women both domestically, in the workplace, and with consistent attacks on lesbians, remain a grave concern. Despite all other levels of crime stabilising and/or decreasing over the last 20-odd years, rape remains consistently high. It has consistently increased over the years. This requires serious dialogue and actions on our part. Failing to understand this phenomenon and all the various historical and cultural considerations will not halt this scourge. If we don’t understand the root causes and rethink how our society nurtures our boys to become caring, responsible men, we target the wrong interventions.

While these perennial divisions plague us, and we suffer from a severe trust deficit and lack of leadership, populism runs amok.

As our democracy matures it becomes more difficult to manage, both from government’s as well as civil society’s points of view. A leadership problem creates space for populism to become the order of the day. Populism from politicians takes the form of unrealistic promises of land grabs without compensation and radical economic transformation (whatever that means). In the private sector the failures of the government are used as basis to avoid paying tax, to dodge fines and not pay for services. And indeed do nothing as it relates to our triple challenges because the argument goes that we pay taxes and therefore we don’t have to do anything more. These challenges remain government problems, not ours.

Populism finds strength in its simplicity. It is a binary discourse of absolutes. Listen and read our news and discussions carefully. We very quickly revert to absolutist and dare I say defeatist approaches to most matters of argument. We are certain. This is right or wrong. Black and white. Take for example people who are trapped in a populist narrative of a completely failed South African state. In this story the government is prime evil and endemically corrupt. When presented with data from international organisations such as Corruption Watch demonstrating figures and graphs of our country’s placement within the global standing on corruption, it’s discarded. There is no room for nuance. No complexity. What does not serve the overall narrative of an apocalyptic and/or failed state is not regarded as important to the discussion and hence discarded.

Populism finds its strength in fake and false news. In this day and age of social media, community media outlets and indeed our print and electronic media, we are inundated with fake news. With the speed with which news occurs and the over-reliance on social media tools, this phenomenon has us all in a quagmire of how to deal with this. Of much more serious concern though are the abuses taking place of our intelligence services in a period of heightened paranoia among various political figures, as the governing party moves towards their all-important elective December conference.

I suspect, as many have already punted, that much more of this dirty linen will surface as we move closer to the ANC’s December conference. My concern though is the abuse of our state apparatus, in particular our intelligence services being abused to spy on others by a few to benefit themselves on the one hand while on the other hand deliberately spreading false news to the public. Intelligence reports resulting in some losing their jobs and livelihoods, such as the bogus Eskom report, the Bogus National Treasury report resulting in Minister Pravin losing his job, or the Bogus Intelligence report on the Rogue Unit of SARS and yet again the Bogus report on the Extradition order by then Hawks boss, to mention but a few. This practice must also be guarded against wherever it rears its ugly head.

This requires all South Africans to be vigilant and wary of populism. We must avoid being taken in by a populist discourse. It simply does not contribute, in any meaningful way, to a solution to the many challenges facing Mzansi.

There are several groupings calling for a national dialogue. The national dialogue initiative is an important initiative by the foundations of our former presidents. It could be the start of a genuine national discourse that will see us all participating in such critical discussions. Questions such as who exactly is involved and why are of less relevance than what they hope to achieve. In other words, why de Klerk is there and what his intentions are, is of no consequence as far as I’m concerned. What is relevant though is what are the critical issues affecting all of us and how do we collectively engage to find solutions for these. Our leadership crisis has meant that various groupings – the Mandela Foundation, Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the trade union movement, the South African Council of Churches are stepping in to provide direction. What is clear is that this moment requires genuine robust and critical engagement in discourse that expects sound argument and evidence. Now is not the time for populist divisions and hollow slogans.

Last, it would be remiss to neglect the upcoming ANC policy conference and the critical engagement required on the ANC discussion documents leading up to the December elective conference. The declining state of critical engagement in the ANC has resulted in the organisation approaching implosion. As ANC comrades go to the policy conference of the governing party in June, I am hoping that serious and critical engagements will be the order of the day. Serious, robust and critical engagement on the real challenges facing our country: poverty, inequality, decent work, land, not to mention rape, domestic abuse and protection for gays and lesbians… If this time is allocated only to discussions of leadership, ruined by slates of populism, unrealistic policy objectives will be set. Those in attendance would have failed the national discourse imperatives and done a disservice to the people and will witness significant electoral losses for the ANC come 2019. People will not vote when they can no longer trust the policies and its actors in the party.

Across the political, economic, and civic spheres in South Africa, we must actively work to overcome our significant historic trust deficit. Writing on the foundations of trust, Jeffry A Simpson writes that “trust involves the juxtaposition of people’s loftiest hopes and aspirations with their deepest worries and fears”. He explains a shift in how we have viewed trust, distinguishing a person-centred view of trust (where trust entails general beliefs and attitudes about the degree to which other people are likely to be reliable, co-operative, or helpful) from an interpersonal view [where trust is a psychological state or orientation of an actor (the truster) towards a specific partner (the trustee) with whom the actor is in some way interdependent (that is, the truster needs the trustee’s co-operation to attain valued outcomes or resources)].

And so our national discourse must shift to be robust, more critical, and more open to difference. We must proactively build trust between blacks and whites, between men and women, between members of the LGBTI community and their heteronormative compatriots. We need to build trust between those who are unemployed and those who work, between those seeking to learn and those entrusted with educating. We need to build trust between immigrants and citizens, between employers and workers. We cannot create a cohesive society for all to live in if we do not establish a secure script from which to tell our common South African tale.

Failure to engage rationally, logically and at times devoid of emotions and subjectivity will mean we will never reach that nirvana called common ground, build on national trust, or better yet, that ever illusive social compact we so yearn for. DM

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