Defend Truth


South Africa’s public discourse is anorexic, we all need to reduce the vitriol and build constructive engagement


Dr Seelan Naidoo is principal associate at Public Ethos Consulting. He holds a master's in Decision-making, Knowledge and Values from Stellenbosch University, and a PhD in Organisation Studies and Cultural Theory from the University of St Gallen. He is an associated researcher of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

In the aftermath of the impending local government elections, which will give rise to a politics of plurality, we will need constructive critical engagement more than ever. It is We, all of us, who need to do the urgent work of opening up and nurturing the space for more constructive critical engagement on our many pressing problems. When it comes to constructive critique and engagement, our public discourse is anorexic.

A healthy public sphere is a vibrant manifold of critical attitudes towards the governments of the day. Even vitriolic government-bashing has a place in this manifold, especially when there is a failure to serve the public interest. However, vitriol by itself has never solved or built anything – it is a blunt instrument which typically provokes defensiveness and recalcitrant stubbornness that may even make matters worse. And if it comes to predominate in a democracy, as it most certainly has in South Africa, vitriolic criticism reduces the public sphere to rubble in a discursive civil war.

Crucial to a healthy public sphere is the kind of critique that is both incisive and carries communicative potential – a kind of critique that not only calls for a response by the veracity of its arguments but that also promotes a dialogical exchange of ideas. Because vitriol is easily dismissed and ignored as mere ranting, it destroys the possibility of real communication – and so it degenerates into the shrill recitation of stubborn standpoints and the defensive posturing that this calls forth ad nauseum. When it comes to constructive critique and engagement, our public discourse is anorexic.

The true test of a healthy public sphere is the prevalence of critique of the governments of the day that is motivated by and is effective in advancing the public interest. In South Africa, however, the critique of this or that government has largely degenerated into a war of party-political and narrow sectarian interests, with sporadic attacks by disaffected former party members thrown in for good measure.

Paradoxically, it is party-on-party vitriol, amplified by the news and social media, which makes up the greater part of our public discourse. The result of this debasement is that the people, irrespective of who they vote for, are losing faith in the very possibility of good governance.

The campaigning ahead of the impending local government elections, the outcomes of which have been described as the most uncertain in our political history, has already shown how unhealthy our public discourse has become. The possibility of communication in this fractured milieu seems like a pipe dream – and the careful consideration of the public interest has been crowded out of the public sphere.

What seems fairly certain is that the old bi-party hegemonies, of the DA and the ANC in the Western Cape and a few other places, and the ANC and the DA everywhere else, are about to be seriously challenged. Throughout South Africa, smaller parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters will make further inroads, as will the host of independent candidates who have suddenly appeared on the scene.

What are the prospects of a healthier public sphere in the aftermath of these elections? It seems safe to say that we are about to enter a new era of multiparty coalition politics at the local level. As our maturing democracy evolves from the bi-party model of local government to the plurality of multiparty local governments, will we see and hear more constructive engagement and communication? Will we witness the elevation of the public interest?

In the absence of a healthy public sphere – one characterised by constructive critical engagement and underpinned by the priority of the public interest – the outlook for affirmative answers to these questions is decidedly bleak. More parties and more politicians will not necessarily give us better politics and better governance. Indeed, if all they bring is more vitriol then this new politics of plurality will consume even more energy on digging new trenches to wage local skirmishes that produce even more stand-offs and so detract even more from the public interest.

If we dare not leave it to the multiplication of politicians and their parties, who else is responsible for nurturing and sustaining a healthy public sphere?

It is We, all of us, who need to do the urgent work of opening up and nurturing the space for more constructive critical engagement on our many pressing problems. We, the public, as citizens, as residents, as ratepayers, as taxpayers, as workers, as public servants, as journalists, as experts, as students, as academics, as activists, as civil society, as families, as groups, as communities, as collectives, need to join in the constructive discourse of what is in the public interest.

Constructive critique and engagement require a questioning attitude that is given vent through communication that deals with the issues at hand. Critique is not only about asking good questions. It is also about listening and responding in a way that holds the possibility of a positive if imperfect response. It not only says that there is a problem, it also asks why there is a problem, and how the problem may be addressed despite political differences. Problems by their very nature demand not only to be thrown into question, but also to be resolved or at least ameliorated in some way. To raise a problem without the intention of its resolution is the mark of bad faith.

But we must go further because the quality of constructive critique is not only about how it is given, but also about how it is received. We must demand that our, soon to be more numerous, political representatives represent us by listening to us and by coming to constructive terms with each other in the public interest.

We do not need more arrogant posturing and interminable fighting. We need more open, humble, constructive engagement and decisive action towards better local governance. DM

Dr Seelan Naidoo is a research associate of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. He holds a PhD in Organisation Studies and Cultural Theory and writes in his personal capacity.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    I completely agree with your sentiments and I would love to see us all focus on:

    1. The life we would like to see for everyone: all our children educated, everyone having food, everyone having a home; and

    2. how we can get there, taking advantage of all skills and all perspectives.

    With a constructive, inclusive mindset, the country we all would love to see is not impossible to achieve.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    All on point, but the calibre of many in government is such that a bigger picture stance is unlikely.

  • Anne Mc Lennan says:

    Great article – now let’s get talking and listening.

  • Courtney Morgan says:

    South Africans are spoilt.

    Living in Zimbabwe, traveling to Thailand, and visiting other autocratic countries where political conversations had to be hushed and careful never stopped citizens from challenging their government’s authority over their rights as a collective.

    Here, the privileged are too bored, too disconnected from reality to engage with anyone outside their class, they have not struggled enough to understand the needs of the collective, and will never be motivated beyond maintaining the status quo as a result.

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