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Helen Zille’s selective use of ‘facts’ can’t change the overriding truth

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Facts don’t speak for themselves. Some are ignored and others are selected and then carefully arranged to tell specific stories or to confirm particular biases which are, in turn, presented as eternally valid, or at best fully protected from criticism.

Facts. So many people love facts. There really is nothing wrong with that. Except there is a misconception that facts fall from the observable universe, and that people do not purposely go in search of facts, select some, omit others, and proceed to build unimpeachable truths on these facts. We reach a position, at this point, where people throw around phrases like “the facts speak for themselves”.

Forget scientometric findings which have helped us understand how knowledge or facts may lose veracity and become superseded over time. Facts long taken for granted may have expiry dates. This is the so-called half-life of facts, and there may be times when facts or “established truths” need to be reconsidered.

All of this slips into a blind spot of especially politicians who tend to present only those facts that suit them, like Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts”. For the record, as one scholar has suggested, political facts do not carry the same weight as scientific facts and “alternative facts” do exist, probably because politicians appeal to beliefs and values that they dress up as facts.

Nevertheless, the point I want to raise here is the political habit of selection and careful arrangement of facts to tell specific stories or to confirm particular biases that are presented as eternally valid, or at best fully protected from criticism. It follows that any attempt at questioning stated facts become acts of intellectual debauchery, epiphenomenal, provocative or ideological inflexibility. In other words, we cannot question the facts because our very act of questioning reveals that our thoughts are causally irrelevant, we are ideologically rigid and we “haven’t thought things through properly”.

What was it that Thomas Hobbes said? “Such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves.”

In other words, we are perfectly happy to accept that others are intelligent, but that our own intelligence is simply more powerful (forgetting that we are closest to our own knowledge).

Any way, these practices are not unique to politicians, but we are in a period of political posturing, and of pushing and shoving to get our hands on the levers of power. While this should bring me to the Economic Freedom Fighters, uber populists and experts at the manipulation of people’s emotion and of lexical legerdemain, it is to Helen Zille that I turn… if only because of recency bias; she most recently tweeted about the sanctity of “facts”.

 In one of her recent tweets, Zille equates “facts” with meaning. It is generally accepted that facts tend to be verifiable or observed through the senses, while “meaning” usually suggests that there is something particular that the speaker wishes to convey. For instance, Zille says in one of her tweets: “If you read for meaning you will see the facts, and the learnings, reflected there.”

In Zille’s specific context, to “read for meaning” is neither here nor there and has little relevance to fact. For instance, you can read the story of the burning bush on Mount Horeb (as described in Exodus in the Bible) and gain whatever meaning or significance you wish to glean. But neither the “meaning” nor the “significance” gleaned are sufficient to prove that there was, actually, a burning bush that was somehow not consumed by fire. We can’t even be sure (reading Maimonides or Spinoza) that Moses actually existed, but may have been part of religious myth-making.

Jan Assmann, a professor of Egyptology, gets right to the point. “We cannot be sure that Moses ever lived because there are no traces of his earthly existence outside of tradition.” The uncertainty around the “fact” of Moses takes little away from the “meaning” the burning bush holds for true believers. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was especially critical of what he considered to have been early Hebrew myth-making. These myths, he said, were “extremely necessary… for the masses whose wits are not potent enough to perceive things clearly and distinctly”. This somewhat echoes the old Roman adage that “the common people want to be deceived, therefore let them be deceived”.

Even established scientific facts can change. Pluto was (factually) once considered to be a planet, and the Earth was (factually) presented as the centre of the universe. As it turned out, those facts had a limited shelf-life. Similarly, very many of the facts we accepted about some diseases 100 years ago may have become irrelevant today. It should be clear, by now, that the most meaningful of facts can change. It is also true that some facts may conveniently be ignored.

1994: Overnight equality and the dissolution of race

The next section may seem trite, but when you speak to those who have learning difficulties you sometimes have to repeat yourself more than once, and enunciate carefully whatever you say. I also want to poke a stick at Zille’s sensibilities and draw on critical theory, the umbrella under which critical race theory sits… I have written about this before, and have no qualms about doing so again, but from a different perspective.

One of the blind spots of the Democratic Alliance (in another setting I would refer to it as epistemological blindness or appropriate what my friend and colleague Savo Heleta described as epistemic violence) is their expressed policy of racial blindness. They don’t see race. This is a fine example of a situation where there is racism, but no racists. I want to start by pointing to the difference between fact and opinion. The former, it is generally accepted, cannot be changed or challenged. This is not to say you cannot select or ignore particular facts and arrange them to tell a very specific story.

Let us look at some facts, those that seem to be in the blind spot of the DA. We may be of the opinion that race is a social construct (and therefore not real), but the fact is that the democratic state has reproduced apartheid’s racial categories — and people are judged accordingly. The overwhelming majority of black people are poor; they live in informal settlements without utilities or internal plumbing; they live on the peripheries of the industrial, manufacturing and finance sectors; they by and large remain where apartheid’s spatial planning, forced removals and influx control put them and kept them in place, and because Africans, in particular, were never meant to be part of South Africa, scant consideration was given to public transport networks.

Sure, many people get very angry with lawless taxis (as well they should) which, arguably, serve as a terrible substitute for public transport. But to get as close to the truth as possible, we have to look deeper, to the mechanism and tendencies that enable states of affairs.

The problem of lawless taxis has a deep aetiology and has done very little to make it easier or safer for black people to get to their places of employment, education or back and from families. The epochal election of 1994 did not erase race, racial exclusivity, nor did it erase the uneven spatial, educational and the overall iniquities (much more than inequality) handed down from one generation to the next over more than 300 years. It took more than 300 years to build up European/settler colonial/white dominance (this is a historical fact) and it cannot be addressed by ignoring it or pretending that we are now all equal.

If we are to come as close to the truth as humanly possible, it does not help to gloss over facts that make us uncomfortable or (in the case of Zille’s liberalism) that stand in the way of establishing a liberal polity with the hope that a rising tide lifts all boats. That little ditty has a nice cadence, but let’s face it, some boats can withstand storms and swells, while others are rickety. These are all facts and cannot be dissolved by just adding liberalism’s filé powder to get the perfect gumbo.

No amount of obfuscation, selection, ignoring or rearrangement of facts will change the overriding truth that South Africa is terrifyingly unequal and that this inequality is unsustainable. It feeds into populism and gives force to the politics of revenge. The DA and Helen Zille would go a long way if they publicly accepted those facts (notwithstanding that anger cannot be objectively quantified) and specifically directed their attention to making black people better off in a country unified around the objectives of prosperity, justice, stability and high levels of trust among the population.

If the DA does all of this it may lose its most important organ-grinders, but it will go down in history as having been pro-poor and helping rid the country of grinding misery and dislocation of black people from the national political economy. Smarmy twitterations (iterations on Twitter) are meaningless.

If the Twittersphere did, in fact, have meaning or significance, the EFF would have won all municipalities in the recent local government elections. DM

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All Comments 9

  • Yes, people (or parties) that self-righteously claim that they ‘don’t see race’, are living in bubbles of wishful thinking that prevent them from grappling constructively with the real issues.

    • Why is believing that the amount of melanin in one’s skin does not determine the level of one’s intelligence, honesty, ‘goodness’ etc. labelled as self-righteous?

  • It is a pleasure to read a well presented and argued story, thank you. What hurts so bad, is how the … what is the number, more than a R1-trillion? … tax money stolen via various state hosepipes could have narrowed those spatial, economic and eventually cultural gaps, but how, given the “facts”, it has only widened them.

  • Wow, quite a study! Something obviously pushed your button!
    The DA is certainly not perfect and Aunty Helen is a unique character in a category all of her own. So there is a lot to say about their failings.
    This article says NOTHING about going forward or solutions to the current impasse after the local elections. Academic exercise to feel good about something. The point?

  • ‘These are all facts and cannot be dissolved by just adding liberalism’s filé powder to get the perfect gumbo.’

    So elegantly articulated.

  • Meaning and “Facts”
    In a way meaning is functionally depended on clearly and distinctly perceiving its instances
    Meaning is the right one in virtue of the fact being true
    Otherwise, all science would be chaotic to ever make any true generalisations
    That meaning is not a cause of a “fact” being there, is not the same as the fact not being the functional cause of meaning. So, meaning is really relevant to whether “facts” are true in being causally depended on concepts derived from experience
    One could deduce the burning bush from the concept of God to show that there was actually a burning bush, if that were true, the premises would be sufficient to show the truth of their conclusion
    Many factors can be responsible for information ceasing to be, in the sense of finding no traces of it. Evidence as such is not necessary to show that something is true as some take certain things to be “evidently true” in the sense of nothing goes against it or supports it