Public debate ‘captured’

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epa05889727 A South African flag flies infront of Lions Head mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, 05 March 2017. Parliament is currently on recess until May but opposition parties have called on the speaker of parliament Baleka Mbete to reconvene an unrgent session earlier so they can put forward their motion of no confidence in president Jacob Zuma following his government reshuffle. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

South Africa’s public discourse, debate and dialogue, called the “public sphere”, are increasingly being corrupted, with public speech by many prominent figures often based on untruths, slogans and empty rhetoric. The country’s public sphere have become violent, vacuous and dishonest. Aspects of South Africa’s public sphere have been “captured”, like parts of the state and business.

This off course undermines freedom of expression, but it diminishes the quality of public debate, and reduces available ideas and policy options available for ordinary citizens, policy makers and government. It also skews the public debate, to make it appear that the views that those who shout the loudest, sound the most “radical” and are the most extreme, are that of the majority; as only like-minded corrupt public debaters are “allowed” to express their views.

Opportunists, populists and political entrepreneurs silence critics by attaching negative labels to them, which in many cases are untrue, but in a society with high levels of illiteracy, where large numbers of people are closed-minded and many more are desperate to accept simple black and white explanations for their causes of their problems, are easily lapped up.  

Honest people who could bring new ideas, policies and leadership then censor themselves and withdraw from public engagement for fear of being denigrated by opportunists, corrupt and dishonest public actors.

It is very crucial if democracy is to work that claims made in public debates are truthful, have integrity and evidence-based, unless wrong statements are honest mistakes. One academic have observed, public speech “is corrupt not when it is wrong or untrue, but when it is strategically duplicitous, intended to deflect, dissimulate, distract, or otherwise obscure the claims of those who speak, in order to secure private or professional gains”.

Fake news, fake conspiracies and fake allegations on social media are also increasingly corrupting the public discourse. Supposedly progressive ideologies are often being manipulated or corrupted in the public discourse by opportunist public figures for selfish interests – rather than in the genuine interests of would-be beneficiaries that is supposedly serving.

Opportunists under the guise of public agitation for the concern for the poor, desperate and vulnerable manipulate struggle slogans, beliefs and rhetoric, to enrich themselves. Legitimate historical redress needs, such as land reform, and social justice causes are increasingly being manipulated for selfish interests. Struggle slogans are also increasingly appropriated to corruptly mobilized the masses; and so increase the popularity and so the possibilities of being elected into public office, for those who do so.  

Since the end of colonialism, many African leaders, and independence movements turned governments have used colonialism, apartheid and white-minority control of their economies, to cover their own incompetence, mismanagement and corruption. Many African leaders and governments have covered up their own corruption and incompetence, by blaming the very real global dominance of former colonial powers and their companies, and their interference in the domestic issues of African and developing countries, for their (African governments and leaders’) own corruption and incompetence.

Former President Jacob Zuma built an R240m mansion while his supporters live in squalor. Zuma blamed it on “white monopoly capital”, Western “imperialists”, meaning former colonial powers countries, and “white-controlled” opposition parties who wanted to destabilize his presidency, for being responsible for building his multimillion rand mansion using public money. Anyone who questioned the credulity of blaming “white monopoly capital”, “Western imperialists” and “racists” for Zuma using public money to build his personal residence was aggressively dismissed, as a “racist” if white, or a “puppet” of whites, if black.

Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe plundered the state to enrich himself, his family and political allies; pursued poorly thought-out populist policies to shore up his support; and terrorized domestic opponents causing the collapse of the economy. After being in power since 1980, Mugabe astonishingly blamed it on white farmers, former colonial power Britain and domestic black “puppets” of “imperialists”.

Opportunists, populists and political entrepreneurs increasingly use social media to engineer debates blaming the old straw men such as “white monopoly capital”, and Western “imperialists” and colonialism to either advance their own personal interests or attack people they see as opponents by portraying them, if black, as “puppets” of all of these “evil” forces, and if whites either racists or “white monopoly capital”.

It is crucial that all South Africans engage respectfully with alternatives views, beliefs and traditions to their own. Such engagements with other views is a key building block of democracy. Without engagements with alternative views we won’t able to have a quality debate about the kind of policies we should be adopted, the priorities we should be focus on and foster a more inclusive South African(ness).

Among the key reasons why most African countries since independence from colonialism has failed, their societies broke as those marginalized over time take to violence and their economies collapsed is because of slogan-based, ideological and empty policies dominating the public sphere; and reasonable voices shouted down.  

There are no simplistic solutions to the intractable societal, political and economic problems we inherited from previous apartheid governments, and which has being compounded by the terrible mismanagement by the democratic government. Only honest leadership, quality ideas and evidence-based policies, which requires allowing the widest diversity of ideas, policies and innovations to be allowed to be debated without violent rebuttal, will stop South Africa from backsliding further along the failed post-independence path trotted by most African countries.   


William Gumede is Executive Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org); and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).