Onkgopotse JJ Tabane
Onkgopotse JJ Tabane

The death of debate in SA

The last twenty years have seen the death of intellectual debate in South Africa. In the book The Poverty of Ideas, edited by William Mervin Gumede and Leslie Dikeni, a set of authors mourn this death by tackling head on the uncomfortable issue of the “devaluation of ideas in the public sphere in post-apartheid South Africa”. It examines closely the intolerance of criticism and the implication of this for our democracy. This death of debate has resulted in the tendency to suppress dissenting voices in and outside political parties. It has also resulted in the deafening silence of civil society and the collapse of academic institutions’ intervention in public deliberations. All of this in my view has resulted in the demobilisation of the voice of communities — these voices have now fallen silent and have sold out our nation’s intellectual capital to debilitating patronage.

My observation is that if you are an ANC heavyweight who has earned his place in history, your dissent becomes a lot more tolerable. Breaking rank and daring to be self-critical is something that seems achievable if you have little to lose in political circles. If you are a Pallo Jordan people believe you when you say that debating in the ANC is like “a conversation amongst the deaf”. If you are a Trevor Manuel, full of arrogant confidence, you can be brave enough to be the first to say that the ANC’s deployment system is in shambles — a whole year before the party can remotely admit to same. If you are a Kader Asmal you may not hesitate to say that the “ANC has lost its moral compass”. If you are none of these big names you get insulted and can probably be hauled before a party disciplinary committee and end up on the periphery of politics. But a Winnie Mandela and a Julius Malema can get away with much more, owing to their populist streak, they spare no one in the articulating their own unsanctioned views. This state of affairs in the ruling party has made sure that where a million flowers used to bloom with position papers from across the membership contesting ideas on various matters affecting our people, there is an excruciating drought of inspiring debate if not a tragedy of silence making our public discourse among the most atrocious in the world.

One would have hoped that with the revival of political activity post-Polokwane and the birth of Cope ahead of last year’s poll things were going to change. But last week’s knee-jerk reaction of Cope leaders to public criticism by its youth wing and other fearless party people who dared point out that the party was a disappointment in its founding year, was met with ANC-like denials and was characterised as “disinformation” and “destructive” instead of being seen as an opportunity to debate vigorously this birth of an alternative political party in South Africa. But given that this is the reaction of an unrepresentative sample of what makes up Cope, one still has hope that the broader members will live up to the Bloemfontein dream of an organisation that tolerates open and honest deliberation in its ranks.

The failure of perspective to triumph at the recent SACP conference resulting in a “Nujoma-like” amendment to the constitution to keep Blade Nzimande in place, the failure of the IFP, Azapo and UDM to debate their leaders who have overstayed their welcome points to a wider political culture that has not embraced dissent as a necessary dialectical tool to deepen debate and advance a cause. A tombstone to the hope that we will ever be able to reverse the “retreat of intellectuals” is bemoaned in The Poverty of ideas.

And so it seems to me that it is left to civil society to fight for a space where the country’s intelligentsia can exchange ideas. One of the lethal weapons against debate must be the extraordinary levels of patronage that have engulfed our society. How many businesspeople have you seen criticise the government’s economic policies or at least its failure to implement certain basic economic interventions to deal with poverty? How many have come out openly to denounce the ANC mutterings about nationalising the mines and the Reserve Bank? Strange silence. No prizes for guessing which is the one symbol of the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy: a reserve bank in the pocket of the state which has the unfettered ability to print money and in the process renders the country’s currency meaningless. Is this what we want for South Africa? Is political correctness so important for the business-minded that this pending economic suicide can happen on our silent watch? Is the immediate gratification of a government tender more important?

Turning to matters of advocacy you may be forgiven for thinking that the Church as an institution of civil society has migrated over the last couple of years. While terrifying levels of moral bankruptcy among our politicians at the very top, corruption, dishonesty and greed are becoming the hallmark of our political story across the board, we wonder where the prophetic voice of the Church is in all this madness? Where is the voice that denounced the apartheid atrocities and moral ineptitude? The little we see of the Church’s intervention in the affairs of broader society, is that of playing chaplain to the administration — cosying up to the powers.

As if this was not enough, you have the universities that have decided to close the book on being vocal. The University of Limpopo reportedly postponed awarding an honorary doctorate in commerce to ousted president Thabo Mbeki following his defeat at the ANC’s Polokwane conference, ironically held at the university. One hopes these allegations are not true because they would point to the beginning of the end of academia as a respected fountain of fearless ideas regardless of who is in power.

So people across the land are dying because the municipal politicians have their nose so deep in the trough they can’t lift it up long enough to smell the coffee of discontent and outrage brewing in our streets. Though many a boiling pot spilt over into our streets last year in the form of violent protests, many more communities are dying in silence in line with this culture of acquiescence taking root in our society. But we can’t put a lid on that boiling pot forever, we will soon regret being a nation of self-censure with deference to often misguided historical and political loyalties. The death of any serious debate in our society must be located within this sad reality of our times. And so I wonder quite frankly: with such a poison in our political chalice, how can a thousand flowers bloom?