Simon Howell
Simon Howell

The ‘I’ in ‘I write what I like’

For a number of months now I have followed rather avidly the News24.com site. Not because of the news stories themselves, but because of the comments that follow them. The site itself allows one to comment in almost complete anonymity; one can use various usernames that reflect neither social standing nor direct inclination. And it is under this veil of anonymity that, I believe, South Africans’ true feelings emerge. In other words, beyond the pale of surveillance that constitutes society, South Africans express their true feelings. What they express, however, is deeply worrying.

While I do not have copyright permission to simply cut and paste some choice quotes into this article, I urge any reader to select a topic, scroll down, and have a look for himself or her. What one finds, in almost every instance, is a plethora of blatantly racist, sexist, and classist comments. This may not in and of itself be such a bad thing — a participatory democracy, after all, thrives on public opinion, however decisive. What concerns me is, in the first instance, the almost faultless reliance on the concept of race to justify an argument, and secondly, the contrasts between the transcendental wish of our Rainbow Nation and the immanent reality of the bickering over minuscule turf lines.

In our society, and considering our history, these comments are especially worrying. Not simply because they are ultimately unjustified and present a deep mistrust in fellow humans, but because this democracy has been built on the concept of reconciliation. Our democracy, in order to be a democracy, relies on the backwards legitimacy of the concept of reconciliation. And yet, it seems, so long as one is no longer accountable (by virtue of name or number), one “writes what they like”. What these comments show, because they are written anonymously, is the widening gap between procedural democracy and substantive democracy. These two forms of “doing” democracy are vastly different. Procedural democracy is democracy by the book — it is regulated for and legislated against through the book of law. Substantive democracy is however much more. It is true integration, true peace. Substantive democracy, in other words, exists whether people are being told to believe in it or not.

What the anonymous comments on News24.com and other sites reveal to us is that even though we now have a procedural democracy, as soon as the rule of accountability is removed, democracy in South Africa is a farce. We have yet to reach substantive democracy, a democracy we believe in whether we are being watched or not. Biko wrote what he liked, but he signed his name to it. Writing what one likes without signing one’s name to it is, to me, cowardice of the highest order. Equally however, if people continue to be everything that is not democratic in their private lives, we can never truly call ourselves a democracy. We shall be torn apart by private turf wars, as indeed I fear is happening.

Perhaps I am being pessimistic. Yet the mythology of democracy, the mythology we as a nation need to believe in to be a nation no longer seems tenable. So long as people believe in the ulterior difference of the other, and display it when they are anonymous, I do not believe Tutu’s dreams will ever be accomplished. Substantive democracy, real democracy, is so much more than simple law. The “rule of law” does not make democracy. It enforces it. To really be a Rainbow Nation (if such a concept is even plausible) requires that one believe and act in a democratic manner, regardless of whether one is being held accountable for one’s views or not.

We are constantly reminded that our democracy is a young one. Indeed it is. And yes, there is corruption, there is bad spending, and there is misguided policy. These occur behind closed doors. But one cannot critique this situation behind one’s own doors. Until everyone is accountable, until everyone accepts accountability, South Africa’s democracy will continue to operate behind the veil of ignorance. And yes, my name is Simon Howell.