AT first glance, this country’s public debate is a democrat’s dream. On closer inspection, it looks more like a nightmare.
South Africa’s debate seems loud and lively. Its participants – the media, politicians, citizens’ organisations, and the people who use digital media platforms to have their say – are free to criticise those who hold power; they do this with gusto. Their condemnation played a role in the political downfall of a president, Jacob Zuma. Criticising the powerful is crucial in any democracy – as is holding leaders to account. A debate whose participants complain long and often seems to signal that freedom is alive and well.
But a closer look at the debate tells a less optimistic story. In several ways, despite its apparent boldness, it makes the country less able to deal with its problems.
Who is In and Who Is Out
The first and most important problem is that the debate includes only around one third of the population, those who receive income – wages, salaries, profits or pensions – from the formal economy. The remaining two-thirds, who live in townships and shack settlements, may be talked about but are never heard.
This means that the debate centres purely on the concerns of the one-third. Some of its worries, such as power outages or corruption, both favourite themes in the debate, are shared by the majority. But they are issues only because they affect the minority and would be ignored if they did not.
But many of the debate’s concerns are not concerns for the majority. There are many examples of the blind spots which this creates. During the worst period of the Covid-19 epidemic, the debate was obsessed with restrictions on economic and leisure activities – no-one seemed interested in the battles of millions of fellow citizens who placed themselves at risk whenever they boarded a taxi or went to work because they did not enjoy any of the options which the one-third enjoy.
Perhaps the starkest example of the debate’s priorities is that, while getting angry at the government is a national sport for the one-third, the repeated murder of shack dwellers in KwaZulu Natal, allegedly by people linked to the governing party, is a matter of no concern at all. Attention is focussed, rather, on endless disputes between politicians. It is worth reflecting for a moment on what that means: whether former finance minister Trevor Manuel played a role in the formation of a political party, COPE, excites lively comment and heated debate. The possibility that, when shack dwellers exercise their constitutional right, they may be murdered by local power holders who are threatened by them, is met with silent indifference.
Another symptom of the fact that the debate hears only the voices of the one-third is that only some power-holders are held to account – those who hold positions in government. Private power receives far less attention and is often not held to account. The debate has been awash with demands that politicians accused of state capture be imprisoned – you know someone is not to be taken seriously when they repeat the stock cliché that the country’s progress depends purely on how many politicians are forced to wear ‘orange overalls’. But demands that the same fate befall the senior executives who defrauded a major private company, Steinhoff, are muted if they are heard at all. When, at the beginning of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, a major medical insurance company vaccinated well-heeled suburbanites who were not eligible, leaving many who did qualify to take their chances with intensive care units, there was no outcry: on the contrary, they managed to blame their behaviour on the government.
They could do this because they know that the one-third see government as a problem, even when it isn’t, large private corporations as a solution, even when they clearly are not. And so, some companies are free to mistreat customers and workers, to pollute the environment and cause other social harms without being held to account in the same way as politicians are. Holding the powerful to account is of limited value if only some power-holders qualify.
The Benefits of the Jerking Knee
It is open to question whether the loud and fiery discussion really is a debate. Real debates hear a variety of views. Here, only one is heard because other views are simply ignored and those who hold them are dismissed as cranks or fools.
For some time, the debate’s sole preoccupation has been denouncing the government and governing party. There is, of course, much that both do – or do not do – which deserves to be denounced. Government would make no attempt to serve the public better if it wasn’t roundly criticised when it fails citizens. But, if we bear in mind that the governing party, despite a sharp loss of voter support, still represents at least 46% of adults who vote, we would expect at least some of the voices in the debate to support the government. But about the only people who do that are government office-holders or governing party politicians. A debate in which the view of millions of citizens is not heard is not really a national debate at all.
The debate’s ability to hold the government to account is also weakened because government actions are never judged on merit. It seems unlikely that a government which still enjoys the confidence of millions of people has done nothing right in a decade. But anyone in the debate foolish enough to claim that some government actions serve the society is likely to be ridiculed as a stooge. If the current government found a formula for permanent world peace, it would be loudly attacked for selling out the armaments industry. While the government does care what the debate thinks about it, accountability is weakened when public power-holders know that whatever they do will be denounced.
Blaming the government has become a substitute for serious policy debate. In the main, the debate does not discuss how we can fight poverty and inequality, protect citizens, women in particular, from violence and abuse, and create a more workable society. Since all problems are assumed to be the fault of the government, there is no need to discuss these issues.
These factors have ensured that the debate is largely a ritual. Denouncing the government is not meant to achieve changes – it is designed to boost egos by showing that the denouncer is a serious person. This is particularly clear in the broadcast media where ritual denunciation of the government has become a way of attracting attention to already inflated egos rather than shedding light on the society’s realities. But politicians, interest groups and citizens also know that a loud denunciation of the government is a far surer route to respect and esteem than a thoughtful suggestion for tackling the society’s ills. The fact that these rituals if ever make anything work better is irrelevant because that is not what they are meant to do.
Who, Not What
Lack of interest in issues and policies also shows itself in another of the debate’s flaws – its excessive interest in personalities.
For the debate, problems are caused by bad individuals (who are usually in government) and solved by good ones (usually outside it), not by deeply rooted social and economic problems. And so, its ‘solutions’ solve nothing at all. One very current example is the response to Eskom’s failure to meet the country’s power needs. To the extent that there is a debate at all, it centres on whether the chief executive of Eskom or the minister of public enterprises or the minister of energy should be fired. But, while all three should be forced to account, there is no evidence that firing them would end load shedding. And there is little or no debate about what must be done to ensure that everyone enjoys access to power.
The debate is obsessed with ‘leadership’, a word which no longer has any real meaning beyond a cry for help in difficult times. It is assum4es that the country cannot address its problems unless a ‘leader’ emerges who can solve them all. This is hardly a democratic attitude – it sounds more like a justification for a dictatorship. It is also not true. Accountable and effective political leaders can help solve problems and their opposite can cause them. But the idea that deeply rooted problems can disappear as soon as the right Superwoman or man emerges is a symptom of a lack of ideas.
Again, the stress on individual leaders removes the need to talk about the issues – about why problems emerge and what could be done to tackle them. It is far easier to shunt the problem onto a leader who will never emerge than to do hard thinking on solutions.
These realities show that what sounds like the noise of a healthy democracy is, beneath the surface, yet another of obstacles the country will need to overcome to build a democratic society. The debate is far more a problem than a solution.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor, faculty of humanities, department of politics, University of Johannesburg.