Argue about anything, just not my opinion

Xolela Mangcu, Urban Legend, Business Day Weekender, 22 March 2008

I just don’t get it sometimes. For the past decade we have been complaining about how President Thabo Mbeki shut up public debate, marginalised rivals and even punished his critics. The result was a historic rebellion that culminated in his replacement in the African National Congress (ANC) by Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma.

The first thing Zuma does is offer us exactly what we had been asking for: an opening up of the public space and open discussion of heretofore policy certitudes — from the death penalty to labour market policy and affirmative action.

What strikes me about the responses to Zuma’s calls for debate is their schizophrenic nature — whether it’s Congress of South African Trade Unions secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi complaining about threats to change labour laws; or black middle-class folk about affirmative action; or constitutionalists of various types about the death penalty. What they all say, each in their own way, is that you are free to debate every other standpoint except mine.

All of this raises an interesting philosophical question about what constitutes legitimate public policy debate. Certain public policies are such that their moral and factual consequences are beyond debate.

History and human experience demonstrate that racial and religious bigotry is the source of great human suffering and should be outlawed in a democratic society.

So opening up space for public debate does not mean everything goes. You cannot, for example, suggest the extermination of groups of people.

But there are policies about which reasonable people can disagree. These include affirmative action, labour market policy, black economic empowerment and indeed the morality and efficacy of the death penalty in the fight against crime.

To say we cannot debate it because it is in the constitution is not good enough. At one point, the American constitution said black people were not wholly human. There have since been several amendments to that great constitution.

I agree with those who say going back to the death penalty would be a retrogressive step. But debate does something more than settle public policy in one way or another. It gives people a sense that they have been given a chance to voice their opinion. It is just not enough simply to dismiss those calling for the death penalty as an angry mob. The only way you can engage and educate them is through public debate. Self-satisfied moral indignation will also not do. The indignation hides a deeper fear that we may backtrack from our democratic gains.

Debate is thus a risky undertaking. But what is leadership if it is not about managing risk? In the long run it is better to let the people vent their instincts than to suppress them.

We fear debate because we come from a long history of certainties — born of the politics of nationalism. But if our constitution is anything to go by, and if I may paraphrase the famous sociologist, Nathan Glazer, we are all liberals now. We should defend debate — even if it means keeping in mind that not everything goes.

From: http://www.businessday.co.za/Articles/TarkArticle.aspx?ID=3173449

JZ as buffoon helps fools to feel clever

Xolela Mangcu, Urban Legend, Business Day Weekender, 22 March 2008

I sometimes wonder whether the brouhaha about Zuma’s call for debate would have happened if we were dealing with a different leader. I suspect not. The same kind of public musing by someone else would have most likely been described as public brainstorming. We might even be singing the praises of that person as a great intellectual leader.

South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande complained in a Sunday Times article last week that the argument that Zuma is everything to everyone is not fair. Zuma, Nzimande maintains, is merely articulating ANC policy resolutions. All of this is thus part of a deliberate conspiracy by a right-wing conservative media to lampoon his man.

But if I am right that a different leader’s musings would have been received differently, then Nzimande should be more worried. The odds against Zuma are more serious than that. Zuma is dealing with a media that for all intents and purposes filters his messages and antics — and there are many — through its cultural lens.

This media is populated by mostly university-educated, westernised, capitalist types who are too happy to present Zuma as a buffoon. It makes us all feel clever. If you haven’t seen how clever we want to feel, then see how we pretend to find great profundity in Mbeki’s most inane comments. Unfortunately, there is nothing Nzimande can do to change this social makeup of the media — short of sending us all to Siberia or initiating some Maoist cultural revolution. The next best thing may well be to set up a media tribunal.

Unlike many of my colleagues in the media, I am not that perturbed by the idea of a tribunal. I can see how it can get the SABC to fine-tune its content. But I also look forward to seeing what the tribunal would do to get the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera to change their content to suit its stipulations. What would our government do if they did not play along? Jail or banish them from SA?

And how, perhaps, might that enhance our reputation as an open and democratic society? Or have we got to a point where we don’t care any more?

From: http://www.businessday.co.za/Articles/TarkArticle.aspx?ID=3173550

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