Critics should not be cynics

2011-11-05 10:07

Drawing on the best of a society’s ideals, critics see their vocation as speaking out against the abuse of power.

On the contrary, cynics see no redeeming features in those in positions of power.When possibilities for change are completely closed, then cynicism can be channelled into revolutionary action.

But in democratic societies where formal openings for political participation are merely as an illusion, cynicism can lead to nihilism.

Cornel West describes nihilism as the collective experience of psychological depression, personal worthlessness and wide social despair.

In such circumstances citizens lose their sense of political efficacy, that is, the sense that they can affect the actions of their governments.

This is particularly the case in countries under one-party dominance or rule such as ours. You may have the right to vote but very little sense that you can actually influence anything. In such societies, decisions are made by party leaders and those closely connected to them.

At different stages of our democratic transition, I have found myself dangerously veering towards cynicism, only to be held back by the triumph of our people’s democratic instincts. Thankfully, South Africans, particularly black South Africans, do not take kindly to political bullies.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela represents this long- standing tradition in our political movements.Our democracy would be in safer hands with more people like Madonsela in the governing party.

It is this indefatigable spirit that forced President Jacob Zuma to act on her findings of wrongdoing by Cabinet ministers Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, Sicelo Shiceka and General Bheki Cele.

To be sure, Zuma’s own calculations for political survival would have featured in that response, and he would have received a lift in the popularity stakes.

The good actions of leaders should be rewarded. That is why I do not get the grudging response by some analysts to Zuma doing precisely what they have been asking for – on the grounds that the replacements are poor choices.

But these are two distinct analytic questions – criticism of Zuma on the replacements should not be the basis for withdrawing praise for him for the firings.

And any analyst worthy of the name should be able to hold and deal with those two thoughts at the same time. I think analysts have responded grudgingly because they overestimate their influence.

To be sure, analysts do make a difference, however, they do so by confirming existing public attitudes. Analysts may be the articulators but they are not the cause of the political mood.

Put differently, leaders don’t fail and fall because analysts desire it. They fail because they are often hoist on their own petard.

Thus, despite all the worldly praise bestowed upon him for winning the Second World War, the British people still kicked Winston Churchill out of office.

Similarly, Zuma’s political fate will not be sealed by our granting or withdrawal of praise, but by members of his own governing party on the basis of whether this set of actions is part of a broader trend of democratic accountability or a drop in an ocean of public looting by people close to him.

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