Robust protest with respect

2011-11-26 10:26

How did one flawed bill set off such fireworks of racial and political invective?

What national nerve did the debate around the Protection of Information Bill drill down into?

The language was extreme. Flags flew at half-mast over accusations of dying democracy, slippery slopes, low roads.

Opponents of the protest urged objectors to leave, immediately, if they hated the country so much.

Fake lines were drawn. Criticism of the legislation was slated as all white, when patently it was not.

Faith in the country and delight in its progress was fenced off as blacks-only, pro-information-bill- only terrain, and that’s not true either.

Faced with an important national debate, we seemed to fall backwards: conjuring up ghosts of the apartheid past, and fighting them; defaulting to race as the cause of everything.

Setting aside the possible outcomes of the bill itself, the immediate consequences of the path the debate took are damaging: demonising of opponents, political gloom and racial hostility.

Because of our past, any serious debate in South Africa taps into deep wells of anger and fear.

The problem is that when we debate we aren’t just dealing with the past, or even the present. We are setting the ground rules for political engagement far into the future.

When South Africa is governed by a party other than the ANC, how will citizens respond to legislation they disagree with, passed by a majority in an elected Parliament?

We are a very young democracy.

The way we engage with one another now sets the foundation and the pattern for the way we will behave as we move towards democratic maturity.
So let’s learn how to do some of the hard stuff now.

We need to start listening properly to our fellow citizens. Not just listening to pick up more evidence for the prosecution, or to find phrases to confirm our prejudice.

We need to listen with mind and heart for small areas of overlap, of commonality, of possible compromise.

And then we need to define and celebrate the common spaces we find, with the same passion and energy we put into defining our differences.

We need to stop burning bridges. We are a diverse country, with fissures and chasms of difference separating individuals and groups.

We don’t have so many bridges to begin with. Reckless language, careless use of symbols, stereotyping groups and insulting individuals; all of these burn bridges.

We need to find ways of combining robust protest with respect. So that we can carry on talking, and listening, every time the dust settles.

So that respect for the institutions endures, whoever occupies them.

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