A sweeping wave of ignorance

2010-08-25 00:00

WHEN I joined the African National Congress in 1990, just after it had been unbanned, I did so because in its 1990 manifestation the ANC not only fulfilled the political aims that I and many others had been working towards for 30 years but it also both clearly occupied the moral high ground and had thought many things out in a knowledgeable and sophisticated way. It was streets ahead of any other party on the scene.

The current situation is rather different. The ANC government has achieved much, and many aspects of the country work pretty well because of the success of ANC policies and actions. But, as we all know, there are some big problems. Some of these problems were inevitable; some were not. In this article I want to concentrate on what seem to be areas of ignorance. A good deal of ignorance seems to be swilling around within the current ANC.

An obvious instance of ignorance is Julius Malema. He appears to have considerable power within ANC structures, and a number of ANC leaders defend him anxiously and ponderously; yet many of his outbursts suggest that he has little understanding of the norms of democracy. His whole manner of operating is quintessentially authoritarian. And there has been no evidence that his and the ANCYL’s call for the nationalisation of the mines is based on a solid contemporary awareness of the pros and cons of nationalisation as a national strategy. Jeremy Cronin’s critique of Malema’s views sounds far better unformed. There have of course been suggestions that Malema’s interest in nationalisation may be a more personal one.

But the clearest current example of ANC ignorance is to be found in the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed media appeals tribunal. Anyone with even a slight knowledge of political history knows that legislation of this sort rings alarm bells.

People who live in stable traditional democracies will obviously see these two simultaneous moves as an attempt by the ANC not only to stifle freedom of speech but more particularly to protect itself against criticism. And indeed this is precisely what overseas commentators have been saying. If there are problems with the media — and certainly some of the things that get published need to be severely criticised — these problems should be dealt with by the current means: the ombudsman and, if that doesn’t work, the courts. If the ombudsman’s post isn’t strong enough, then it needs to be strengthened. That could be done in a number of ways. But to introduce repressive legislation, closely mirroring apartheid legislation, and a new threatening tribunal is asking for trouble.

Why didn’t the ANC know this? Why didn’t someone notice at once that the democratic world would view these new moves with dismay? The ANC, or that part of it which is prepared to take the economy seriously, has always combated Afro-pessimism, and has wanted to show that certainly such pessimism is not justified as far as South Africa is concerned. Why didn’t its legal people spot that these innovations would strike the outside world as a clear indication that the ANC is following a common African path of silencing awkward criticism?

Recently, leading ANC people have noted that overseas commentators are beginning to show concern. The ANC people are wrong: foreign commentators saw this immediately and have now been very concerned for a long time. Indeed, South Africa’s reputation as a decently democratic country has been severely dented, and one doesn’t know if the damage can be repaired.

Various ANC leaders, including President Jaco Zuma, have tried to reassure people that these new moves will not interfere with press freedom. All that they say is totally unconvincing. Their belief that they could introduce repressive legislation and cheer people up with a few woolly words, just as the apartheid government always tried to, is another sign of ignorance.

Why has all this happened? The answer appears to be quite simple: because of a wave of ignorance and mindlessness sweeping like a tsunami over the ranks of the ANC.

There are other instances of ignorance. Cabinet members spending state money lavishly on themselves, vast and absurd golden handshakes to the failed CEOs of parastatals, and then the expectation that ordinary workers will accept small salary increases. ANC leaders may be foolish, but many ordinary citizens are not.

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