Trust and the coal-mine canaries

2008-12-06 00:00

Over the course of a decade, former president Thabo Mbeki depleted the nation’s supplies of it. Acting president Kgalema Motlanthe, in contrast, has done nothing much but appears to have it in spades. African National Congress president Jacob Zuma inspires messianic amounts of it among some and none among others.

It is all about trust, the raw material of politics. Without it even good policies are unlikely to succeed, but when it is plentiful a nation can be inspired to reach beyond the ordinary to achieve the exceptional.

The ANC is mistaken when it confuses electoral support with public trust. A government can have a two-thirds majority, as does the current one, yet crucial sectors might view its actions with distrust, withholding the human and economic commitment necessary for the country’s future growth.

Nothing destroys public trust and engenders cynicism more quickly than being manipulated and lied to by one’s government. And without freedom of opinion, which allows orthodoxy to be challenged and at times defeated, trust cannot exist.

South Africa has a crisis of trust.

The government told us that it had crime under control; it was lying. It said that electricity generation would be adequate for decades to come; it was deluded. That the Aids pandemic would be addressed; it was at best prevaricating.

Now it says that there is no water crisis. It is almost certainly lying through its teeth, unwilling before an election to have to confront yet another inconvenient truth.

Dr Anthony Turton is in the process of parting company with his employer, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), because it muzzled him. It wanted to prevent him presenting a conference paper predicting imminent disaster in the national provision of water.

Whether the scenario he sketches is as imminent or as disastrous as he claims, is arguable. His science may well be flawed; his apparent premise of African incompetence might reflect his years in the security apparatus of the old regime, rather than a current reality.

That surely is for his scientific colleagues and his political adversaries to disentangle through open debate. Peer review is the mechanism through which science controls its practitioners and flawed research is a quick path to ignominy.

Not at the CSIR. After ducking and diving for weeks, the organisation has at last come clean. The reason Turton’s address got the chop was because the organisation was afraid that it would “offend the liberation movement”.

It is a revealing usage. It says everything about the attitude to the nation displayed by the “cadres” that the ANC has “deployed” with such paralysing effect to every high position.

A liberation movement represents its cadres but should it triumph at the polls, it transmogrifies into a government that is supposed to represent everyone. As Barack Obama said on election night: “To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”

A reluctance to offend vested interests is inimical to democracy and is the very antithesis of academic endeavour. The CSIR and the University of KwaZulu-Natal — the management of which is waging its own war against unauthorised thinking — might as well close down if they cannot put freedom of thought and speech before subservience.

Intolerance of opposing views and the cutting down of intellectual space are precursors not only of despotic rule. These are often characteristics of societies that are faltering and will eventually fail.

The CSIR’s Turton and the UKZN’s professors Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg are canaries in a coal mine, warning of danger ahead. We ignore them at our peril.

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