Prince Mashele

Rescuing the truth

2009-08-24 12:10

In his Autobiography, globally acclaimed philosopher Bertrand Russell narrates a story of his university experience when he was a second year student, back in 1891:

The greatest happiness of my time at Cambridge was connected with a body whom its members knew as "The Society’".. This was a small discussion society, containing one or two people from each year on the average, which met every Saturday night. ... It was a principle in discussion that there were to be no taboos, no limitations, nothing considered shocking, no barriers to absolute freedom of speculation. (2000: 65)

In 2009, it would indeed be strange to have someone trying to take South Africa back to 1891, when members of "The Society" agreed on how to conduct their discourse. But it would also be shocking if there were to be people in our country today who would disagree with "a principle in discussion that there [is] ... to be no taboos, no limitations, nothing considered shocking, no barriers to absolute freedom of speculation."

However, we aught to do justice to those who prefer taboos and limitations by calling them what they really are: enemies of intellectual freedom. Having been just, we then need to be so responsible as to protect our children from the infectious influence of these enemies, by encouraging our kids to be rigorous and uncompromising when they analyse reality.

But how are our children to take us seriously if we ourselves do not practise what we preach to them? This troubling question is rendered urgent by the media reports that we have been fed with regarding President Jacob Zuma's first 100 days in office. Most of the journalists who manufactured the reports were, frankly, dancing on eggs! They failed to tell the truth as it is, and rather chose to package Zuma in accordance with how they thought South Africans wished to view him.

Because our journalists were concerned with how people wanted to receive truth about the President, truth itself became an unfortunate casualty. Relying on "The Society's" principle of intellectual honesty and freedom, let us consider how truth about Zuma's first 100 days in office was victimised brutally by journalists.

Journalists' failure

Our journalists did not do justice to society; they failed disappointingly to tell us that Zuma's first blunder was to reengineer Cabinet first and think later.  

As a matter of top priority, let us deal with the curious implications of expanding a Cabinet when our economy is in recession already. You don't need to be an American trained leading public intellectual to know that when you are broke, you dig yourself out of your predicament principally by cutting costs. Taking over the reigns when South Africa was broke (and thousands of our people were losing jobs), President Zuma decided to increase costs by creating new ministries, instead of doing what logical people would do. Most certainly, these Ministers and their officials will not offer their services for free; their salaries will come from a shrunk revenue base. We should not forget that Zuma's administration has told us that it is already short of R60bn.

Interestingly, the President created new departments he himself did not know what they would look like. When announcing the reengineered Cabinet on that historic Sunday, Zuma told the nation that details would follow latter. As you read this column, you still do not know details about new and split departments.

Even without the details, we can already reflect on the logical handicaps of a sample of the newly created departments. Let's begin right in the Union Buildings, where the President's elevated chair is. There we have two ministries: the one responsible for national planning, and the other, which monitors and evaluates implementation. The ministry that plans does not monitor and evaluate the implementation of its plan, and the evaluator is not involved in planning. The broken-record-like response that departments don't work in silos has become too trite to be taken seriously. Would it not have made sense to have one ministry in the Presidency that plans, monitors and evaluates the implementation of the plan it would have developed?

The economic cluster of ministries is a clear recipe for turf wars and conflation of roles, which will play themselves out longer than Zuma's tenure. The idea that the Department of Economic Development (DED) will do the thinking and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is only there to implement is based on the assumption that those at DTI are incapable of thinking. That the supposedly thoughtless people (at DTI) will, in practice, heed the instructions of the thoughtful ones (at DED) appears very doubtful.

The rescue plan that the President has announced in response to the economic recession is nothing more than painkillers that do not heal the actual wound. What can a three-months training programme do to end the misery of a retrenched worker? Also, all literate South Africans know that the 500 000 jobs that Zuma has promised to create by December will not happen.

Does the govt have enough money?

When all the socialist twaddle and glib rhetoric are done, one question will arise: Ladies and gentlemen, does government have enough money? This is the question Pravin Gordan will always pause to his fellow socialists in cabinet. Only God knows how our clever communists will respond.

While it is correct to prioritise rural development, the newly created Department of Rural Development (DRD) is set to become another useless department. There is a rural village in Mpumalanga called Agincourt; that, before 1994, did not have water, electricity and RDP houses. Thanks to the ANC-led government, this village now has water, electricity and RDP houses. But these were brought to Agincourt by the then Departments of Water Affairs and Forestry; Mining and Energy; and Housing.

When the newly created Department of Rural Development approaches a rural village in the middle of nowhere, will it provide water, electricity and RDP houses? Or will it set up factories in Agincourt to create jobs for the reservoir of jobless, frustrated and alcohol-soaked youths in that God-forsaken rural village? Will this revolutionary department be the distributor of food parcels; the constructor of roads; the educator of children; or the messenger of technology?

Now that the President has created a new Department of Women, Children and People with Disability (DWCPD), other government departments seem blessed with a beautiful excuse that gender, child- and disability-related issues are no longer their responsibility. Or is the DWCPD our new police officer to "monitor and evaluate" the performance of other departments on such issues - a role that Minister Collins Chabane is meant to perform? What exactly will this seemingly powerful department do in society, and how? Only Lucifer knows the new role of the Gender Commission, which is established on the basis of Chapter 9 of our celebrated Constitution?

First blunder

Now that we have considered a sample of how our journalists have victimised the truth regarding President Zuma's first blunder in office, we should proceed further to look at how Zuma has dealt with critical governance issues. As we do that, we aught to remember that we are still borrowing from the 1891 "principle in discussion that there [is] ... to be no taboos, no limitations, nothing considered shocking, no barriers to absolute freedom of speculation."

Where our journalists were correct is in their assessment of the President's performance regarding nation building. Zuma's strongest point is Mbeki's underbelly: the ability to communicate with ordinary people, and never to pray that God exterminates all critics of the President. In his next life, Mbeki will have to learn how to relate to Shakespeare and plebeians at the same time. Since he took office, Zuma has met with school principals, Quakers, FW de Klerk, journalists, political analysts - the list is indeed very long. He has appeared at soccer and cricket games, and he visited Balfour to listen to livid locals. Although all of these people got nothing from Zuma, they are certainly delighted that they touched the garment of a president.
 
But there are a number of areas in which President Zuma's performance is already questionable. While he has identified five priorities in his first State of the Nation Address, the President was unable thematically to capture the mood of the nation and provide clear leadership. In 100 days, nobody knows what is the guiding theme or philosophy of our government. Is it the ANC's election campaign message: "Together we can do more"?

If yes, the President may need further briefing on how to articulate it better and to read speeches in a manner that keeps people awake. When he was asked recently on Metro FM, how he would like to be remembered, he said he would like to be remembered as a ‘humble and simple’ man. In other words, our President prefers to lie buried in ordinariness; where there is no difference between a president and Neanderthals. Can you imagine if Metro FM were to pause the same question to Barack Obama?

Foreign policy failure

Other than visiting Balfour, President Zuma was conspicuous by his silence when our country was burning under wage and service delivery protests. The only thing we saw was an SABC news clip in which Zuma ditheringly condemned violence. In situations of national anxiety, citizens want to be inspired by a president who appears confident and in charge! The fact that some among us even ask as to who is actually running South Africa should perhaps worry our President.

The most glaring area of gross underperformance is foreign policy. In 100 days, the President did not deliver a single important speech clearly articulating the contours of South Africa’s foreign policy under his leadership.  He said a few things here and there, and posed for pictures with this or that foreign leader. This is not foreign policy! Suddenly, Zuma jetted out to Angola - but nobody offered a coherent explanation as to why Angola first. That Angola has oil and has supported the ANC during the liberation struggle we all know, but is this the philosophy of our ‘new’ foreign policy?

Before you smash your computer screen for making you read a long and unforgiving appraisal of President Zuma's first 100 days in office, remember Cambridge University in 1891 where "It was a principle in discussion that there were to be no taboos, no limitations, nothing considered shocking, no barriers to absolute freedom of speculation."

- Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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Read more on:    pravin gordhan  |  jacob zuma
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