Protocol is not despotism

2014-03-10 00:00

IN his epic political satire theWizard of the Crow, Kenyan author Ngugi wa’Thiong’o writes about a fictional Republic of Aburiria, which is ruled by a larger-than-life despot who gets so power drunk that an idea is conjured up to build the world’s tallest building in order for him to climb to heaven so he can speak to God every morning.

The ruler, as he is deferentially known, is intent on pursuing this quixotic grand plan in spite of grinding unemployment besetting the republic.

Not to be outdone, his cabinet is not only conceited, but has gone completely bananas, to the extent that they undergo plastic surgery in Europe to have light-bulb-size eyes and forearm-length ears so as to be the eyes and ears of the country.

When I read Mayibongwe Maqhina’s comment (The Witness, March 4) in which he decries the elevation of political heads of departments to the “status of demi-gods”, I was reminded of this satirical work by one of Africa’s greatest writers.

It also became clear to me that, according to Mr Maqhina, our provincial cabinet is not only populated by a narcissistic lot, but they have surrounded themselves with fawning officials who are only too eager to please their masters at the drop of the proverbial hat.

But truth is stranger than fiction. Before one responds to the many twisted misconceptions peddled as truth in Mr Maqhina’s analysis of public representatives, it is important to state that Mr Maqhina is free to not observe state protocol if he wishes.

If he feels that he has no business standing up when an MEC arrives at a function, no one will force him to do so. After all, we live in a democracy, which gives him the right to disregard state protocol. Besides, I have never seen journalists being asked to observe state protocol. But to claim that state protocol is observed for “stoking some politicians’ self-importance and making them appear to be a breed apart” is simply, to put it politely, mischievous.

This presupposes that MECs or public representatives have themselves invented protocol in order to massage their inflated egos. For starters, an MEC or a mayor is elected to hold public office and to be a servant of the state, and to respect its attendant rules, including state protocol. By virtue of the office they hold, decorum and respect is not accorded to them personally, but to the position they have been entrusted with by the public.

As such, they are expected to carry themselves in a particular way and those with whom they interact are expected to reciprocate the gesture. In this regard, no matter how much aversion we have for individuals who are public representatives, we should, at the very least, treat the office they represent with a modicum of respect. Secondly, protocol, much as Mr Maqhina would like us to believe, was not invented by this democratic government, but is observed all over the world where state affairs are involved.

Protocol and etiquette are “social lubricants” that provide the basic rules of engagement and conduct between, in this case, those who are elected into public office or those who are involved in diplomacy, and the people. It provides the guidelines of behaviour, in much the same way that Mr Maqhina is expected to knock at the door of his editor’s office to announce his arrival, as opposed to just barging in unannounced.

In KwaZulu-Natal, for example, when the praise singer of the Zulu king, His Majesty King Goodwill ka Bhekuzulu, is praising the king, men are expected to stand up as a sign of respect, while women have to remain seated.

Similarly, when you are in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, there is a long list of protocol that even heads of state have to abide by.

What is galling about Mr Maqhina’s assertion is the unspoken implication that some of those who are elected in our country, because of reasons known to Mr Maqhina, are not worthy of our respect, not even their offices. It is only in South Africa that a government that is elected with a landslide majority is perennially portrayed, particularly in the media, in a manner that suggests that it has a crisis of legitimacy.

Mr Maqhina further states, with a tinge of chilling forewarning, “that a dictatorship never announces its arrival with parading drums and majorettes on the streets”. The subtext here is that if protocol is not rooted out, we are on the cusp of despotism. Never mind that we have one of the most vibrant civil societies in the world, a free press, an independent judiciary, and hold regular free and fair elections.

Criticism is the lifeblood of a democracy, but contemptuous disregard for a legitimately elected government is another thing. A supine media that bends over backwards to please those who are in power is not in the interest of anyone. But when we level criticism as journalists, given the power of our pens, we must not only be textured and nuanced, we must also avoid the tendency of following the dominant script.

• Bheko Madlala is the spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development and Tourism.

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