Prince Mashele

The year of healthy scepticism

2010-01-18 14:02

In an atmosphere of collective national ecstasy, such as that which has been occasioned by our historic hosting of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, there is temptation to howl at one who interrupts people's hedonistic exuberance by insisting that attention must be given to serious matters. Indeed, it happened to Zarathustra when he tried to speak wisdom to a crown that was waiting anxiously to see the spectacle of a ropedancer. When the entertainment-hungry crowd refused to listen, Zarathustra spoke to his heart thus:

There they stand...there they laugh: they do not understand me, I am not the mouth for these ears. Must one first smash their ears before they learn to hear with their eyes? Must one rumble like kettledrums and preachers of repentance? Or do they only believe a stammerer? (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883)

Indeed, there is not a need to suspect that, in South Africa today, there are people who would behave like the crowd that did not have ears for Zarathustra's mouth of wisdom. Even as many of us will rightfully drown in the excitement of soccer, there is neither a need to rumble like kettledrums nor to yell like preachers of repentance. Our people know how to strike a good balance between pleasure and seriousness. Therefore, there is no need to smash ears, or to invite a stammerer to address our nation.

What, then, is the serious matter from which we must not allow the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup to steal the collective attention of ordinary citizens in our country? The political dramas of 2009 suggest that 2010 must be a year of healthy scepticism.  

When you hear that a president has enlarged the size of his Cabinet in times of economic recession, you should be sceptical to a healthy extent. When you hear that ministers are buying expensive cars while they call upon the rest of society to tighten belts, none will blame you for looking at these ministers with a sceptical eye. When the Auditor General reveals that there are thousands of government employees who, essentially, issue tenders to themselves - and no single public statement of condemnation by government follows such shocking revelations - you need to know that the time for healthy scepticism has come. When in January 2010 the highest office in our land issues a press statement about one man's wives, do not think you are wrong in thinking that there is a circus underway. When suggestions are made that a high-profile prisoner who was released from jail on grounds that can hardly convince the worst of clods will be pardoned, prepare yourself proudly to be called a sceptic.

The healthy scepticism to which we refer is not the kind that arises from the hollowness of gut feelings, but one that is anchored in a sober understanding of the true nature of politics. In other words, our minds are being invited to enter a realm where spades are call spades, not where they are called big spoons. It is an arena where truth is presented without fearing that it might not appear nice when it is naked. When you step into this kind of a world, you will meet very few companions - for human beings who are made of material that can withstand the pummelling blows of the powerful enemies of truth are rarities. As your heart hesitates if such a world exists, your soul will be comforted to know that history’s un-forgetting memory still remembers such agents of political truth as Marquis of Salisbury.  In 1862, Marquis wrote about the "Difficulty of Combining Government by Numbers with Government by the Best Men". He called upon all of us never to pin all our trust on politicians. This is what Marquis truthfully said:

[Politicians] must be checked by constitutional forms and watched by an active public opinion, lest their rightful pre-eminence should degenerate into the domination of a class. ... It is not that there will be any difficulty in filling up their places; there will always be an abundant supply of candidates for power. There are plenty of men whom its pecuniary value will be sufficient to attract. They will not seek it as a public duty, - they will seek it for the pay and for the journey-money, for the good things that come from "lobbying" and for that which sticks to the hands of those who handle contracts. The presence of such motives will always be strong enough to bring together as many candidates for election to legislative or executive office as any constitution may prescribe. But they will not be the material of which statesmen and legislators are made. They will be good electioneerers, clever wire-pullers, smart men to coin the largest gain out of any popular sentiment of the day.

Who among us would say confidently that, in South Africa today, we have not witnessed what Marquis of Salisbury wrote about in 1862? Do we not know of politicians whose spending behaviour suggests that they were attracted to their positions by the good things that come from lobbying? Do we not know of politicians whose conduct is far from that of statesmen and legislators? If you know some, welcome to the world of unpalatable truth!

Fortunately, Marquis proffers a sage advice: politicians "must be checked by constitutional forms and watched by an active public opinion". In the ecstasy of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, we should always keep in mind that we have a collective responsibility constantly to check the behaviour of our un-statesman politicians, lest they will work with those whose hands handle contracts to swindle public resources. We must not allow 2010 to deactivate public opinion, for this might have long-lasting ramifications that will adversely affect our children and grandchildren.

It is conceivable that some politicians might mischievously see our country's historic hosting of the World Cup as an opportunity to drive the nation into a lull; to make us forget problems that will outlast the soccer tournament.  If we allow this to happen, we will render ourselves fit to be likened to the crowd that preferred a ropedancer to Zarathustra's wisdom. As we have already pointed out, there is currently no reason to suggest that South Africans do not have ears for the mouth of wisdom. Thus, none should seek to smash their ears, or to invite a stammerer to address them.

- Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research, and a member of the Midrand Group.

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