South Africa is obsessed with agreeing. Perhaps it is an outcome of a political resolve based on sufficient consensus.
Take the case of Deputy Public Protector Kevin Malunga’s public disagreement with Thuli Madonsela over the manner in which she engaged with Parliament.
The media and commentators went ballistic with accusations that Malunga was a stooge deployed by the ANC.
It did not matter that Malunga expressed an opinion about Madonsela’s style and not her content, and that in his letter to Parliament he emphasised the independence of the Public Protector’s office.
Malunga was appointed by Parliament and is therefore, like Madonsela, accountable to the Constitution. He is not Madonsela’s employee, though she is the ultimate head of the institution.
But even if he was not, the obsession with agreeing robs organisations from having as many viewpoints as possible, which could make their decisions better and get buy-in from everyone.
One would have thought that trade union federation Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, who has been under siege from his comrades in the federation for what his detractors call a “political oppositionist” stance, would know better about the debilitating effects of demanding unanimity.
Vavi tweeted: “Looks (like) #thulimadonsela has a new challenge internally – to contradict and weaken her.”
Vavi is deemed oppositionist because he holds a different view to the federation’s president Sdumo Dlamini on the relationship the worker movement should have with the governing party.
In effect, Vavi and Malunga are in the same boat. The only difference is who they are thought to be owing their allegiance to. Both are being forced into self-censorship.
They are both in an invidious position because their alleged handlers cannot even rubbish the claims without this being read by their foes as proof that they are indeed moles working against the interests of the organisations they find themselves in.
Another inconsistency in the Malunga-Madonsela debacle is that many of those who called Malunga a toady tend to call others who contradict their bosses, especially in government or the public sector, the same.
How soon we forget the derision former president Thabo Mbeki faced for being surrounded by yes men and women, who would never contradict the president.
Many of those today labelling Malunga heaped praises on the then former deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge for opposing Mbeki’s stance on HIV/Aids.
I appreciate that perhaps Malunga could have handled the disagreement better and discussed it with Madonsela instead of her finding out about his disagreement the way she did. That, however, is an issue of style rather than of substance.
There is nothing inherently wrong with agreeing with the governing party or disagreeing with it. It is immature and betrays a lack of sophistication to want those whose opinions we don’t like silenced instead of exposing the flaws in their thinking.
The tendency to call those who agree with the state or ruling party sycophants is a form of censorship.
Sycophancy is not, by design, a pro-establishment affliction. It simply means that you have abandoned your responsibility to think.
Those who believe that Malunga or Vavi were out of order for holding and expressing the views they did must be bold enough to state why their thoughts were wrong.
To allege that we are open to ideas that challenge our own and still seek to punish those who express them is akin to Mao Zedong’s dictum: “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” which lured intellectuals and other thought leaders into believing they could express themselves freely, only to end up victims of crackdowns on “dissidents” and sentenced to prison labour camps.