OPINION | In a democracy, all voices should be heard

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A view of the Union Buildings PHOTO: Gallo images
A view of the Union Buildings PHOTO: Gallo images

Zamokwakhe Somhlaba writes that he is concerned that government only appears to engage certain industries on policy matters.

While delivering a Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in November 2004, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu made this important call to government:

"We need to find ways in which we engage… the people in public discourse.., so that no one feels marginalised and their point of view counts, it matters. We should debate more openly... We should not be browbeaten by pontificating decrees from on high".

In the context of this call, then-president Thabo Mbeki correctly stated that one of the fundamental requirements for engaging in a rational discussion is familiarity with the facts pertaining to the matter under discussion, and respect for the truth.

It is a matter of common cause that democracy is premised on the freedom of opinion that is reflected through open criticism and debates. However, there are worrying trends in South Africa, where the government has refused to engage and deliberately ignored the voices of various stakeholders in its decision making or policy formulation.

This worrying trend was acutely amplified by the government’s execution of the National State of Disaster and the implementation of a national lockdown as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. At times, government decisions were irrational and saw attempts by industries to engage government on practical solutions to the pandemic rebuffed.

Recently, after initially barring travel from most countries outside of the African continent, Cabinet revised down the number of Covid-19 high risks countries, whose citizens are allowed into the country for leisure purposes, in an effort to respond to some of the concerns raised by the tourism industry.

High-risk countries

The list of high-risk countries will be revised regularly, using what government calls a risk categorisation model, which on careful scrutiny, does not look to have a sound basis.

In a series of media interviews, the Minister of Home Affairs could not adequately explain how the decision to retain the 22 countries in the high-risk category was arrived at, except to state that government had to consider its own capacity to monitor compliance with Covid-19 protocols at the ports of entry.

It remains unclear what special capacity requirement there is to talk about to monitor compliance by a traveller from the UK, Russia or Argentina that is different from a traveller from Kenya or Nigeria.  Like many before, this decision comes across as a product of a thumb-sucking exercise.

Overzealous bureaucrats have used the opportunity presented by the National State of Disaster to resuscitate the war on the so-called "sin industries", specifically the alcohol and tobacco industries, with the infant vaping industry becoming collateral.

For instance, the debate on Gender Based Violence (GBV) and reckless social behaviour is now mostly centred around alcohol abuse, ignoring the deeper socio-economic constructs of our communities.

Sadly, government is not engaging the industries sufficiently to find a common ground to addressing these challenges, perceived or real, brought about by the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. For government, the solution simply is overregulation.

The vaping industry made a case to government to consider permitting the sale of Electronic Vaping Products (EVPs) during the stringent levels of the national lockdown, without success.

Government was not willing to lend an ear to the industry, owing to its perception regarding the industry’s link to the tobacco industry.

The vaping industry, mainly made up of small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), was made to suffer, despite there being no credible evidence linking vaping to the exacerbation of Covid-19 symptoms.

At the same time, government has been very keen on listening to and engaging anti-tobacco lobby groups on their opposition to vaping. The Department of Health has flatly refused to engage the vaping industry, without any reasonable explanation.

This goes against the spirit of democracy, where everyone deserves to be heard.

Mockery of public discourse

It is important to highlight that, in generating any new knowledge that should enable us as a country to change and move forward, we should be cognisant of the need for an all-inclusive dialogue predicated on openness and transparency; for no single person or organisation has all the answers.

The recollection of the observations by Tutu and Mbeki in 2004 is intended to highlight a particular defect in the manner in which government, and in this case the Department of Health, elects to treat those who hold a different view.

There is everything untoward in refusing to engage others simply because you do not agree with them, especially as a democratic government. This makes a mockery of our public discourse. But most importantly, government cannot meaningfully engage or lead a discourse if it is not familiar with the facts pertaining to the matter under discussion.

It is thus necessary that government makes every effort to listen to other views as well, instead of resorting to the pursuit of a narrow ideology.

- Zamokwakhe Somhlaba is a research and political risk advisory manager.

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