Power wants flattery, not the truth

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“Speak truth to power.” Words we have heard many times and words that the powerful often use to encourage us to demonstrate how fair and democratic they are. Yet when one dares speak truth to power he is met with a full personal verbal violence designed to discredit, disseminate and disable.

The attacks are straight out of the Machiavellian school of thought. To quote from his book, The Prince: “Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared.”

We have seen the response of the government and African National Congress to the words of Nedbank chairperson, Reuel Khoza’s criticism of the government, demonstrated in the way of Jimmy Manyi, and from the ANC, Gwede Mantashe. Reuel Khoza was bludgeoned and bloodied in the press in Machiavellian fashion. The bludgeoning was not just to shut him up, but to ensure that any other capitalist leader who dares speak would suffer the same fate. Unfortunately we know how cowardly capitalists are; they would rather agree with Khoza in private and nod with the government in public.

The ANC never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In this case, they should have missed the opportunity by ignoring the utterances of Khoza. But it could not hold itself back, but took full advantage of its bully pulpit. The ultimate weakness of insecurity is that it is a descending spiral. It confronts those who dare disagree with the weakness of arrogance, mistaking it for strength. The weak applaud and encourage bullying as a show of strength, not knowing they have exposed their weakness. Power in South Africa is devoid of humility.

Khoza had said that South Africans should hold the government to account and that the country is fast losing the checks and balances provided by the constitution, "putative leaders who, due to sheer incapacity to deal with the complexity of 21st century governance and leadership", could not lead. The truth is that the ANC has spoken about the need for the movement to modernise and about developing leaders who will truly represent the values of the African National Congress, not careerists who have no capacity, nor care to deal with the issues of the country, other than the fact that for them, being a comrade is a career and a path towards self-enrichment.

The only difference is that Khoza said the same differently. And the ANC also saw him as an outsider.
I am not advocating that those in power must forever turn the other cheek when criticised, nor am I suggesting that they should never defend themselves when falsehoods are spoken about them. It is the manner in which they respond that needs questioning. We have to question whether they want to see the truth as the citizens see it. If the citizens are incorrect, they ought to be corrected without having to resort to bully tactics. There is no need to respond with personal attacks like schoolgirls fighting over a guy during lunch break.

A few days after Khoza’s comments about the government, Kuseni Dlamini, former CEO of Old Mutual Emerging Markets, wrote a glowing review of the Zuma presidency and said “President Zuma is doing an impeccable job”.

The government said nothing. There were no attacks. Of course. No one in their right minds attacks someone who says something good about them. Whether one knows what is said about them is not entirely true. Our weakness as men allows us to be more accepting of flattery than truth. Truth does not mean disrespect either. For some mistake the harshness of their words as truth. If you speak the truth with the intention to hurt, you must also expect your words not to be listened to. There is an art to speaking the hard truths if one wants to be heard.

It is also true that the truth remains the truth, no matter how it is spoken. And the truth does not change on account of our offense. But how we speak it is the line between being heard or being ignored and discredited.

Unfortunately, power does not want truth, it wants to be flattery. Power does not want criticism, it wants praise. Regardless of how power responds to criticism, those with the means to speak truth to the powerful must continue to do so.

Citizens of any country in the world have a moral obligation to be suspicious of their government. Over and above that, it is not enough to speak truth to power, but we have to question it. It is to be questioned because power is answerable to the people and has power as long as the people will it to have it. So long as the people say nothing, the more powerful and fearful power becomes and the more silent we become. Silence breeds a power that no longer serves those it is meant to serve, but serves itself for its own sake in an unending gluttonous feast.

To criticise the ANC is to be an enemy of the ANC. This mindset ought to change. Some criticise it precisely because they want it to succeed because they know it can do better.

Those in power must not want the truth in their own terms. We have got to speak truth to power for our own sake.

- Follow Khaya on Twitter.

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