Discourse of Disillusion

unnamedBy Paul Pereira

This time next year we may well think we’ve been through the tumbledryer. For this is an election year, and that’s when South Africans know exactly how to be extreme in our simplicity. It will be a year of two distinct moods.

First off will the months-long build-up to the vote, an event causing markets to wobble, and some folk to fear a cataclysm. Yet it will end as the reassuring, well-ordered habit we “fledgling democrats” have long mastered.  The lead-up will include all manner of bombast, with Nkandla-esque horror at thoughts of another Zuma term, or tokoloshe-type scares of the return of baasskap should the alternatives succeed. And the sky will remain firmly above.

After the ballot, there’ll be gushing of goodwill and of new beginnings across the land. “Nothing will be the same”, as we all pledge to work to the common good. Etcetera. This will be the year’s second half, on cue, and very South African. But much damage to our sense of politics can happen, with lasting effect.

For one, there is the seemingly growing disillusionment with politics as whole, politicians in particular. How often is it heard that “all politicians are crooks”, and how often is it that all bad news is accepted, any good news sceptically dismissed? We’ve come to a point where politicians are accorded as little respect as second-hand car salesmen, estate agents and, yes, journalists.

This must partly have to do with an adversarial culture where debate gives way to stigmatisation, and smear, a phenomenon no doubt accelerated by the temptation to sound bites found on social media. Indeed, the constant “outrage” found on these wholly unrepresentative platforms are some regarded by some as true barometers of public feeling, rather than the thoughtless thoughts of a fraction of the chattering classes.

We are not alone with this – the US leads the way, as it often does. In her seminal 1998 study, “The Argument Culture – Stopping America’s War of Words”, author Deborah Tannen notes that “Because of the belief that fights – and only fights – are interesting, any news or informational item that is not adversarial is less likely to be reported”. 

This carries through how we approach court cases, sports commentary, talent shows, politics. Yet politicians are the ones who make the law. If we want moral and just law, we need to encourage people of goodwill to undertake the public service that entering the political domain entails, and we should recognise that such people exist in all our parties, as they do – or else only those whose intentions are for brigandage and bossiness will bother to play that great game. The same applies to the civil service in its many forms.

Right now, though, we’ve talked ourselves into a disillusion that isn’t always matched by the facts. Most of the fundamentals of success are solid in South Africa, and the lot of our poorer citizens has improved more in the last 20 years than at any other time in our history. They’re people; it matters.

Yet almost one-in-four aren’t sure that they’ll vote; business confidence has fallen every year since 2010; and only 46% of people think the country is “going in the right direction” (down from 56% in 2000). Some of this is the result of facts, but surely much of it comes from a lazy discourse that wills us to fail.    

– First published in The Citizen, 13 February 2014.