Burnett and van Onselen: the great South African nondebate, indeed (1)

Gareth van Onselen (columnist in Business Day, and previously a senior member of the Democratic Alliance staff) and Scott Burnett (PhD candidate at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies) have been involved in an interesting exchange of views on the topic of race, and on the function race plays in South African political discussions.

There have, at this point, been two contributions from each of them. Gareth van Onselen’s (GvO) initial column carried the headline “The great South African nondebate“, and – if one were to focus only on Burnett’s response, it is indeed a nondebate, in that I think Burnett mischaracterises GvO’s column, and thus fails to respond to its argument.

GvO says as much in his response-to-the-response, but I’d like to offer my own reasons why I think this is the case rather than rely on GvO’s. I want to do so because Burnett’s first column has attracted a fair bit of praise from many friends and acquaintances, especially from those who regularly offer commentary on social justice issues in South Africa.

I think those people are not being sufficiently attentive to what GvO is saying, and that some of them – Burnett in particular – are misreading him completely, and in doing so, simply proving his point.

This post is but a prologue, in that it will be long enough if I simply lay some groundwork, rather than focusing on the arguments themselves. I’ll be focusing on the first two parts of the exchange in the first follow-up post, hopefully this week, and then later offer some thoughts on the second set of columns.

There are two obvious impediments to reading GvO charitably. The first is in the claim or implication that he’s irredeemably tainted by being (variously) a previous Communications Director at the DA and a staunch liberal. A more infrequent but equally ad hominem response might imply that being male or white is a handicap to his thinking (or at least, understanding).

The second is perhaps exactly part of what GvO’s column was claiming, which is that every discussion on South African politics is somehow faulty (or considered incomplete) unless it ticks certain rhetorical and moral boxes. A white South African has to profess understanding of systemic discrimination, the lingering (and still strong) effects of cultural capital and so forth before they can be regarded as a sincere interlocutor.

This amounts to a small, but not trivial, bar to fair argument regarding other aspects of South African political discourse. It should be permissible to highlight certain issues without your views on other issues being assumed, simply because you don’t account for them.

It is not implausible to me that so-called “virtue signalling” has become almost obligatory in South African political debates, and the “problem” with GvO is that he’s far more interested in the argument in the abstract than in cataloguing how he, as an individual, is “guilty” or “not guilty” of various sins.

The second impediment to reading him charitably is thus that he can appear more unsympathetic to certain issues (systemic discrimination, for example) than he might actually be. I’ve had these sorts of arguments myself, where I’m assumed to have view x because I speak in the abstract and detached language of philosophy, rather than foregrounding the subjective realities of the people I’m talking about (including myself).

Thanks to having it pointed out to me, I now know that if I want to be understood (and not have various motives misattributed), I might need to say things in a different way. But, this is an issue of rhetorical strategy – it says nothing about the content of my views.

With the above as prologue to comment on the actual arguments of their respective pieces, I’d encourage you to read them both (again, for some), carefully and objectively. Sorry for the tease, but for now, I’ll leave it there.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.