The Erasmus judgement on Makhaza

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The Erasmus judgement in the Makhaza toilet case, handed down on Friday last week, makes for depressing reading, as would the details of the lives and conditions of most poor South Africans. The judgement itself contains a hint of this, where (in section 136), an affidavit related to the City of Cape Town’s counter application is excerpted, in which Thembisa Princess Sokabo tells us that:

The toilets we have in Nkanini (i.e. the one to five households toilets) are generally in an appalling state, notwithstanding the City’s attempt to maintain same, to the extent that members of the community generally do not use them. They are always blocked and filthy, and are not appropriate for human use. Due to the fact that they are communally owned, people do not take responsibility and personal pride in them. Not only are the toilets filthy and unsafe, but they are a health hazard to people in general and to children in particular as they have burst pipes which are overflowing with faeces.

Despite the fact that many South Africans are forced to live in sub-optimal, unhygienic, and sometimes even degrading conditions, Makhaza has become one of the focal points of debate around service delivery in the Cape. By extension, Erasmus’s Makhaza judgement has rapidly become a stick that Tony Ehrenreich is using to argue that the ANC would do a better job than the DA of defending the interests of the poor.

This could well be true, although we should remember that the ANC has already had a chance to champion the interests of the poor in the Cape. But while the ANC’s return of 45% of the vote in 2004, along with the 11% of votes garnered by their partners (the New National Party) in that election, brought them to power in the Province, their support dwindled to 32% in the 2009 election. If we are to take the notion of democracy seriously, this indicates that voters wanted to give someone else a chance to govern, and exercised their right to vote correspondingly.

That was of course a different time, and the fact that the ANC lost control of the Cape can’t demonstrate that an ANC government in 2011, and Ehrenreich as Mayor of Cape Town, won’t do better than previous incumbents. The chaotic nature of ANC politics in the Western Cape, along with floor-crossing and the death (and now, zombified re-animation) of the NNP – not to mention the short history of democracy in South Africa – make trends difficult to pin down.

None of these complications should however obscure the fact that there is a difference between fact and fiction – and in particular the kind of fiction that emerges in the run-up to elections, when selective factual details are plucked out of context and presented as damning evidence for a fiction. In this case, the fiction in question is that the DA government in the Western Cape is somehow at war with the poor, based on the ‘fact’ that they constructed unenclosed toilets in Makhaza.

Except, they didn’t – or at least didn’t intend to. What they did try to do was to collaborate with the residents of Silvertown to ensure that they all had enclosed toilets, by spending their budget on providing the toilets and plumbing connections, while trusting the assurances of the community that they would build their own enclosures where necessary. This plan failed, and cynics could argue that it was always likely to fail, or that the demands of dignity for the residents required that this detail not be left in the residents’ hands in the first instance.

Of course, we can never know whether the residents would have built their own enclosures, because the City of Cape Town eventually resolved to provide these for the 3% of residents who had not built them for themselves. And then, as we should also remember, they were prevented from doing so by the repeated destruction of the enclosures by the ANC Youth League.

You could argue that the DA has been somewhat naïve in their approach to this issue, as they undoubtedly were in the case involving the delisting of the Sowetan journalist, Anna Majavu. There is evidence of such naïveté, in that this was a relatively predictable PR disaster.

In the context of the South African sensitivity to class divisions and poverty, an approach which involved a relative absence of paternalism (here, in which services are provided in partnership with the community) was clearly risky. Any failure, at any link in the chain leading to enclosed toilets for all, would always have been spun as a failure on the part of the DA, with the roles of other agents ignored or elided. Worse yet, any protestations of good will on the part of the DA can immediately be spun as further evidence of callous neglect.

Sadly, the safest strategy may well be to do the bare minimum – and also to do it in a way which minimises the chances of failure, by swooping in and delivering from on high rather than by attempting to involve communities in their own upliftment. If this is the lesson that Ehrenreich or the ANC want the DA to learn, they might well have succeeded.

But in doing so, they could well have simultaneously built a rod for their own backs, because the inflamed rhetoric surrounding the Makhaza judgement makes it appear no less than a capital crime to leave toilets unenclosed, regardless of the circumstances leading to that eventuality. According to Jackson Mthembu, the unenclosed toilets show a “total disrespect for black dignity”, and demonstrate that the DA “is a racist political party”. In fact, the “Makhaza judgment remains a chilling reminder showing on whose side Zille and his [sic] bunch of racist lackeys are on”.

In light of this strong reaction, as well as the claim from Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka that unenclosed toilets would never be tolerated under ANC governance, what are we to make of the unenclosed toilets in the informal settlement of Rammulotsi, in the ANC-run Moqhaka municipality – some of which have been unenclosed since 2001? Or those in Kwadabeka, outside Pinetown in the eThekwini municipality, where the ANC garnered 67.52% of the vote in 2009?

Perhaps the real lesson here is the reminder that in politics – and especially, in the weeks running up to an election – facts sometimes simply stop mattering. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be this way, and perhaps increasing numbers of citizens are starting to realise that the truth doesn’t always correspond to the claims made in political speeches, especially when those speeches concern the actions of competing political parties.

Let’s hope so, because as with all decisions, those made while voting should be informed by the facts, rather than by faith. And Makhaza is one settlement, in one Province, in one (mostly poor) country. We should ideally cast our votes for who we think will do the best for that country in the long-term, and not simply based on caricature, and misrepresentation of those facts.

The ANC’s election strategy: Blackmail

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

One way of thinking about the upcoming local government elections is as a session of couples’ therapy. While some disaffected voters are frequenting their local singles bar, either genuinely unattached or maybe ‘just looking’, and others are actively fleeing a situation they quickly realised they simply couldn’t cope with, many voters are still trying to make their current relationship work.

The ANC might hope that the (roughly) 66% of votes it attracted in the municipal elections of 2006 came from South Africans who remain committed to that particular relationship. But from the outside, where I find myself, it is sometimes difficult to understand why that might be the case, as the relationship seems increasingly one-sided, and sometimes even abusive.

This is not to say that it can’t be fixed, if both parties put the effort in. And perhaps the relationship is simply undergoing a short-term wobble – a 17-year itch of sorts. But when one party in a relationship – the voter – is treated with the sort of contempt occasionally displayed by people representing the ANC, it seems entirely appropriate to question whether both remain equally committed to making the relationship work.

In February, President Zuma told us that when “you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people”. As Sipho Hlongwane correctly pointed out, statements like these seem little more than diversionary tactics, intended to distract attention from dysfunctional local municipalities, corruption and the like. As per those oft-misunderstood and abused lines from Marx, religion is here meant to serve as the resigned ‘sigh of the oppressed creature’, and an opiate for the masses.

Beyond the cynicism of exploiting the religious beliefs of your citizens to retain votes, Zuma’s statement was also a lie. Not only a lie from within the belief system he was appealing to (for where in the Christian Bible does one find God’s endorsement of the ANC?), but also a lie from outside of those beliefs, in that it is telling voters that factors besides government performance should determine which boxes you cross on May 18.

Jackson Mthembu responded to the criticism resulting from Zuma’s statement by telling us that it was neither blasphemous, nor to be taken seriously. “South Africans – both black and white – fully understand the use of figurative expressions”, Mthembu said, after which he pointed out that those perturbed by this statement “are probably driven by jealousy for not having thought of the expression themselves”.

© 2010 Zapiro (All rights reserved)
Printed with permission from www.zapiro.com
For more Zapiro cartoons visit www.zapiro.com

These are probably also lies. With approximately 73% of South Africans self-identifying as Christians, and in a country where many outside of the middle and upper classes still take sangomas seriously, the claim that we all fully understand the distinction between literal and figurative speech is difficult to read as anything but an attempt at damage-limitation, where an apology and a retraction would have been more appropriate.

It’s also worth pointing out that the majority of eligible voters in the upcoming elections still came through a system where educational resources were unequally deployed, and – regardless of how well or how poorly you think we’re being educated today – would probably not have been taught that references to eternal damnation by Presidents should not be taken seriously.

Mthembu’s jealousy statement is also likely to either be dishonest (or simply naïve), in that we can well imagine other political parties as being capable of imagining ways to threaten voters into supporting them. The difference, of course, is that they would usually choose to spend their time more productively, or failing that, to not deploy those threats at all. The ACDP is of course the exception here, given that they seem to think that God wants to micro-manage all aspects of our lives.

Tony Ehrenreich, the likely mayoral candidate for the ANC in Cape Town, also exploited voters with a similar lie on March 6, when he told a community meeting that they needed to choose whether they wanted to be “on the side of justice” (by voting ANC), or “on the side of the devil”, which is what a vote for the DA (specifically Helen Zille) would apparently amount to. Zille must therefore be a satanic monkey, if you put Ehrenreich’s statement alongside one of Malema’s recent outbursts, in which he asserted that Zille would not be out of place in a simian dancing troupe.

But just in case not all voters are Christians, and therefore aren’t fearful of Satan or his monkey-minions, Malema recently upped the ante by telling us that not only would a vote for anyone other than the ANC send you to hell, it would also contribute to the death of a flesh-and-blood icon, Nelson Mandela. You would, in effect, be committing murder – perhaps even something like patricide – by voting for the for an opposition party.

Last week, Malema told the crowd at a Port Elizabeth rally that “President Mandela is sick and you don’t want to contribute to a worsening condition of Mandela by not voting ANC. President Mandela will never endure if the ANC is out of power”. Just as with Zuma and Ehrenreich’s statements (and, probably, similar ones made at smaller and unreported gatherings), no apologies or retractions are forthcoming, even though these statements amount to treating voters with utter contempt.

Contempt, because they don’t treat voters as capable of making choices based on genuine political issues, such as service delivery or which up-and-coming dictators we plan to supply weapons to next. Instead, voters are simply treated as a means to the end of retaining power – which is why this relationship is dysfunctional.

If you find yourself in a relationship where persuasion occurs through emotional blackmail rather than appeal to evidence or mutual interest, then the chances are good that the relationship is an abusive one. Emotional blackmail uses fear or guilt to create the impression that you have no choice but to go along with the abusers’ wishes – yet elections are meant to be all about choice, not about threats and intimidation.

At a certain point in such a relationship, friends and family would no doubt counsel you to cut your losses, and end things before more harm is done. We’re often reluctant to do so – not only because of genuine commitment or affection, but also because of cognitive biases involving escalation of commitment (in extremis, as typified in Stockholm syndrome). So instead, we might try to make it work, and give the abuser one more chance.

And this is of course our choice, and our right. We should however remember to try and not be distracted by threats and accusations. Perhaps, we should also remember how it works in other relationships, where claims of contrition and a desire to change require evidence – or at least an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

Postscript: On the day this column was published, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe announced that they would not be announcing the names of mayoral candidates until after the election (except in Cape Town, where Cosatu has forced their hand. It’s a question of trust, I guess they might say. Others might say it’s evidence of confusion and disorganisation, and disregard for the interests of voters.

Media freedom is not a black-and-white issue

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

I would hope that regular readers are by now in no doubt as to my commitment to the freedom of the press, and free speech in general, and that the following therefore doesn’t give anyone the idea that I’ve been offered a government contract. As I’ve frequently argued in these pages, no idea should be granted the status of being sacred or outside of the realm of criticism. It’s a legal defense – not a principled or philosophical one – to assert that something is enshrined in the Constitution (for example). The possibility is always open for the Constitution to be wrong on some issue, or for it to provide an inefficient mechanism for safeguarding and promoting goals that we agree are desirable. Continue reading “Media freedom is not a black-and-white issue”

Responsible reporting: At what cost?

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Free speech is not the only value that democratic societies subscribe to. Nor does, or should, our commitment to free speech always have to trump competing values such as national security or personal dignity. But the principle of free speech nevertheless stands in need of exceptional, and exceptionally strong, counterarguments in cases where we are told that it is not permissible to broadcast or publish any particular point of view.

This commitment to an open marketplace of ideas rests on the belief that each person should have access to the points of view in circulation, so that he or she is able to exercise their right to moral independence by considering the ideas themselves. As Mill reminds us, compromising free speech costs us both the opportunity to hear things that are true, which can help to correct errors; and also to hear things that are false, where the truth is strengthened by “its collision with error”. Continue reading “Responsible reporting: At what cost?”

Mandela’s autopsy

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

Yiull Damaso’s painting of an imagined autopsy of Nelson Mandela has provoked outrage similar to that generated by Zapiro’s recent Mohammed cartoon. The outrage is similar in its severity, and unfortunately also similar in its knee-jerk thoughtlessness. Most troubling, the similarities extend to having to hear yet another argument in favour of the censoring of free expression on the grounds of cultural or religious sensibilities.

The painting, adapted from Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp”, shows a deceased Mandela being autopsied by Nkosi Johnson, while FW de Klerk, Helen Zille, Desmond Tutu and others look on. It is, of course, the portrayal of Mandela as deceased that is causing most of the consternation, on the grounds that this portrayal consists, variously, of witchcraft, disrespect, a violation of dignity, and a “insult and an affront to values of our society” – at least according to ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.

As with the Zapiro cartoon, we can and certainly should ask whether images like these are in unacceptably bad taste. If they are, we should say so, and hope that we can persuade artists of the legitimacy of our point of view. Having fewer offensive artworks in our purview would no doubt make for a more comfortable life. But one person – or one group, no matter how large – does not have the authority to define what counts as unacceptable and what doesn’t, except within their own cultural universe. Continue reading “Mandela’s autopsy”