Those of us who think about morality and the endless complexities of trying to get along – and progress – in a heterogenous country/world can take a breather for a moment, as Communications Minister Faith Muthambi has developed a strategy to “improve patriotism, social cohesion and moral regeneration” in South Africa.
Her plan is to start teaching basic moral philosophy in primary school, introducing children to ideas like the social contract and reciprocal altruism, so that they can begin to understand that morality isn’t about mindlessly applying some or other set of instructions but rather about thinking things through with a concern for human (and other) welfare.
While I intended this column to be a follow-up on my thoughts on Slutwalk, dealing more generally with the topic of gendered epithets and why they are generally wrong, that will have to wait. Because as a colleague put it, I have ‘no infrastructure’ following a recent double-dip round of burglaries, and more than a tablet computer is required for the research needed to do that topic justice.
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”.
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.
Many South Africans would support the recent call by President Jacob Zuma for a national dialogue on our moral code. While quips about foxes guarding henhouses may be the first thing to come to mind, two serious and separate issues are raised by this call: the desirability of such a dialogue, and the practical issue of who should take part.
On the first issue, perhaps we should start by noting that the perceived moral failings of some influential South Africans and the public response to these have a feature in common, namely a tendency to pluck a ready-made moral viewpoint off a shelf and then present that as either defence or accusation. Neither of these responses demonstrates commitment to moral reasoning or sensitivity to the fact that some issues cannot be resolved by appeal to dogma. They are, nevertheless, often successful in that new South Africans have been bred to be tolerant of difference and reluctant to criticise things they may not understand.
A follow-up article on the Chumani Maxwele incident, and the implications it has for free speech in South Africa, appeared in the Durban Mercury (22/02/10) and the Cape Times (23/02/10). My original text can be found here.
February is turning out to be a rather uncomfortable month for South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma. First we had Babygate, and now it appears that some of his goons have taken to abusing and arresting those whom they believe to not be showing sufficient respect to the Father of the Nation (or at least, a growing proportion of it).
South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, has recently provided an effective negative proof of the value added by a competent press office. In an embarrassing attempt to manage an embarrassing situation, the South African public have received:
A statement dated February 3, in which JZ confirms his “love-child”, while berating us for caring about his private affairs.
The leaking of some “evidence” on the same day which suggests that JZ and Sonono Khoza are in fact married, and that the existence of the most recent child does therefore not suggest JZ was cheating on his 37 other wives.
A further statement/apology dated February 6, in which someone finally cottons on to the fact that the man in question was elected without the moral currency or credibility which might otherwise allow us to respect his wishes in this matter, and that an apology might therefore be necessary.
God spoke through Ray McCauley’s National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC), as she has tended to do since they beat out her previous spokespersons, the South African Council of Churches, in what must have been a rather difficult contest to arbitrate. I’ve discussed the NILC previously, and argued against the popular notion that religious groups like the NILC have any special claim to moral knowledge.
But this incident, and this President, is about more than simple moral issues. It’s also not simply about the convoluted definitions of “culture” we can come up with in order to justify doing whatever the hell we want. Normally, I’m a strong supporter of the idea that I don’t want or need my political leaders to be exemplars of moral virtue – their job is to offer political leadership, and I don’t really care what they do in their private lives.
However, cases like these do intrude into the public consciousness, and – when placed alongside rape trials, dodgy arms-deal allegations, shady friends, financial mismanagement, reckless sexual behaviour in a country blighted by HIV/AIDS and so forth – they do provide a fair amount of evidence of a lack of sound judgement, and a poor awareness of voter interests.
As mentioned earlier, I don’t care who JZ sleeps with, or what drugs he takes, or anything else to do with his real or imagined private life. I do care that political leaders think carefully about what they do, and that they have the intellectual capacity to realise the implications that their choices might have. JZ clearly lacks one or both of these abilities.
So, forgive him if you like. Pray about it if you think that will help, or eat a crystal (I think that’s how it’s supposed to work?). But forgiveness does not mean we should forget about competence – and in this case, have we not already forgiven enough incompetence?