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[OPINION] SA seems to have inhabited ‘post-truth’ before it became fashionable

‘Post-truth’ is the 2016 ‘word of the year’. No surprises there. In a world of Donald Trump, Brexit and the rise of the right, distortion of fact has become commonplace.

In South Africa, we seem to have inhabited post-truth world long before it became the fashionable. The governing ANC and the Zuma administration are old hands at this. It was, the minister of Police Nathi Nhleko who gave us the (in)famous ‘fire-pool’ after all. That the ConCourt found that the Zuma breached the Constitution seemed a small trifle to Zuma’s henchmen and women as they sought to downplay the excesses of Nkandla. Instead, they found a convenient defence- attack then Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela. She was surely a CIA spy, after all? What proof was there of this? None. But in the post-fact world, he who shouts the loudest wins the argument or tries to dominate the discourse anyway. The Guptas landed an aircraft at Waterkloof airforce base without requisite permission and we are told this is a trifle. The state seems virtually captured by the same Guptas demanding the appointment of cabinet ministers and we are asked to believe that 9/12 was a figment of our collective imagination. Really, Nhlanhla Nene was gearing up for a job with the BRICS Bank all along. Said job has yet to materialize. And then most recently, the ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe tried to convince us that the ANC NEC meeting the possible recall of Zuma was ‘not special’. We were also told that ‘unity’ was all-important. This when it is patently obvious that the ANC is split down the middle and as paralysed by Zuma as he is by it.

There are plenty of other examples where those running the interference for Zuma whether on ‘paid Twitter’ or elsewhere simply engage in a version of events that are untrue. In this world, Zuma is a victim and the real ‘enemy’ is ‘white monopoly capital’, religious leaders or civil society conspirators.

But it’s not only those who wish to protect Zuma who sometimes engage without reference to facts, it has become part of the political milieu we live in now. Shouting loudest has often become the preferred way of getting the point across. Everything seems to be a zero-sum gain in South African politics and public life. We are either trenchantly ‘for’ or ‘against’. The middle way is lost somehow, the centre does not hold. Gone is the Aristotelian wisdom of the ‘educated mind’ being able to ‘entertain a thought without accepting it.’
There was a time when reason dominated discourse and compromise was a way out of the intractability of apartheid. This year we are reminded of this especially as we celebrate 20 years of the adoption of our Final Constitution on 10 December and 3 years since Nelson Mandela’s passing. 2016 has been a fraught year for South Africa as we have felt most keenly the weight of inequality, poor leadership, corruption and concomitant policy paralysis. The story is well worn and our President sits at the heart of our discontent. It was also a year marked by an ANC that found itself wanting at the polls yet unable to fully grasp what that might mean for the national elections in 2019. The #feesmustfall movement laid bare government’s inability to rise to the occasion and provide steady leadership when the youth were asking for it. Zuma unfortunately does not have the credibility to lead on anything really, given how ethically compromised he himself is. Laudable as the aims of the #feesmustfall movement are, it has also, in part, become fractured, fractious, violent and often intolerant. We witnessed the burning of libraries and artwork and very little leadership to hold those responsible to account.

Into the leadership vacuum untruth, violence, burning and general confusion fall.

A popular trope in the #feesmustfall and other movements is that Mandela was a ‘sell out’ and the Constitution a poor, liberal compromise which is not worth the paper it is written on. Yet, we must ask whether we presume to blame the Constitution that calls for open, responsive and accountable government for the corruption prevalent in government? It is easy to dismiss Mandela as the warm, fuzzy ‘Tata’ we came to love in his retirement but to only focus on that would be trivialising his legacy as a revolutionary. It also displays some ignorance of the geo-political conditions that prevailed in the late 80s and early 90s and which propelled South Africa to its negotiated settlement.
The ‘scapegoating’ of the Constitution is equally concerning because it does not truly engage with many of the deeply progressive Constitutional Court judgments that have been handed down since 1996. Yet given the high levels of inequality, the argument can be compelling in a populist way. The ANC itself has also sought to undermine the Constitution when it suited its political needs. Who can forget Ngoako Ramathlodi’s questioning the Constitution and the courts and their ‘enormous power’?
The transition was fraught and mistakes were made. Mandela himself would be the first to admit that. But his presidency was defining in its commitment to reconciliation, the Constitution and the rule of law. The economic restitution or the ‘second phase’ of the transition is one we are grappling with now. Much of our discontent however is as a result of poor leadership, corruption and an ANC that is coming dangerously apart at the seams. The Constitution has, during these difficult times, in fact been a bulwark of protection against the further looting of the state.
As we experience the leadership void, there are several questions we need to ask of ourselves as beneficiaries of Madiba’s powerful legacy. How do we continue the journey to reach the aspirations of the Constitution in such a complex time?

Perhaps our greatest gift to Madiba and the architects of our democracy is to do all we can to protect and defend the Constitution and deepen our understanding of the principles which under-pin it.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies.

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