[OPINION] Speaking truth in a time of falsehoods
‘Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering ‘it will be happier…' -Tennyson
One cannot help but be drawn by these two lines from Tennyson’s The Foresters especially if one is a hopeless optimist. On the other hand, Tennyson’s New Year wish, ‘Ring out, wild bells’ laments the state of the world, writing as he was in the late 1890s. ‘Ring out the false, ring in the true,’ he exhorts.
As we start 2018 we can only hope it will be happier than 2017. The world is grappling with the complexity of inequality but also with what seems to be an ever-increasing inability to determine what truth is where ‘alternative facts’ have become part of our common lexicon.
The Trump presidency is perhaps the most graphic illustration of such a lack of commitment to truth. His chaotic presidency is built almost entirely on a daily dose of falsehoods. Enabling Trump is the Republican establishment that simply cannot find the wherewithal to draw a line in the sand in relation to his lies and lack of impulse control.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May continues her rocky road to Brexit. That ‘Leave campaign’ was built almost entirely on falsehoods. Now that negotiations have begun, many more British voters are expressing remorse for their decision to vote ‘leave’ having realised that the Boris Johnson-Nigel Farage axis sold them many convenient falsehoods to promote their own egos.
Towards the end of last year, there was a real sense that it was not only Donald Trump who was unhinged, but also the post-World War II consensus had all but broken.
But there were light points, the #metoo and #Resist campaigns showed that the powerful and unaccountable could be held to account if, as Barack Obama said in his farewell speech in Chicago last January, we “lace up (our) shoes and do some organizing”. Obama continued, “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
That challenge remains for all of us, not least of all in South Africa. Obama was reminding us that democracy and its work is a marathon and not a sprint.
2017 may well have been the ‘year of the journalist’ in South Africa. The media deserves a hat-tip for its pivotal role in uncovering the corruption eating away at the heart of the South African state and which has at its core President Zuma and his corrupt cronies.
From #Guptaleaks to Jacques Pauw’s chilling account of state capture in The President’s Keepers, journalists have been truth-seeking. All we need to know about the ‘shadow state’ has been laid bare.
The salient question thus remains whether Cyril Ramaphosa is able to unify this divided party and convince some of his rogue colleagues on the NEC that South Africa cannot afford another day of Zuma’s destructive governance.
In Zuma’s administration falsehood abounds. The year started with the release of the matric results, as usual, to great fanfare. So obsessed is the state with numbers that an increase in the overall rate is trumpeted as proof that we are educating for the future. This is far from the truth. South African pupils have done abysmally in global rankings for the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMMS) and, even more distressing is that our grade 4 pupils are unable to ‘read for meaning.’ South Africa scored the lowest of 50 countries in the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS).
For any other government committed to the wellbeing of its citizens and economic growth, this would have been a crisis. For the Zuma government, it was business as usual. Instead, it chooses to focus on the matric pass rate of 75.1%. There is no truth in this number or the fact that the Free State province is the highest-performing province. The statistics indicate that it has one of the highest drop-out rates in the country. Between grade 10 and grade 12, 38,000 pupils dropped out of the Free State education system. What has happened to these pupils? Almost certainly they have been consigned to a life of hopelessness and added to our abysmal unemployment figures.
If the president and his Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga really cared, they would not enable mediocrity and would focus on the quality of matric passes. In addition, they would challenge teacher union Sadtu who does more to destroy the chances of South Africa’s young people than any other force or institution. And the uncomfortable fact is that it is the child who is black and poor who is bearing the brunt of government’s failure to provide quality education.
We need a truthful rendering of the state of our education system if we are to succeed as a nation and give every child the ability to access opportunities and fulfil their potential. The failure to do so is nothing short of tragic.
Against this backdrop, the fight for access to higher education continues. During the ANC conference, Zuma announced free higher education without consulting anyone. This was an act of cynical political opportunism. No-one knows where the money will come from and what trade-offs will be made to realise Zuma’s vision.
The scheme is the brainchild of one Morris Masuthu, who is linked to Zuma and his family. Masuthu is seen defending the plan on television, yet who is he and where does he fit into the state apparatus? Is he an advisor to the president or in National Treasury? He is not. So with what authority does he speak and what qualifies him to speak education policy without consulting any other stakeholders in our society? Clearly, what he says has the imprimatur of the president.
And so, where there is cynical leadership, a vacuum is created into which anything falls. Thus the EFF has called for students to simply walk into universities and demand places. Its student command held an entirely incoherent, slogan-filled press conference a few days ago that can only be seen as more irresponsible cheap politicking and an attempt to increase instability at our universities. Listening to Phuti Keetse of the EFF student command and student activist Mcebo Dlamini, accompanied by Zuma’s substance-free announcement in December, it becomes clear that a constructive policy discussion on access to higher education is not about to happen very soon.
We need to remove the falsehoods from the discussion and deal with the complexity of the issues. There seems to be a myth that universities are able to produce quality graduates despite a weak basic education system, that quality university teaching staff are plucked from trees and that infrastructure and planning don’t matter. Our country desperately needs leaders who can steer a conversation regarding vocational training and further tertiary educational options. Again, these conversations are stymied by short-term opportunism and a lack of care and accountability.
But ethical leadership is needed not only in government, but also in business and civil society. If we did not know it already, the Steinhoff matter has shown us that the failure to account is everywhere. Equally, as in government, those who are charlatans sit amongst us in business and civil society. They are not exempt from lies and deception. It is all of our duty to recognise it when we see it and speak ‘truth to power’ wherever we are.
But if Tennyson’s exhortation to hope and Obama’s reminder that democracy building is a marathon was thrown into focus, it came from an unlikely quarter this week. The Kroonstad train accident was grim news to start 2018. Horrific stories have surfaced of the crash and how people tried in vain to save others’ lives. Prasa (yes, they gave us the too-tall trains, so can they be trusted?) seems to have been slow to respond to the myriad enquiries and many dead have not been identified as the mortuary was closed on the weekend. This is yet another example of a callous, uncaring state. Most of those on the train were workers returning from their Christmas break. Nothing short of a full inquiry will be good enough as a sign of public accountability. It took the president days to extend his condolences to the victims and even then the words seemed hollow.
But, yet - and in South Africa there always seems to be a ‘yet’ - the tragedy brought us Mokoni Chaka and Evert Du Preez. A video clip, captured smartly by eNCA journalist Mike Appel showed the two 12-year-old boys explaining how they saved lives as mothers threw their babies out of the Kroonstad train in desperation. No-one could fail to be moved by these two boys who have been friends since playschool. They, along with the workers on the farm they live on, saved countless lives. We were doubly surprised when young Evert explained what happened in fluent Sesotho and Mokoni responded to questions in English and Afrikaans, in Sesotho. Only the hardest most cynical hearts will write this off as a ‘rainbow moment’ and dismiss it. The moving little clip shows what can happen when we learn each other’s languages and when children play together and grow together.
Their lived experiences may well be different but can we dare to hope that the South Africa Evert and Mokoni will birth might be one which is more true, less false and more tolerant? It might have been what Madiba had in mind when he signed our final Constitution into law in 1996, when he negotiated with his arch-enemies and allowed us to give in to the better angels of our nature.
Politicians hold the power we give them and so rightly, we look to Ramaphosa and the ‘new’ ANC leadership to get us out of the cul-de-sac of the Zuma years.
Yet, it is in the innocence of two 12-year olds that we understand that it is worth fighting for, every day and every inch of the way.
Marathon not sprint.
As Cody Keenan wrote in his recent, brilliant essay on the #Resist movement in the United States, “history is made every day by the hopeful…”.
And so, we carry on hoping for a better world in 2018 - this requires speaking and writing truth despite the falsehood of the moment and building the kind of South Africa which will not let down either Evert or Mokoni.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february