I still won’t play Mr Nice Guy

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President Jacob Zuma and his brother Michael at the familys Nkandla homestead. Picture: Sandile Ndlovu

The worst thing I could do in 2014 is to write less than honestly about my lived experiences in this complex country, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - A few days ago, someone stopped me as I was going about my boring mall business scavenging for age-inappropriate shorts for Dezemba. I was trying, as Tracy Chapman puts with gentle honesty, to make my everyday life seem less mundane.

The stranger, or possibly a mistake from my past I could not recall quickly enough, sported a beaming smile.

I returned an insincere version of his Colgate-sponsored one, faking familiarity while digging deep into my 34-year-old memory bank to answer the question, “Where do I know him from?!”

Nothing was retrieved from the memory bank. So I just smiled like those Simunye presenters from the 1990s.

“I like your column!” he complimented. Phew. I don’t know him then. A polite stranger. But just as my ego threatened to fill the air around me, he qualified his comment.

“But why do you criticise the ANC government every week though?”

(Obviously he doesn’t read the column in weeks when I write about opposition political parties. But I continued to listen.)

“No, man, Eusebius, be nice sometimes and also write about the good things the government does. But I like your column, boss!”

I chuckled, but didn’t respond, feeling too lazy to play. “Thanks, man, I appreciate it. Cheers!” And our smiles parted ways as I continued shopping.

It wasn’t the first time I’d receive this exact feedback. So I’ve been mulling it over for a while now. This being the last few moments of 2013, I thought I’d take stock of this particular feedback. There is good news and there is bad news for the polite stranger who approached me that day.

The bad news is that my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 are already decided. They don’t include a commitment to sunshine journalism. They are the same as last year: reconnect with the piano (complete fail this year), find a husband (stuff you in 2014, Mother Nature) and continue to sculpt my body to look like a bouncer – or homothug, if you will – by Easter. At least the last project is on track. I’m on the brink of saying “Voetsek mkhaba!”

So, no, I won’t resolve to dig up amazingly positive stories about the government as we head towards the 2014 elections, and beyond. Government spin doctors should rather resolve to be competent in 2014.

But here’s the good news. I love our government sooooo much, I will continue to be critical of it. A critical relationship between a columnist and society doesn’t mean, dearest polite stranger, a negative relationship. A critical commentator will sometimes reflect on why things that do work, work.

But on other days, a reflective opinion may well be a lightning rod touching the government uncomfortably.

“Critical” and “criticism” are words that get a very bad rap. And unfairly so. In the same way, we lie about how painful painful life experiences are, as if a life filled with hedonism and sensory pleasure would be desirable.

Similarly, the worst thing I could do in 2014 is to write less than honestly about my lived experiences in this complex country of ours. The columnist’s main duty, as far as I’m concerned, is a relentless commitment to sincerity. Not a commitment to solicit only affirming feedback by guessing what will make most readers happy. The day I do that, I should either be shot or fired. (Preferably fired, please editor. Violence is overrated.)

But there is another reason I want to defend the critical role of the writer. British politician Peter Hain said a few weeks ago on BBC Question Time, to an angry audience that was taking the government to task, that, yes, there are governance weaknesses in South Africa but that nevertheless we must appreciate the enormous amount that has been achieved after 20 years. We must not be too harsh on ourselves.

I love Peter to bits but was infuriated by his well-intended but ultimately patronising comment. He would never dare say to British citizens, “Our democracy isn’t as old as the Greeks’, so don’t be too harsh on Her Majesty’s government!”

We have to practise the adult democracy that we wish to be. We can do so only if we stop lowering our standards of governance excellence. That means expecting the best of our individual selves and our democratic institutions, including the state.

To say we should “not be too harsh” is effectively to tell us to ignore the normative constitutional framework we chose to adopt as an ideal. We have to be critical of the distance between where we are at and where we want to be at.

And a critical writer is situated within that context. It’s patriotic, I say, to keep the government on its toes. And counterproductive to engineer “balance”.

Evidence-based argument and analysis are crucial, sure. But that’s about as duty bound as I will be.

For now, time to see whether the fun really never sets in Durban. The government has a festive reprieve.

But on that small matter of Nkandlagate – sorry, JZ, I’ll be back!

* McKaiser hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power 98.7. He is author of the best-selling collection of essays A Bantu In My Bathroom

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers

The Star


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