Former president Jacob Zuma built a R240 million mansion with public money and then blamed the furore on “white monopoly capital”, Western “imperialists”and “white-controlled” opposition parties, says the writer Picture: Nic Bothma/EPA/African News Agency (ANA)
South Africa’s public discourse, debate and dialogue - the “public sphere” - is increasingly being corrupted, with public speech by many prominent figures often based on untruths, slogans and empty rhetoric.

The public sphere has become violent, vacuous and dishonest. Aspects of it have been “captured”, like parts of the state and business.

This undermines freedom of expression, diminishes the quality of public debate, and reduces ideas and policy options for ordinary citizens, policy makers and government.

It also skews the public debate, to make it appear that the views of those who shout the loudest, sound the most “radical” and are the most extreme, are that of the majority; as only like-minded corrupt public debaters are “allowed” to express their views.

Opportunists, populists and political entrepreneurs silence critics by attaching negative labels to them. In many cases these labels are untrue, but in a society with high illiteracy levels, where large numbers of people are closed-minded and many more are desperate to accept simple black and white explanations for the causes of their problems, these are lapped up.

Honest people who could bring new ideas, policies and leadership then censor themselves and withdraw from public engagement for fear of being denigrated by opportunists, corrupt and dishonest public actors.

It is crucial if democracy is to work that claims made in public debates are truthful, have integrity and are evidence-based.

One academic has observed, public speech “is corrupt when it is strategically duplicitous, intended to deflect, distract or obscure claims to secure private or professional gains”.

Fake news, fake conspiracies and fake allegations on social media are increasingly corrupting the public discourse. Supposedly progressive ideologies are often manipulated or corrupted by opportunist public figures for selfish interests - rather than in the interest of would-be beneficiaries.

Opportunists under the guise of concern for the poor, desperate and vulnerable manipulate Struggle slogans, beliefs and rhetoric, to enrich themselves. Legitimate historical redress needs, such as land reform, and social justice causes are increasingly being manipulated for selfish interests. Struggle slogans are appropriated to corruptly mobilise the masses; and so to increase popularity and possibilities of being elected into public office.

Since the end of colonialism, many African leaders, and independence movements-turned-governments have used colonialism, apartheid and white-minority control of their economies, to cover their own incompetence, mismanagement and corruption.

Many African leaders and governments have blamed the very real global dominance of former colonial powers and their companies, and their interference in the domestic issues of African and developing countries, for their (African governments’ and leaders’) own corruption and incompetence.

Former president Jacob Zuma built a R240 million mansion with public money while his supporters live in squalor. He blamed the furore on “white monopoly capital”, Western “imperialists”and “white-controlled” opposition parties who wanted to destabilise his presidency.

Anyone who questioned the credulity of blaming “white monopoly capital”, “Western imperialists” and “racists” for Zuma using public money to build his personal mansion was aggressively dismissed, as a “racist” if white, or a “puppet” of whites, if black.

Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe plundered the state to enrich himself, his family and political allies; pursued populist policies to shore up support; and finally collapsed the economy. After being in power since 1980, Mugabe astonishingly blamed it on white farmers, former colonial power Britain and domestic black “puppets” of “imperialists”.

Opportunists, populists and political entrepreneurs increasingly use social media to engineer blaming “white monopoly capital”, and Western “imperialists” and colonialism to either advance their personal interests or attack opponents by portraying them, if black, as “puppets” of all of these “evil” forces, and if white, as racists or “white monopoly capital”.

It is crucial that all South Africans engage respectfully with alternative views, beliefs and traditions to their own. Such engagements are key to building democracy. Without engagements with alternative views we won’t be able to have quality debates about policies to be adopted, the priorities we should be focusing on and foster a more inclusive South Africanness.

Among the key reasons why most African countries since independence from colonialism have failed is because those marginalised over time take to violence. Their economies collapsed because of slogan-based, ideological and empty policies dominating the public sphere; and reasonable voices being shouted down.

There are no simplistic solutions to our societal, political and economic problems, inherited from apartheid, and compounded by the democratic government’s mismanagement.

Only honest leadership, quality ideas and evidence-based policies - which require allowing the widest diversity of ideas, policies and innovations to be allowed to be debated without violent rebuttal - will stop South Africa from backsliding further along the failed post-independence path trod by most African countries.

* Gumede is executive chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org).

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.