The Poisoned Wellsprings of Social Debate.

The amount of damage which Zuma or ZUMA may cause to South Africa’s society is probably greater than the previous post suggested. However, there is no way to determine precisely what changes Zuma wishes to make to the criminal justice system or to the fiscus or to the redistributive mechanisms, other than that these changes are not likely to have any positive consequence and may have catastrophic consequences. After all, it is clear that no changes which Zuma wishes to make have anything to do with improving the functioning of government with regard to the general public, but rather, that they are intended to make his own life, and the lives of his cronies, more congenial.
It is, however, not very useful to speculate on such matters. Once one can be sure that there will be bad results it is not necessary to fantasise about what those bad results might be. It is even dangerous, since there is no bottom to such speculation, and one may end up in the same black hole of negativity characteristic of Trotskyites and conspiracy theorists.
A question much more worth asking is how all this became possible. Perhaps also more relevant, how all this became possible with so little debate and discussion. And, essentially, without meaningful resistance from outside the upper echelons of the ANC.
We know part of the story. Big business supported Zuma because it wanted to destroy Mbeki (and, ultimately, the ANC). The SACP and COSATU supported Zuma partly because it wanted to destroy Mbeki and partly because its leadership are big businessmen. The press supported Zuma because it wanted to destroy Mbeki and because it is dominated by big business. Overseas governments supported Zuma because they back big businessmen, and also because they wanted to destroy Mbeki (and, ultimately, the ANC).
That is quite a substantial coalition, but it leaves out about forty million South Africans who had managed to ignore such pressures in the past and who had been steadily voting ANC despite all the propaganda. Why have those forty million not been heard from? How do they feel about having a criminal of deeply conservative political views, one who has persistently displayed hostility to their interests, in charge of the party for which they plan to vote?
The answer is difficult to gauge because those forty million have been ignored in all of the public debate around Zuma. There is nothing odd or surprising about this. Those forty million might, some of them, hold opinions which it would not be good for the corporate ruling class to have revealed. There might be a democratic infection which, if exposed, could spread. Better conceal the whole affair and hope that silence will, ultimately, bring consent, as indeed it has.
Most probably, there are several responses to the Zuma presidency among the bulk of the population.
One is sullen acquiescence. We do not like Zuma, but the fix is in. It’s embarrassing, but let’s ride it out. It can’t be as bad as the DA says it will be. (The presence of the DA, as a party most obviously uninterested in the welfare of the population, among Zuma’s opponents is very convenient. However, in fact the DA’s hostility to Zuma is tepid, because the DA agrees with most of Zuma’s most destructive plans and does not understand most of those it disagrees with.)
One is denial. 100% Zuluboy! Viva Msholozi, viva! Phantsi the enemies of the people’s cause, phantsi! Longlive! Longlive! Longlive! This is, basically, the voice of people pretending that Zuma has not torn the African National Congress itself apart and flung its democratic traditions into an unventilated pit latrine. It is not difficult to believe rhetoric, however spurious, when you are a long way from your source and when you put yourself in no position to understand just how the rhetoric contrasts with the lifestyle and general behaviour of the person producing the rhetoric. You can do that, partly, by listening only to Zuma’s allies in the ANC, and partly by listening to any press outlet at all.
One is active hostility. It is striking how much support there initially was for CoPe, which is the voice of active hostility to Zuma. Clearly there is a lot of distrust for the ANC and its leaders — sullen acquiescence can easily shift into active hostility when and where there is an opportunity to display it. However, CoPe, for whatever reason, decided not to do anything with this support and failed to capitalise on or expand it. Hence it shrank. It is probably still there, however, within the ANC, and this helps to explain the continuing purges of less important ANC supporters who are seen as possibly hostile to Zuma. At all costs, hostility to Zuma must be deprived of leadership.
Plus, of course, there is absolute withdrawal from the political process, the recognition that in South Africa today there is no possibility of democracy leading to anything other than oligarchical control and therefore there is no point in participating.
This all suggests that, far from being an ignorant and amorphous mass of Zuma supporters, there is considerable scope for anti-Zuma activity, provided it is presented as possible and an alternative can be conceived of. Even the pro-Zuma fantasising might well have been undermined by the coherent presentation of Zuma’s past misconduct, his evident plans for future misconduct, and specific proposals to avoid that. (Much of the pro-Zuma activity is rooted in hope that Zuma will provide preferment for his supporters — which is obviously impossible, since there are not enough jobs; it is very similar to the pro-Obama frenzy in the United States which in the end cemented reactionary corporatism in place, since Obama broke every major promise he made, a point which his behaviour in September-October in response to the crisis of corporate capitalism made impossible to doubt.)
Fortunately, the ruling class was prepared for this.
The preparation took the form of the creation of an intellectual climate which was absolutely hostile to all political debate. This was done through the media and the publishing industry, and through the creation of business-oriented non-governmental organisations which could be used as pretexts for drowning out the voices of private individuals and democratically-organised bodies, and, of course, the government.
The press, as is known, is biased. Nick Davies, in his brilliant Flat Earth News, observes this (as applied to Western media) and concludes that it is not due to any conspiratorial factor. No, he says, the press just happens to misreport issues consistently so as to favour reactionary political agents in society. This is not because the owners of newspapers want to do this, it is because reporters are overworked and unable to check facts, and because they depend heavily on public relations and propaganda for their stories. He has an entire chapter on the possible sinister activities of governments.
None of this explains why this should lead to newspapers becoming more reactionary than before. He works for the Guardian, a newspaper which has a few elements of integrity, but which is broadly a newspaper which supports the Labour government in all its perfidy while pretending to be left-wing and democratic. It does this because its staff are Labour supporters and therefore cover up for Labour, and this is the case because the owners of the Guardian are happy to see the right sort of people being hired for the paper — especially, the right sort of editor. The process is very similar at the Daily Mail, which Davies excoriates for its dishonesty, even though this is not so very different from the way in which the Guardian suppresses or distorts stories for its own purposes (as when, notoriously, it smeared Noam Chomsky).
In other words, yes, there is a conspiracy on the part of the press to falsify the news in order to serve conservative political ends, and every journalist will pretend that the conspiracy does not exist — even the rare and brave figure like Davies who admits that there is anything wrong with the newspapers. In South Africa, where the entire media structure is dominated by corporate forces, with Independent Newspapers serving up a single newspaper in shifting typefaces to several centres and under different mastheads, and with the Mail and Guardian very probably in secret alliance with Avusa (supplying the editor of the Sunday Times) and Media24 (supplying the editor of City Press), and covertly controlled by foreign interests (by which the Creator does not mean Zimbabwean or Botswanan, but further afield) — in effect, newspapers are not very different one from another, and they all push the same line.
However, they push it at least as vigorously as Davies shows the Daily Mail to do, and they suppress all alternative lines. The anti-Mbeki propaganda which is completely hegemonic among the South African intelligentsia comes almost entirely from the press. Most importantly, it comes almost entirely from the editorial comments of the press. It is completely commonplace for commentators on weblogs or writers to newspapers, those who criticise Zuma most freely, to preface their comments with denunciations of Mbeki. None of these denunciations embody any factual information. It appears that the sheer repetition of “AIDS denialist”, “supporter of tyrants”, “enemy of democracy”, “creator of inequality” has done its work. People spit out these concepts without realising that it would be useful to have hard data to substantiate them — without, indeed, realising that it is necessary to have hard data if such opinions are to be meaningfully held.
The press also decides whose opinions deserve to receive serious attention. As a rule, in the nine years of Mbeki’s government, politicians were not granted space to defend themselves in the newspapers. Occasionally, a few people, such as Kader Asmal or Trevor Manuel (i.e., indians and coloureds rather than blacks) were granted such space. Ronnie Kasrils received space to criticise the conduct of Israel and of South African Zionists — less so to discuss or explain his actual political role in trying to prevent Zuma from seizing control of South Africa’s intelligence services with the assistance of his friend Mo Shaik. Most african politicians — notoriously, Mbeki himself, his Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang, and his Foreign Minister Dlamini-Zuma — were denied access to the press. The newspapers went so far as to denounce Mbeki for writing (or arranging the writing of) a weekly column on the ANC Today website, for this represented a breaking of the blockade against Mbeki’s voice being heard.
When one looks at the people who were granted space instead, one’s jaw drops. The Creator has no idea how Sipho Seepe organised himself a prominent position in a minor educational institution, but since Seepe has no capacity of ratiocination whatsoever, it is hard to believe that he is doing good work there. In any case, Seepe’s regular columns in the press were tedious, repetitive and vacuous. However, he continues to be taken seriously. Moloetsi Mbeki’s forthright denunciations of his brother were equally devoid of logic or fact, but he enjoyed a still higher esteem, some saying that he should be President instead of his brother. (The revelation that he has long been closely connected with an arms dealer involved in channelling funds to Zuma does not appear to have dampened any of this enthusiasm.) About Xolela Mangcu, one need only say that the sobriquet of “Wangcu” seems entirely appropriate; about William Mervyn Gumede, the plagiarist-at-large for white reactionary journalism and manufacturer of implausible rumours about President Mbeki’s sex life, one can only say that looking away is both appropriate and bearable.
If one elevates fools, liars (and people who are so foolish that they don’t know they are lying) to positions of absolute authority, one is doing a disservice to debate. Of course, it is the absolute authority which is the problem. It is a sliding affair. Vice-Chancellor Makgoba of UKZN used to be Deputy Vice-Chancellor Makgoba of Wits, and was denounced by the press because some white academics disliked him. Subsequently he was appointed to the Medical Research Council and was praised to the skies by the press because he made statements about AIDS which could be used to attack Mbeki (although Makgoba lacked the actual credentials to make those statements, and of course the attacks were based on falsifications of Mbeki’s position on AIDS). Later, Vice-Chancellor Makgoba has become a convenient whipping-boy for white academics because he is a black man in charge of a largely white institution, and is misruling it in much the same way as other institutions are misruled — but this can be congenially spun in a racist direction. It does not stop him from being chairman of the board of the Mail and Guardian, though.
Meanwhile, of course, the so-called “civil society organisations” are virtually all safely on board. There is little doubt that the Treatment Action Campaign was set up to distract public attention from the criminal conspiracies of the manufacturers of antiretrovirals, and subsequently has functioned both as a PR outlet for those companies and as a rumour mill for anti-Mbeki and pro-Zuma factions (the TAC was backing Zuma as far back as 2002). Likewise, the Freedom of Expression Institute distinguishes itself by focussing exclusively upon the government’s infringement of expression while ignoring corporate infringements. (The exception, which they never tire of proclaiming, was a single unionist from an insignificant Trotskyite union who was confronting, or pretending to confront, the Spar supermarket chain.) Newspaper activity is ignored by the FXI. Academic freedom is highly selectively defended (when the people involved are ANC supporters at black-dominated institutions, or institutions like the University of KwaZulu-Natal which threaten to shift from white to black control). With such organisations pretending to defend the public while actually taking orders from, and serving the aims of, the corporate elite, the fix is much more safely in.
This all, no doubt, deserves more analysis than the Creator can give to it (which is necessary in the long run, since nobody else cares or dares to do it). Nevertheless, the fact is simple; Zuma succeeded because South African public debate has been purged of all debate and intellectual content and transformed into a sewer whose outlet is largely lies with a few selective truths floating in it like turds from a constipated anus. Looking into South African public debate is exactly like looking into a sewer.
One wishes the rains would come, but they never do.

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