Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
3 March 2009

On debate, distrust and ethics

I am currently reading Eric Weiner´s very amusing book, The Geography of Bliss, in which he travels to various happy places (Iceland/Switzerland) and less happy places (Moldova/Quatar) and ruminates about what makes us happy.

In Moldova – where people seem to be extremely unhappy and even his host never can bring herself to express a more positive sentiment than that things are ¨feefty-feefty¨- Weiner discovers that life is hell when there is no trust in a society and when everybody looks at the problems around them and say: ¨it is not my problem¨.

Although Moldova seems rather extreme, I could not help but feel that South Africa’s problems also stems partly from this lack of trust and the widespread attitude amongst South Africans that each of us are in it for ourselves and that other people’s problems are not our concern.

So who cares that the hospital is dirty and babies die because of lack of higiene? Surely not most of the nurses in the Eastern Cape. Who cares if young children in rural areas have no food to eat or are heading households because their parents died of AIDS? Surely not most people in black Mercedes and 4X4`s who live in the white suburbs and complain about everything done by the ANC.

I am also struck by the way in which we debate one another and what that says about a deep sense of distrust and unhappiness about our world – often  without any real relation to the facts. Instead of trying to talk about the issues – how do we address poverty, corruption and crime, for example – we tend to blame one another and skirt the issues.

So when I point out that Mr Jacob Zuma (or Hansie Cronje or Schabir Shaik or Winnie Mandela) might have some ethical questions hanging over their heads and that we should try and fashion a new kind of public morality that stops hiding behind ¨innocent until proven guilty¨(or even innocent when one is ANC even if proven guilty) mantras, I am immediately attacked as a racist/anti-ANC/Zuma-hating/apartheid-loving dolt – and therefore I am someone who cannot be trusted and whose opinions need not be engaged with.

When I say that we should start talking about what it is we want and what we need to expect from our public figures and that we should not be happy with the kind of perverted public morality hoisted on us by the likes of Jacob Zuma, I am immediately told that Mr Zuma is the victim of a conspiracy and therefore I should not be allowed to mention the fact that he took more than a million Rand from a crook and then did some favours for that crook.

And when I ask questions about supposed Ms squeeky clean Helen Zille and why it might be that she wanted to stop a commission of enquiry into the spygate saga of her administration, I am immediately told that I am a traitor to my race and a useful idiot doing the dirty work of the ANC.

Why is it that we do not seem to be able to talk about the issues without reverting to name calling? Why is it that we argue by first discrediting the other person (an apartheid spy, a racist, a Cope sympathiser an ANC sympathiser, a homosexual, a woman…) and then denying them the right to raise often legitimate points?

I suppose the short answer is that this kind of reasoning – if one can call it that – works in South Africa because of the extreme distrust in our society. So if one is a politician one will obviously make use of what works: why engage with the real issues when one can just discredit the other person without having to answer in any way for what one has done or said?

It is also because our society is structured in such a way that allows us not to care about one another. If one is rich, one can privatise one’s health care and even one’s security – so who cares if the police force is corrupt? If one is an ANC insider one will get rich quick through some tender scam – so who cares about corruption which, after all, only really affects the really poor in society?

We are supposed to be a society based on the principle of ubuntu – but I wonder how much is left of this spirit of ubuntu in a society in which everyone  thinks that if they keep their head down, if they show a complete lack of ethical standards, if they know the right people, then they will be ok and the rest be damned.

That is one of the reasons I think the corruption is having such a corroding effect on our society. Corruption breaks down trust and creates the impression that if only one could also get in on the deal one’s life would be better. Maybe in the long term this will make us all less happy and we will end up like Moldova where – even if we win the world cup in soccer we will only say that we are feeling feefty-feefty….

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