Why do South Africans generally seem so distrustful, fearful, and paranoid of one another? When ANC leaders or supporters do something Helen Zille does not like, she is quick to claim that it is all part of an ANC plot. When someone criticises the appointment of the CEO of the SABC, the MK War veterans claim the CEO is the victim of a plot to undermine both Minister Siphiwe Nyanda and President Jacob Zuma. We also had the “plot” against Schabir Shaik and President Zuma and the many “plots” against then President Thabo Mbeki, not to mention the “plot” by the TAC to poison South Africans with anti-retroviral drugs.
Many South Africans seem to live in constant fear of fellow citizens and believe that fellow citizens are continuously plotting to do them harm. Even legitimate academic curiosity (like asking whether polygamy would be constitutional or not) are turned into a paranoid and defensive fight as it is seen as part of a “plot” to attack or undermine a specific culture or the beliefs of a specific race group.
What’s going on?
Of course, as Alan Arkin once remarked (or was it William Burroughs?) “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”. Nevertheless, the South African obsession with plots and the tendency to see a conspiracy under every bush (just like the National Party saw a communist under every bush or under every bed) seems a bit extreme.
One way to explain this paranoid obsession with plots and conspiracies is to argue that those who allude to them do not really believe that there are plots and conspiracies against them and their group, but merely make use of a device to try and shut up criticism to avoid having to justify their crooked or unethical behaviour. By claiming that one is being persecuted, one never has to answer legitimate questions about the criticism or charges levelled against you.
Hence, Hillary Clinton spoke of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband during the Monica Lewinski scandal. This allowed her and her husband to portray themselves as victims and helped to confuse things so that the public would not remember that Bill Clinton really did have sexual relations with that woman (or to forgive him for it).
Similarly, President Jacob Zuma’s claim that there was a conspiracy against him allowed him never to have to answer a few basic questions regarding the charges brought against him. In President Zuma’s case, this tactic was particularly successful because it seemed rather likely that while evidence about his corrupt relationship with Schabir Shaik was clearly very real, he might well have been singled out for prosecution while others more friendly to then President Thabo Mbeki were never prosecuted.
A second explanation is that many people really have a fundamental misconception of the way in which the right to freedom of expression, the Rule of Law and accountable government are supposed to protect everyone in society from lies, corruption and dishonesty. Leaders are placed on a pedestal (Helen Zille just as much by her supporters as Jacob Zuma by his) and any questions about the wisdom, integrity or ethics of a leader are seen as treasonous attacks on the collective identity of the supporters.
Leaders are often seen (and then begin to see themselves) as not being subject to the same rules and degree of scrutiny as ordinary workers. Because leaders are “important”, “special” or “exulted”, they must be treated in a special manner and should be shown special respect and should be deferred to – no matter what they do or say.
This view flies in the face of what is expected from leaders in a constitutional democracy where leaders are servants of the people (and therefore are not viewed as especially “important” or “special”). In such a democracy leaders should expect to face more (not less) scrutiny, criticism and even ridicule than ordinary citizens who are not servants of the people.
Third, I suspect South Africa’s long history of racial oppression and the struggle for freedom that resulted from it have also warped views and made many of us far more paranoid than we should be. Many white South Africans were scared into supporting the National Party with “Swart Gevaar”, Rooi Gevaar” and sommer any other kind of “Gevaar” tactics, which played into the underlying racism in the white community and made many whites fearful and deeply distrustful of black people in general and black political leaders in particular.
Most if not all black South Africans experienced first hand the racial arrogance, disdain and hatred by many white South Africans and suspect that despite the changes brought about by the transition to democracy, the vast majority of white people harbour an irrational, racist animosity towards them – even if this is now sometimes disguised by politically correct platitudes.
No wonder people do not trust each other and are often prepared to believe the worst of those who criticise them or the leaders they feel emotionally close to. Such feelings are of course exploited by politicians for their own nefarious ends and are exacerbated by the cynical or racist actions of supporters across the political divide.
The important question is of course: how can we get past this paranoia, fear and distrust and arrive at a place where it would become possible to have a relatively reasoned discussion about the merits of leader X or Y without anyone ranting and raving about “plots”, conspiracies” or racism.
Maybe in 2010 we should start a discussion on this important question, because if we fail to answer it, unscrupulous politicians will exploit our fears and hatreds to escape responsibility for their own failings – and all South Africans, but especially poor and marginalised one’s relying on the state to create the conditions for a better life for them and their children, will continue to suffer.