Quote of the week

Although judicial proceedings will generally be bound by the requirements of natural justice to a greater degree than will hearings before administrative tribunals, judicial decision-makers, by virtue of their positions, have nonetheless been granted considerable deference by appellate courts inquiring into the apprehension of bias. This is because judges ‘are assumed to be [people] of conscience and intellectual discipline, capable of judging a particular controversy fairly on the basis of its own circumstances’: The presumption of impartiality carries considerable weight, for as Blackstone opined at p. 361 in Commentaries on the Laws of England III . . . ‘[t]he law will not suppose possibility of bias in a judge, who is already sworn to administer impartial justice, and whose authority greatly depends upon that presumption and idea’. Thus, reviewing courts have been hesitant to make a finding of bias or to perceive a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of a judge, in the absence of convincing evidence to that effect.

L'Heureux-Dube and McLachlin JJ
Livesey v The New South Wales Bar Association [1983] HCA 17; (1983) 151 CLR 288
30 July 2007

On "facts", bikini’s and postmodernism

For a person with such a strong affinity for “objective reality”, President Thabo Mbeki seems to have a rather tenuous grip on reality (“objective” or otherwise) himself. It also does not always appear that he is in touch with his own humanity – although he always (rightly) talks about the inherent dignity of all humans in general and all Africans in particular.

This is amply demonstrated in his latest Internet missive, which would have been an eye-rolling embarrassment, if it was not about a life and death matter. President Mbeki lashes out at the Daily Dispatch for publishing “false” reports about the desperately bad service received by mothers giving birth at the hospital. The report stated that hundreds of babies die needlessly every year and continues:

Internal documents show that senior management knew the situation was out of control for years, but did little to address the crisis. Minutes from weekly management meetings reveal damning admissions by doctors that patients were dying because of outright negligence. “Mothers and babies die at an alarmingly high rate,” confirmed a former hospital gynaecologist.

Worse is that hospital staff concede in documents that “most” maternal deaths and stillbirths “are avoidable due to care”. References are also made to the worrying increase in the number of maternal and neo-natal deaths from 2005 to 2006.

President Mbeki does not engage with these “facts” (or is it “Facts”) but points to the report of an official government investigation which cleared the Hospital of wrongdoing, which according to him proves that the Daily Dispatch was lying in its report. He argues that we live in a postmodern age in which we often reject the proposition that “truth, manifesting itself in the form of Facts, corresponds to reality”. Attacking the DA he then continues:

The simple truth is that the DA, perhaps taking advantage of the liberties afforded by post-modernism, is making the statement that everything is Fact – truth corresponding with reality – if it communicates a negative message about the ANC and the government. On the other hand, members of the ANC, such as the Minister of Health, remain committed to the discovery of Facts – truths that corresponds with reality – precisely to empower themselves, our movement and government to act correctly in the continuing struggle to transform our country to ensure that we achieve the objective of a better life for all our people.

It might come as a surprise to those of us in the reality based community to hear that the Minister of Health, who believes in the “Fact” (or is it “fact”) that garlic, olive oil and lemon is an effective alternative treatment for HIV infection, is really more interested in “Facts” than the Daily Dispatch.

But apart from the bitter irony involved in this statement, the Internet letter is deeply troubling for what it says about the mindset of our President. What he seems to say is that he and his minister know the facts, while the reporters who spent two months at the Hospital are lying to harm the ANC. As Grouco Marxs might have said: “Who are you going to believe, the President or your very own eyes?”

This shocking letter suggests that our President is a Denialist with a capital letter – he never has to confront criticism from anyone as long as his Ministers and the hand-picked task teams or other minions tell him that those who are criticizing or pointing to problems are lying. For him, the “objective reality” is always only what the ANC believes or wants us to believe is correct. It might not be postmodern, but it is very scary and messianic.

Some of us who do not want to harm the ANC and are generally supportive of the pro-poor aspects of its policies (such as they are), might want to point out to the President that the officials who wrote the report “disproving” the Daily Dispatch story may have every reason to cover up the embarrassing negligence at Frere Hospital. We might ask for an independent investigation and wonder why we should believe a Minister who has pedaled quackery as science and has turned up disoriented and confused at a news conference. Why would we believe the officials whose credibility would be on the line if they found that there were real problems?

We might point out that the Deputy Minister called what is happening at Frere Hospital a national crisis, that after a visit by the Minister to Frere Hospital, she announced that the Hospital would receive, among other things, a 10-fold increase in its maintenance budget, an extra maternity ward, more support staff, nurses, doctors and equipment. The minister conceded there were “individual cases of inappropriate” care which had been reported and promised they would be investigated. The minister also announced that the management at both Frere and Cecilia Makiwane would from now on be given direct control over their budgets, staff and services.

If the newspaper was lying and the “Facts” proved there was nothing wrong at the Hospital, then why these reforms? The only conceivable answer is that there are serious problems at the Hospital exposed by the newspaper but that our President, caught in his own fantasy world of paranoia and ANC sanctioned “object facts” refuses to admit this.

But then again, our President has a long history of Denialism, so we should not be too surprised that he now denies those mothers whose babies have died their own experience of the “Facts” and blames the newspaper for wanting to harm the ANC, instead of expressing shock and horror at the way the Hospital has dealt with real flesh and blood people who – it can be objectively proven – experience pain and anguish when their babies die because of the negligence of Hospital staff.

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