Both the constructive disagreement intrinsic to science and the adversarial scrutiny necessary to politics disappear in this invocation of science as the ultimate authority – this trick will become familiar in the coming months. An extraordinary emergency requires extraordinary powers; no one disagrees with that. But it is politics, not science, which grants these powers legitimacy. How long will they endure?
It is not always easy to engage in any kind of rational debate about political or social issues in South Africa. Some voters are blindly loyal to the political party of their choice and will defend the leaders of that party no matter what these leaders do or say, perhaps out of a misplaced sense of racial solidarity or perhaps because of a wilful and arrogant blindness bordering on sycophancy. Some politicians are also incapable of admitting that they have made a mistake and will launch ad hominem attacks against those who point out any weaknesses in their arguments. Some will even twist the truth (and sometimes lie outright) in order to try and defend the indefensible.
Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance, and some of her supporters seem particularly prone to this phenomenon. Recent discussions about Zille’s rather startling comments on HIV and AIDS, illustrate this point rather well. Zille was taken to task by myself as well as by Gavin Silber and Nathan Geffen about her strange comments on HIV. What followed is instructive and may say much about the hold that racial solidarity have on many South Africans – even amongst supporters of a political party who professes to be completely blind to race.
As Silber and Geffen wrote, in her original newsletter Zille had specifically cited people who contract HIV through “irresponsible” behaviour before rhetorically questioning why “taxpayers must foot the bill without asking any politically incorrect questions — enough already!”. She then proceeded to confirm that the Western Cape will continue to provide the most comprehensive HIV-AIDS treatment in the country, but that it would also “ask the necessary questions and make appropriate demands for behaviour change”.
Zille, as is her right, responded to some of the criticism levelled against her by Silber and Geffen stating that:
The article focuses almost entirely on rebutting a statement I never made. It invents a position, falsely ascribes it to me — and then seeks to challenge it. That qualifies as a “sick joke”. It is totally ludicrous to say that I suggested withdrawing treatment from those who contract AIDS “irresponsibly”. How would one know? I have never suggested that the public health system stop treating any person (let alone category of people) with HIV.
This statement is curious and is difficult to reconcile with what Silber and Geffen had actually written and what Zille herself had written on the topic. It reminded me of Thabo Mbeki who first questioned whether a link existed between HIV and AIDS (“a virus cannot cause a syndrome”) and then, when criticised about this, claimed that he had never questioned this link. Silber and Geffen had actually written nothing that was not based on the published writings of the Premier which are easily accessed via the Internet.
Her newsletter, read with various tweets she fired off the next week, makes it clear that she believes that a person who contracts HIV “irresponsibly” should not ask the state to pay for ARV’s but should pay for this him or herself. This assumes, of course that the person would be able to afford to pay for the ARV’s. One assumes the Premier either believes that everyone can afford these medicine, or that those who cannot afford to pay should die.
This assessment might seem harsh. That is why I went back to Zille’s tweets to see if she might have been misquoted. But, no, there they were, her series of bizarre tweets on HIV, for all to see. (What is it with politicians, the internet and HIV? First there was Thabo Mbeki and now we have Helen Zille.) I quote a few of her tweets:
A nanny state when ppl don’t act responsibly and then expect treatment.
Get off your entitlement horse and pay for your preventable disease yourself.
Keep your preventable illnesses out of the state’s coffers. Pay for your own ARVs.
[A twitter contributor writes….] If you have consensual unprotected sex, fund your own ARVs [and Zille responds…] Absolutely. The state should pay for unpreventable illnesses.
Then don’t come looking for the nanny state when you need treatment.
Be responsible or pay for your own ARVs.
I made the mistake of posting some of these tweets beneath her denial that she had ever suggested irresponsible people should pay for their own ARV treatment and pointed out that:
Helen Zille says: “It is totally ludicrous to say that I suggested withdrawing treatment from those who contract AIDS “irresponsibly“ But in her tweets she suggested that people who do not use condoms should pay for their own ARV’s. Sounds like she is not being truthful. Some might call it a lie.
Pointing out this lack of candour on the part of their hero was not a smart thing to do, it seems. My post outraged some DA supporters. I provide a sample of the entertaining comments below:
If it weren’t so tragic the comments by de Vos et. al would be amusing and witty…
And as for Pierre de Vos, well what can we expect???
De Vos is without a doubt one of the biggest prat’s on the planet.
Pierre de Vos should stick lecturing in his ivory tower up on the hill. Academics get completely divorced from reality. It’s political correctness and the patronising attitudes of guys like Silber, Geffen and de Vos who think they know what’s best for black people that get me down.
De Vos and his ilk will never have time for Zille, after all she calls a spade a spade. Zille should stay off twitter, after all one cannot build an argument in 140 characters, and one’s message can be misinterpreted. De Vos is the worst kind of academic, he llives in a world that should be perfect, which is fine if you stick to theorising to students, but if you want to get involved in real life, come down from the hill.
Now, as that old right wing judge Erasmus (and old friend of PW Botha) reportedly said many years ago, these criticisms “runs of me like ducks water off my back”. Who cares what obsessed DA supporters infected by a serious dose of racial solidarity think? But it is so depressing that none of those who jumped to Helen Zille’s defence (as they have every right to do) engaged with the point I made. None tried to argue that Zille’s denial was truthful. Instead they just attacked the messenger who happened to have pointed out what would appear to be a huge contradiction between her last statement and her previous tweets.
I fear that many South Africans — and judged by these exchanges, many of them DA supporters — are not very good at democratic debate. One might well have tried to parse Zille’s words (as defenders of Thabo Mbeki often used to do, to their credit) to argue that her denial was indeed truthful. Or one might have invoked context to defend her statements in an effort to reconcile them. Or one might have made a sophisticated argument about how Twitter twists the meaning of words. Such interventions might not have been credible, but they would at least have engaged — no matter how bizarrely — in some form of democratic exchange.
Could it be that some people are so used to having their views validated and taken as the gospel truth, so used to be treated as if their views embody rationality and truth and moral goodness (perhaps because they embody white privilege and unthinkingly and arrogantly live what Samantha Vice calls whiteliness and white cultural dominance), that they are incapable of engaging rationally with somebody who seriously challenge the assumptions and prejudices they embrace (but that they do not even know that they embrace)?
Is this why only ANC supporters and voters are lambasted for voting along racial lines and for displaying irrational racial solidarity with the ANC and its leaders? I suspect for many of the defenders of Helen Zille it will make no difference if she turned into a tree stump or if she were charged with corruption (they will probably say it was all an ANC plot to discredit her): they will defend her because she is their hero, finish and klaar.
What they do not realise is that such blind loyalty is bad for democracy and is also bad for the leader one is prepared to follow so blindly. How can we have real and meaningful debate if some refuse to address the real issues? And surely, if a leader is so adored and blindly defended, there will be a great danger that he or she will begin to believe the hype and will begin to believe in his or her own infallibility? The truth is that we are all fallible and we all make mistakes. But only those who at least try to be responsible citizens will ever admit to this and would show a willingness to be self-critical and to be critical of the leaders they respect or even adore.
Here is a challenge to DA supporters: why not try and engage with the arguments in this post — robustly and sharply if you so wish — in a serious manner? Why not try and debunk my arguments with more than ad hominem invective? (And if you use ad hominem attacks, why not try making these clever and witty, at least?) In short: why not try and act like responsible citizens in a constitutional democracy?
Just a thought.BACK TO TOP