Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Democracy needs dissenters and outside voices

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06 Aug 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Now, more than ever, is the time for an open dialogue with contesting viewpoints from across society, writes Tony Leon

WAY back in 1913, writing on the benefits of transparency, Louis Brandeis said: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman." He went on to become one of the most progressive and acclaimed judges of the US Supreme Court and one of the staunchest proponents of that essential combination for a free democracy to flourish — the government’s obligation to be open and the citizen’s right to privacy.

We can but speculate, a century later and an ocean or two away, how Brandeis would view our democratic republic today, nearly 20 years after its founding. We can go much further back to describe our paradox. A snapshot of our present crises conjures up the famous figure from ancient Greek mythology, Tantalus. The son of Zeus, he was condemned to stand mid-waist in water and yet was dying of thirst.

Here’s our dilemma: on the one hand, our constitution in its first clause anchors our democracy on the founding values of "accountability, responsiveness and openness". On the other, "some among us", to borrow a phrase from Thabo Mbeki, excavate tunnels under it to rob it of meaning and coherence, so it resembles a Hollywood movie set or a Potemkin village — where the outer facade hides a hollow interior.

It is striking that the founding father of our democracy, Nelson Mandela, enters his ninth week in hospital and we have yet to receive a medical practitioner reporting on his condition, and so content ourselves with fragmentary reports of spin doctors rather than substantive ones from his clinicians.

Brandeis might have celebrated the illuminating effects of electricity in the early 20th-century US but, here at home a century later, we have a real and objective problem in keeping the lights on at all. And so Eskom is forced into an economically hazardous bargain: it switches off the power to some of our key resource and mining companies to keep the home lights burning. Of course the taxpayer funds this switch, just as he will stump up for the extraordinary and mysteriously delayed Medupi power station. At the weekend, Jasson Urbach of the Free Market Foundation published an estimate that this is "perhaps the most expensive coal-fired power station in the world". That’s not its only problem — coming in at perhaps R100bn more than its original estimate — and about four years behind schedule. But there is no accountability at the top and few explanations from the political stratosphere for why such a complex and unfit-for-purpose project was conceived, when perhaps five or six less-sophisticated power stations could have been up and running by now. Perhaps the fundraising needs of the ruling party’s business house provide a clue.

Rather than hold to account and explain, and shine the light of accountability, appoint a commission and then hobble it into ineffectiveness and shroud its workings in secrecy. That, at any rate, appears to be the modus operandi of the arms-deal probe under the contested leadership of Judge Willie Seriti, the man of many agendas. Openness is, apparently, not one of them. The advocate leading its evidence was quoted in the Sunday Times as saying: "I can’t operate in an environment which is so suffocating."

Then there is the economic crisis we face. Surely, here and now more than ever, is the time for an open dialogue, of contesting viewpoints from across society, particularly its key economic stakeholders? How about implementing some of the key proposals of the body of work already done, from the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa to the National Development Plan? Apparently not, despite unemployment cresting at a reported 37% and widening current account and trade deficits. We will have another commission in the form a "presidential task team", whatever that might mean or do. One thing seems a racing certainty — contrary voices will not be encouraged or welcome.

I fear that the editorial in last week’s Financial Mail was, gloomily, if appropriately, on the money when it opined: "Rightly or wrongly, the African National Congress (ANC) struggles to bring itself to listen to any institution, organisation or individual outside its own ranks. The most important debates within the ANC happen within the ANC. In the minds of the cadres … outsider critiques are almost by definition always wrong."

In fairness, some insider ones are also unwelcome. When President Jacob Zuma’s foreign affairs adviser, Lindiwe Zulu, voiced the obvious truth recently — that the emperor across the Limpopo had no clothes — she was silenced and sidelined.

Outside voices, and some pesky and brave internal dissenters, are key unless the president’s office and inner councils of the government become an echo chamber providing a chorus of approval, not an agenda for the tough choices required at key moments of national survival and regional and international challenge.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

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