/ 1 September 2008

Civility and excess

The core elements of our Constitution — respect for our democratic institutions, common citizenship based on equality, freedom and human dignity, and freedom of speech and of assembly — are violated by the use of extremist and violent language.

The ”militarisation” of our political discourse — talking of ”shoot the bastards”, ”prepare for war”, ”ready to kill”, ”ready to fight to take over the streets”, reference to ”counter-revolutionary” courts — is not only offensive but constitutes a danger to our democratic order.

We must assert the truth in a rational manner and refrain from using exaggerated language in so doing. We respect our right to freedom of expression not by sensationalism but by sagacity.

Put simply, we must be prudent with our language — because excess insults coarsen our collective intelligence, reduce the quality of our democratic conversation and weaken the fragile sinews of trust and goodwill vital for safeguarding institutions of representative democracy.

A vigorous, healthy democracy entails, no doubt, vigorous, robust debate. But there is a thin line between such debate and language that is so excessive that its use erodes the fabric of democratic discourse, if not our democratic institutions.

We must recognise that when we cross the line, when we permit hyperbole to inflate our argument, we run the risk that we will obscure not just reason but also obstruct our relationship with each other and subvert the democratic order. The responsibility to avoid excessive argument lies on all of us and none of us can in truth say that we have discharged this responsibility perfectly.

I, for one, do not believe that South Africans respect inflammatory language and divisive personal attacks. Let me draw some general conclusions from the rules of engagement.

First, the institutions and values of a representative democracy — rule of law, protection of human rights, representative institutions — are not lifeless structures or concepts frozen in ice. By all means, let us have a debate on the balance and dispersal of power including the role of the executive, Parliament, the chapter nine institutions, the role of the provinces and so on, but let us do so with civility of manner and courtesy of language. Let us debate how often we should amend our Constitution and the value of the chapter nine institutions, where Parliament plays an important role in their appointment to ensure their independence.

Second, let us remember that ultimate power belongs to the people. The philosopher John Locke put it well: ”The people will be ready upon any occasion to ease themselves of a burden that sits heavily upon them.” It is clear that the people of South Africa are very far from this point today, as election after election has shown. Unless, as Bertolt Brecht said, satirising the elements I have referred to earlier: since the electorate is ungrateful, would it not be easier to dissolve the people and elect another?

Third, there is not a crisis of representative institutions in South Africa today. But we must be careful that a carelessness at the level of political debate does not drip acid on these institutions. Populism, demagoguery, debasement of language, outrageous allegations of conspiracies (meant to interfere with the administration of justice or law enforcement) and wild exaggerations are no friends of representative government or of institutions that belong to the people.

Parliament, as the tribune of the people, needs to reorganise its business. It requires a higher class of representative and must devote more time and attention to oversight over the executive. Greater sensitivity to public opinion means that portfolio committee hearings must not be allowed to degenerate into party-political rallies. Also, if we want to improve the status of Parliament, we should insert a second-reading debate to discuss all Bills in the House, not in the hugger-mugger atmosphere of a committee.

Fourth, a process of dramatic social and economic transformation is never an easy companion — but it can be the servant — of representative institutions. Liberalism and democracy are not identical concepts: liberal values as an abstract concept surely rest on shallow foundations if democracy does not also mean that vicious patterns of economic and social injustice, a brutal legacy of our history, are not a legitimate target of the most determined government action. The interpretation of economic and social projects by the Constitutional Court has meant that the Bill of Rights has a direct relevance in expanding the frontiers of freedom and in ensuring economic justice.

Fifth, in a solid democracy there is a natural equation between the times and the political ethos the times demand. Some may deplore a strong presidency with strong goals and policies and with the capacity to implement democratically agreed policies. Would they prefer an enfeebled presidency and an executive wringing its hands endlessly in the face of the inequality and injustice that still cruelly blight our society? Of course, a strong presidency does not mean an executive with excessive power.

Sixth, we have too often seen in some other countries over recent years an immature confusion between the democratic state and a free-market system. There is a link between the two, but, just as economics should not be entirely an adjunct of the state, so also the rightful claims of politics in shaping wider economic and social policies should be respected. Through debate we ought to be able to reconcile the individualist tradition of the Bill of Rights with the redistribution and egalitarian notions of social justice.

We do ourselves and our country honour when, in our public life, we respect diversity; when we honour differing views; when we value and cherish the institutions of our democracy and when we act — as the servants of the people — with civility and respect to each other. Nothing else will do.

Kader Asmal is a professor extraordinary at the University of the Western Cape. This is an edited version of a speech given by Professor Asmal at a workshop on ”unity in diversity” organised by the Human Rights Commission