Nkandla and the politics of denial

We wouldn't dare believe that our leaders could steal from us, because doing so would somehow deny us the opportunity to indulge in the gains our elders fought for. An admission of failure is not an option in our politics, because not only does it force us to accept that we're human and capable of grand and despicable acts, but in some freakish twist of logic that "the enemy" would win.  The "us and them" motif permeates our daily discourse and it's no surprise.

Recent labour strikes and community protests should have strongly hinted to us that something was amiss, and that this gaping canyon between rich and poor is untenable. But we don't want to hear about that side of the gold nugget. Somehow it is more polite to say "service delivery protests", because "mini uprisings" is too ghastly to contemplate – and clumsy in headlines.

We want to believe, or at the very least fool ourselves into believing, that things will get better. We'll work it out eventually, and the hope that our struggle veterans fought and died for is still alive. Denial.

Our denialist tendencies are ingrained in us. In the book, The Politics of Denial, psychologists Michael A Milburn and Sheree D Conrad argue that "the political life of a nation often exhibits shared denial of painful realities, and that this phenomenon has its roots in punitive childrearing practices which force children to deny unpleasant truths about their parents." Excuse me, what?

They further argue that "such strict parenting also causes authoritarian and punitive adult political positions".

Are Milburn and Conrad really proposing that we can go into denial about our leaders because we're all traumatised by our past? Sounds plausible, but so clinical. It's better to demonstrate this with real-life examples.

Denial is the most chosen political tool with which to bludgeon an opponent into submission. Deny it to the hills and hope to God more bungling can give way to another crisis for us to lurch towards. We moved swiftly away from Marikana, Guptagate, and the debacle that was the Central African Republic, those are almost distant memories now. But it seems there was always Nkandla. For more than four years this monolith on our political landscape has cast its shadow over us. And just when we think we're moving closer to the truth, the first response from our first citizen is – a denial?

Our leaders are in a habit of denying things. If you don't believe me, Google "Zuma denies" and note the number of occasions our president has seen it fit to repudiate certain claims against him or the ruling party.

"I didn't do anything wrong," is what we are led to believe he said.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and the second most powerful decision-making body, the party's national executive committee (NEC), admitted that Nkandla was the "shortest item on the agenda" this past weekend.

It is just days before a two-week deadline, and we're expected to believe that people came in, built stuff and moved things around without the permission of the head of the household? How rude of them!

Politicians tell us what we want to hear, not need to hear, because the one who tells the truth is singled out, called a liar and teased about her facial features. Thuli Madonsela doesn't contest elections anyway. We want politicians to tell us thousands of jobs will be created in the near future – and they will deliver goddamn textbooks on time. We want them to tell us that millions will be housed and miners will be paid better, because we believe that it will all come true one day. Mostly, we wished politicians would go away and leave some of us to run the country, but someone has to gorge themselves on the largesse – that constant companion of public office and service to the people.

Not that denial is the reserve of the post-1994 politician. Former deputy president FW de Klerk once denied there was a "third force" fomenting violence in the Vaal Triangle. Now who were we supposed to believe, him or Nelson Mandela?

And Hendrik Verwoerd, well he denied many things. He lived in a world of denial and felt justified in the reality he created for himself and millions who followed him. But these days no one really cares what he thought.

Nor is denial constrained by boundaries. The most famous denial award goes to Bill Clinton. You know him, of Hilary Clinton fame? "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" became a mantra for adulterous men all over the world. 

Former US president Richard Nixon too was no stranger to denial himself, and told the world: "I am not a crook." Some Americans believed him, but he still did the honourable thing, even if he was pushed.

The lifetime achievement award for denial would go to Adolf Hitler for the denials that morphed into blatant lies he told the world. Millions of lives were lost before he was stopped. But I digress.

Writer Mark Olmsted, in his book surprisingly also titled, The Politics of Denial, says: "Denying inconvenient truths has morphed into an upside-down world where facts are considered subjective perceptions."

So, despite the facts presented by, I don't know, let's say a public protector and a 443-page report detailing just about every single one of the cover ups and untruths for the pleasing of one president and his family, we are somehow expected to believe the opposite is true? That's an interesting concept, and one that is clearly working. I don't see any major heads rolling for Nkandlagate yet, do you? Denial.

Olmsted warns: "Denial can be a good or at least a necessary thing, if it's part of a process that leads to acceptance. It can also be extremely dangerous."

What follows our traumatic past, that brutal time when death was all around and loved ones were lost, is the stage of denial we're in before we truly grieve. We want things to be better again. Like we'll be prodded awake from our current nightmare and told all will be ok. It's called "magical thinking", according to Olmsted. 

It sounds like quackery, but the evidence is crowding us out. It's smacking us in the face while we gape at the elections on the horizon where another political placebo will be prescribed, as we search for new and creative excuses. Denial.

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Adrian Ephraim
Adrian Ephraim is a journalist and editor who has worked in print, radio and digital over the past 20 years – for The Star newspaper, IOL, Mail & Guardian and Eyewitness News. He has covered sport since 2005, when he won the SAB Newcomer of the Year Award. His work has focused on human interest stories in news and sport, and the triumph of hard work and determination over adversity.

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