A few weeks ago, I warned that if South African society is to emerge from the tragic socioeconomic legacy of apartheid in a meaningful way, we will need to restore rational thought in public discourse. Because ideas need power for them to influence a greater constituency, we have tended to hand them over to politicians. What is worse, we accept politicians will lead national (and global) debates.
There are several examples of irrational debates in South Africa today, two of which I would like to address. The first is an older discourse on white monopoly capital, which is largely political and has gained legitimacy in most quarters in South Africa.
If we dissect the meaning of each of the constitutive words “white, monopoly and capital”, the combination of these words is in itself irrational. First, capital in the Karl Marx sense is always monopolistic. Those who possess different forms of capital hold more economic, social and political power in society. Thus, to talk of capital, we already talk of monopoly. What about the prefix “white”? It is true that there are more white people than black people who possess wealth-generating assets in South Africa. But whether capital has any transaction with race is a debatable point.
It could be that capital in South Africa concentrates among white people, but if there was a decree to turn over all capital to black South Africans, it would still be capital and it would still be monopolistic.
Whether it is in black or white hands makes it no less brutal against the poor and the working class. These contradictions distort the discourse by inserting the words “white” and “monopoly”.
The second recent debate sparked by the Western Cape’s outgoing premier, Helen Zille, although mainly political, is that of black privilege. We could turn a deaf ear, suggesting that it is not based on reality. Although it may be unreal to us, there is a large constituency that perceives Zille’s argument as reality.
The debate about what is real and what is not requires a logical tool to determine whether it holds any merit or otherwise. First, Zille was reacting emotionally to a tweet by an emotionally charged tweeter, who argued that white privilege was altogether a disfavour to Africans and that Zille did not understand how this worked. Zille responded as follows: “Well, you clearly don’t understand black privilege. It is being able to loot a country and steal hundreds of billions and get re-elected. If ppl want permanent poverty for the masses they are going about it the right way.”
Some Zille supporters applauded her for exposing an uncomfortable truth. Uncomfortable? Yes. But is this truth? There are at least two logical faults with this assertion. First, rather than a genuine intellectual inquiry, Zille’s argument emerges out of an emotional transaction and, by this virtue alone, any rational pathway becomes almost implausible.
Second, Zille creates moral equivalence between white privilege and what she terms as black privilege. The rationale behind white privilege is that by being white one is freely credited (without any merit other than skin colour) certain social value or benefits. Conversely, what could be the rationale behind black privilege? Zille’s answer to this question is the right to corruption. But is corruption a privilege? Not if we agree to the textbook definition of privilege. In her already fractional vision, Zille’s charge seems aimed at corrupt behaviour among politicians, but she equates corrupt political behaviour to black behaviour, as if all black people are politicians and all politicians are black.
At the core of both debates is the question of reality. Where does the truth lie? Relativists would argue that there is no absolute truth, and therefore we cannot make a case for absolute reality. Except that these same relativists believe that relativism is the truth. In other words, they hold to be true the argument that there is no absolute truth. In so doing, they violate the fundamental law of logic; the law of non-contradiction. This is the same charge I level against the two debates. They defy logic in the effort to present their version of truth, logically.
Both discourses are irrational, emotional and grammatically inconsistent attempts to deflect national debates from a more constructive, rational pathway. Public intellectuals will have to rise to the occasion and correct these and other national discourses if we are to build a society on the pillars of reason.
Jason Musyoka is an associate researcher at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria. These are his own views.