Eusebius McKaiser: It’s okay to demand a culture of justification

COMMENT

Some people seem hellbent on quarantining rational discourse during this pandemic. I honestly cannot remember the last time I have seen so many intractable responses to a political speech as is the case with responses to President Cyril Rampahosa’s address to the country on Wednesday night.

You would swear there is only one reasonable way of experiencing and assessing the president’s performance, whether it’s his delivery and how he came across, or the content of the speech, and the information (what little there was) that he communicated. If we don’t allow ourselves to disagree passionately but without being susceptible to hearing different views and without getting grossly upset, then we will not only be poorer economically and in terms of public health by the end of this crisis — our already inconsistent standard of public debate will be poorer too.

So, at the risk of inviting venom, here is how I honestly assess our president’s performance last night. My expectations of his speech were broadly twofold. First, I wanted to see a return to explanations based on reasons. What has been missing in recent weeks is a public articulation of the evidence and logic for some of the regulations that the government has adopted.

The only thing more annoying than a decision that is disagreeable is a disagreeable decision that is not accounted for in terms of reasons. The state has a constitutional and political duty toward us to be transparent about the reasons for the decisions it takes. This is even more true of decisions that are divisive or controversial and far-reaching in their impact.

The second expectation I had is in part a function of the first but harder to assess because it is wholly subjective. I wanted, at the level of affect, to experience a president who is steering a rocky ship with palpable control. He needed to instil confidence again in his leadership and rebuild the bits of trust that had been eroded because of a departure from reason since he last spoke to us.


The president did not meet these expectations. Let us work through some examples. The list of items gazetted by minister of trade and industry Ebrahim Patel that can now be bought from shops is so shockingly random that the list has rightly been lampooned across the blogosphere. Patel is, in my view, one of the smartest politicians we have and the capricious nature of this command economy-inspired itemising of what clothes and bedding and other items we can and cannot buy smacks of a low point in his political career.

It is not sufficiently important that he consulted manufacturers. The only pandemic-specific question at play here is whether there is a rational link between me not being able to buy a short-sleeve T-shirt and flattening the curve. If such T-shirts are still in stock at a shop now, then the capacity of manufacturers to produce more is irrelevant in deciding whether it should be permissible for the store to sell me the available stock.

The president could easily have addressed this kind of issue last night and expose us to the reasons (assuming there are any) behind it. Defenders of the president trot out a straw person argument at this point. They wrongly pretend that critics wanted the president to speak for ten hours and address every issue. That is false. He could have cherry-picked three or four topical issues that his communications team and political advisers could have chosen from the heated and divisive public debate between citizens, and he could then have demonstrated what it means to publicly offer reasons for government decisions.

Take another example, that of the evening curfew. At best the curfew is superfluous because we already cannot leave our homes other than to buy basic necessities or have a medical emergency attended to. At worst the curfew overreaches, conflating a state of disaster with a state of emergency, and bearing no rational connection with the core aim of the lockdown. Again, the president could have demonstrated what it means to publicly articulate reasons for government actions that do not justify themselves.

Professor Etienne Mureinik cannot be quoted often enough for his 1994 description of the transformation from pre-democratic South Africa to a democratic South Africa founded on constitutionalism as one that involved (at least aspirationally) us moving from a “culture of authority”’ to a “culture of justification”’. The president spoke a lot of sentences last night. He did little by way of justification of actions already taken. Those who were sympathetic to him confused his empathy-inducing fatigue — “ag shame man, he made himself vulnerable and was so human in how tired he was and looked!” – with reasons and explanations.

It is not good enough to say as he did, “… there may have been times when we have fallen short of your expectations. Some of the actions we have taken have been unclear, some have been contradictory and some have been poorly explained. Implementation has sometimes been slow and enforcement has sometimes been inconsistent and too harsh.” 

What is the president referring to here? An acknowledgement of mistakes only has real ethical value if the mistakes are clearly identified, and you are precise in describing how you are making amends. Was he referring to the abuse of power by some cops and some soldiers? The ban on hot food sales? The weird list of goods dreamt up by minister of fashion Ebrahim Patel that can be bought? The poor handling of when the schools should reopen? What exactly am I supposed to give the president credit for in these sentences? These bits of the speech are too vague to be demanding of rapturous applause.

Lastly, the president’s new bits of information he gave us introduced with it new vagueness also. We now know that level four regulations will be revised but that immediately makes one wonder whether we now effectively have, I don’t know, levels four, four-and-a-half and five? And, whatever the content of these new regulation changes at level four will be, why be complicated when you can smuggle them into the not-yet-published level three regulations and have a clear delineation between levels four and three? All we know is that “level three and level four lite are coming, compatriots!” and yet critics of the president are made to feel bad for raising logical questions that raise themselves, quite frankly.

The same is true of the praise the president gets for headlining gender-based violence. Let us go back to the text of his speech.  The president said: “The scourge of gender-based violence continues to stalk our country as the men of our country declared war on women. We have developed an emergency pathway for survivors to ensure that the victims of gender-based violence are assisted. One of the interventions we have made is to ensure lockdown regulations be structured in a manner that a woman can leave her home to report abuse without the fear of a fine, intimidation or further violence.”

Come on, Mr President. Women who are being attacked inside their homes are not first and foremost worried that one of Minister Bheki Cele’s cops will give them a fine on the way to the police station to report their abuser. They are scared and abused and raped and beaten up inside the home and do not even have the opportunity to worry about Cele’s cops overreaching should they escape. I am not expecting the president to solve the issue with a magic wand he does not have but I am also not going to feel pressure to give him a noddy badge for identifying a problem but patently mischaracterising its core characteristics. 

Women and children are not safe inside our homes. We threaten to kill them if they should go and report our abuse. That is what lies at the heart of the reproduction of the war, which is why activists focus on more creative solutions like safe words a woman may be able to speak when at a pharmacy or shop, temporarily safe from the clutches of their abuser during the day (maybe), safe words a good Samaritan can then act on to help them.

So, do I have nothing good to say about the speech? It had potential. It recognised the state got it wrong at times, but it never told us what those wrongs are. It tells us good things worth praising like money pledged for the Solidarity Fund but never tells us how much has actually come into the account and how much is already disbursed so that we can celebrate outcomes and not intentions. 

It tells us about huge amounts of money made available for newly unemployed persons but never tells us how many people have received this temporary grant already and what measurable impact it is having. It tells us that we could have had more people infected or dead by now but for the lockdown of the past seven weeks or so, but it never tells us what models are used and assumptions made so these can be debated publicly.

Of course the government will make mistakes. Of course we are all learning as we experience this unforeseen event that is unique to our lifetimes. Of course the president is human and so will be tired from time to time. Of course we must partner with the government.

But it does not follow that citizens should engage in an “anthropology of low expectations”. The stakes are too high. We should demand a culture of justification from our democratic government. Otherwise we are allowing ourselves to be subjects rather than citizens. That would be madness.

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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