Who critiques the critics?

by The Editor

FEATURE: This is a piece appeared on Politicsweb a few days ago. It focuses on the work of Pierre de Vos, a regular critic of the DA’s style and tone, and asks the question: What of his style and tone? Does his own tone measure up to the standard he sets for others?

Who critiques the critics?

By: Gareth van Onselen

24 January 2012

Criticism is a goddess easy of access and forward of advance, who will meet the slow and encourage the timorous; the want of meaning she supplies with words, and the want of spirit she recompenses with malignity.” [Samuel L. Johnson; ‘How to become a critic’]


Over the years much has been made of the Democratic Alliance’s tone. The party is accused of being too adversarial, of relentlessly condemning the ANC’s failures, of being overly-critical and thus, too negative. By doing so, the argument goes, the DA alienates potential voters – particularly black South Africans. Refuting that claim is not the purpose of this article (although, I believe, fairly easily done). Instead, I wish to look at those who make this case and to ask of them the following question: What of their tone? Is their attitude towards current affairs any different from the criticism they level at the DA?

For example, the argument about the DA’s tone is often championed by a small, largely self-referential, group of critics who wear proudly any one of several titles – ‘independent political analyst’, ‘expert’ or ‘political commentator’, among others – as if each washes magically away all subjectivity and confers upon them some innate wisdom. On closer inspection, however, and more often than not, their designation contradicts rather than complements the nature of their actual contribution: On the one hand, you can be sure there is little they are not ‘experts’ on and less still about which they are unwilling to proffer an opinion; on the other hand, their wisdom turns out to be little more than a platitude and their opinion either wrong or wrongheaded.

The combination of these two things – their all-encompassing insight and understanding, and their willingness to express themselves on anything and everything – is no doubt a contributing factor the mediocre nature of South Africa’s public debate; as is the space afforded them. But perhaps even that could be forgiven, were they not to take themselves so seriously. Alas. When you stake your reputation on the validity of your public opinion, you are acting on the belief that the world at large is better off with yours views, than without them; and, unfortunately, egoism renders any real self-appraisal inaccurate if not extremely rare.

But content aside, the real irony is, were one to look at the tone employed by many of those critics, they fall short of the mark they so enthusiastically set for others. Let us look, then, at one such example here, a man who enjoys some small renown as a professional opinion-giver and who has had much to say about the DA, its attitude and the style of its communication; thus, who typifies the problem (and whose opinions are well-archived and easily accessible). How does his own contribution to South Africa’s democratic debate measure up to the standard he sets for others?

Pierre de Vos

Pierre de Vos is a Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Cape Town. As his celebrity has grown, so has his willingness to give his ‘expert’ opinion to the media, on a range of issues outside his particular field of expertise, politics being a favourite hobby-horse. And on the DA’s tone he has had much to say.

“…The tone which some of the DA representatives employ when they engage with important issues of the day still alienates many of us,” de Vos has argued. “…It reflects a kind of arrogance that is often associated with someone who has been the Baas his or her whole life and is used to being the Baas and to tell others what to do and how to behave while not having to follow suit.” His sage advice: The DA needs to be “pro-active” because “given its image and demograpic [sic] composition” it needs to “dispel [sic] suspicions”.

In the same breath, however, he suggests this is not possible: “Many DA members and leaders who are really opposed to any kind of pro-active management of this sort”. So rather the party “just muddle [sic] on and on and on”. Despite the DA’s best efforts, which de Vos suggests are entirely superficial and disingenuous – “Helen Zille has been dancing and singing with black voters to show how compassionate and non-racial the DA has become” – its failure to break through reveals what he sees as its real agenda – the protection and promotion of white privilege. And so, for this reason, he argues, the party remains unable to garner the majority black vote: “…voters are not stupid and during the election almost no poor black citizens voted for the DA. And a good thing too…”

For de Vos, “many” or “most” or “a large number” of whites (the intellectually devious way he hides a generalisation inside a generalisation) reflect, in his opinion, the same attitude as the DA and so, graciously, often he has extended his wisdom to them too: “As whites we should recognise this and act carefully and with circumspection when engaging in loaded political debates”. The reason white South Africans fail to do this – and white DA supporters in particular – he suggests, is the following: “[they] embody white privilege and unthinkingly and arrogantly live what Samantha Vice calls whiteliness and white cultural dominance”.

His animosity towards the party goes way back, all the way to Tony Leon (whom he describes as “a champion of the apartheid-era economic and social status quo”). He blames Leon in large part for the DA’s overly-critical tone – “so far there has been very little real competition in our politics because of the disasterous [sic] way in which Tony Leon positioned the Democratic Alliance as a ‘fight b(l)ack(s)’ party”. And it is for this reason, and those others implicit to it, he says “I do not believe in the DA “Equal Opportunity Society [Note: the correct term is Open Opportunity Society for All] as I see it as an attempt to retain the status quo and erase the consequences of 300 years of colonialism and apartheid”. [Note: presumably he means ‘deny’ the consequences].

Thus, two things are evident: a deeply felt and long standing disdain for the DA and distaste for its tone; not exactly fertile ground for dispassionate analysis but all the right ingredients for self-righteous moralising.

You can just imagine de Vos’s delight – a kind of kid-in-the-moral-candy-store enthusiasm – when the DA makes a mistake or, worse, won’t admit to what de Vos sees as a mistake. He puts it like this: “If you claim to be better than everyone else – if you act all moral and superior and tell everyone else how evil they are and how wonderful and principled you are – and then you turn out just to be like them, you are somewhat worse because apart from being unprincipled and devious you are also – and in my books this is one of the greatest sins – hypocritical.”

“One of the greatest sins”? Let it not be said de Vos lacks for hyperbole. How he must struggle with the ambiguity and subtle contradiction that defines human nature.

But, at the same time, live by the sword, die by the sword. And so one seems inclined to ask, how does de Vos’s own rhetoric measure up to the standard he sets for the DA? It is pro-active? Is it condescending? Is it morally superior? Is he ever obnoxious? Patronising?

Let’s have a look-see.

I’m talking to you, stupid

We start with the word ‘stupid’, a perennial de Vos favourite.

The thing about calling someone stupid is that it suggests two further things: first, that the person making the claim is intellectually superior and, second, that the ‘stupid’ person is, for all intense and purposes, idiotic; that is, incapable of rising above their own inability. The DA rarely uses the word ‘stupid’ in its day-to-day communication. If it does, it is specific, with reference to an idea or sentiment as opposed to a generalised assault on an individual. When addressed to a person in this way it is inevitably an insult. It does not represent an attempt to deal with the nature of a particular action or idea rather, it constitutes an ad hominem attack on the responsible person’s general character. If that person is, in fact, stupid, that is defensible (although the nature of that defence would have to be substantial and all encompassing); if they are not, well then, it’s just derogatory.

One way or the other its use in public debate reflects what de Vos might call “a kind of arrogance”. The kind of arrogance, if de Vos is to be taken at his own word, that should be avoided given the “careful” approach and “circumspection” de Vos suggests South Africa’s “loaded political debate” requires.

Of course, the more you use the term – that is, the greater the number of people you describe as stupid – the more the perception is created that you see yourself as both superior to and morally justified in passing judgement on others. Until everyone is stupid and you stand alone, looking down on all the idiocy as you condemn it all. But just how often does de Vos use the word?

Here is a small selection, by way of illustration:

• “[President Zuma] might not have had a corrupt intention because he was so stupid or naive that he thought Shaik gave him the money out of friendship.”
• “…if [Billy Masethla, former Director General of the National Intelligence Agency] thinks he has a chance of winning the case he is either stupid or delusional…”
• “It is one thing for [Minister of Justice, Brigitte Mabandla] to be stupid enough to try and order the Judge President around…”
• “From my perspective, the SADC leaders are either deeply naïve and maybe stupid by thinking Mugabe will play their game…”
• “[Judge President Judge Hlophe] will not be impeached by the JSC because his missteps ‘only’ show stupidity and arrogance on his side.”
• “But even if that is the case, the fact that [former President Kgalema Motlanthe] could have believed in the authenticity of the emails probably makes him too paranoid and/or stupid to become President of South Africa.”
• “Maybe there is something in the water at Luthuli House that makes people paranoid and stupid.”
• “I have always liked Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. She seemed intelligent, hard-working and, for a cabinet minister, not without a modicum of wisdom and compassion. Her recent statements on the N2 Gateway fiasco have been so astoundingly stupid and arrogant that I have now changed my mind.”
• “…The people in the Presidency are either so arrogant or so stupid that they think we will believe them when they tell us such blatant lies.”
• “…I would challenge the members of the JSC to come clean to reassure cynics like myself that they exercised this double standard not because they are crooked or corrupt, but merely because they are callous and/or stupid.”
• “Mr. Zuma has never himself been convicted of a crime, he has acted in ways that are so appallingly stupid and dishonest that he should be expelled from the ANC forthwith…”
• “This is a monumentally stupid argument and I can only hope that Motlanthe did not really believe it when he wrote it because if he did, he is not the sharpest tool in the shed.”
• “The other question is of course how the Judge President [John Hlophe] could have been so stupid.”
• “‘Hate speech’ is a much abused term in our body politic and whenever a person says something nasty or stupid some politician (Patricia are you there?)…”
• “It is not often, though, that a politician is honest or stupid enough to admit this. One such politician is one JP Smith, who is the Mayoral Committee Member for Community Safety in Cape Town.”
• “…But Afriforum is also spectacularly stupid and shortsighted”.
• “A junior MP must either be very brave or very stupid to defy senior leaders of his or her party by trying to hold them to account. I don’t know what came over [Defence Portfolio Chairperson] Mr [Nyami] Booi. He should have known better…”
• “The fact that the NWC even discussed the possibility of charging Vavi clearly means that the tenderpreneurs in the ANC are more stupid and vengeful than they are greedy…”
• “If there really is a difference of opinion in the President’s office on whether the law requires him to declare these financial interests, then god help us all because then our President has people working for him that are spectacularly stupid or spectacularly dishonest – or both.”
• “Surely it is far too simplistic to say the protests may be the result of an ANC plot – as Helen Zille stupidly suggested.”
• “Maybe the relevant IEC officials are incompetent or stupid and do not realise that the Constitutional Court judgment also allows South Africans who are not abroad temporarily to vote.”
• “Which means either that [Correctional Services Minister Ngcondo Balfour] is really, really, stupid or that he is lying. Maybe both.”
• “Some days a politician says such a breathtakingly stupid thing that one can only laugh. Today is such a day. Mr [Mathews] Phosa, maybe you should write some more Afrikaans poetry and should leave the politics to Julius Malema.”

Remember, these are just some examples of de Vos calling people stupid, as opposed to a particular act or idea (of which there is a far longer list). They include the current and former President, a number of ministers, SADC leaders, the Judicial Service Commission, people who work at Luthuli House, a Judge President, The Leader of the Opposition, the Executive Mayor of Cape Town, an Exco Member, people who work at the IEC, Afri-forum, a portfolio committee chairperson, a former Premier and ANC Treasurer General and a Director General, among others. All fools.

Now, I am sure some of those people have done things in their time that might well be best described as stupid, they are human after all. I am sure too some of them exercised poor judgment, some were devious, some were short-sighted, no doubt a case could even be made that a small number of them are perhaps stupid in a more general sense, although difficult to prove. The overwhelming majority of them, however, are not stupid and a number of them are clever, some of them, very clever indeed. But again, that is beside the point: stupid or not, if one had to take de Vos at his own advice, tone is important in South Africa’s “loaded political debate” and going round calling all and sundry “stupid” seems somewhat counterproductive. One might well describe it otherwise: as arrogant, petty, childish, superior, egotistical and so on. But I shall let the reader arrive at their own determination on that front.

What I shall say is this, how lucky we are to have Pierre de Vos, that intellectual giant, to point out to us all this stupidity, and to warn us against these desperately stupid people.

And who isn’t stupid? “Lawyers are not stupid…,” says de Vos. Well, of course they aren’t. What a happy co-incidence.

Oh, and the voters – as he mentioned above. Indeed, de Vos often goes to great lengths to defend the voters, whom he paints as victims of evil politicians, who assume their naivety and ignorance in order that they might take advantage of and treat them like fools. His advice to politicians on this front: “Try and respect the voters who have elected you into office. Stop acting as if voters are stupid and ungrateful, as if they have to be told by heartless technocrats what their real needs are and how these needs should be met”.

That argument, however, while a convenient politically-correct base from which to berate public representatives, would only appear helpful to de Vos when he is making that particular case. Otherwise, they too are fair game: “…the ordinary voter is often too lazy or stupid to care…” or “if a majority of the electorate was stupid enough to vote for Jacob Zuma as President…” Guess what? The majority of the electorate did vote for Jacob Zuma.

Look at all the idiots

There are other snide and petty insults de Vos throws regularly around: “not the sharpest tool in the shed” is a cliché he adores. Kgalema Motlanthe is “not the sharpest tool in the shed”, likewise Kebby Maphatsoe, national chairperson of the MK-veterans association, so too President Zuma and the former Head of the National Prosecuting Authority Mokotedi Mpshe (or as de Vos refers to him “[air]Head”) and Patricia de Lille, among many others. And “idiots”. So many idiots. (“One of the wonders of living in a democracy is that one soon finds out that there are quite a few idiots about.”) Former President Thabo Mbeki – idiotic. Julius Malema – idiot (when not being brilliant, as you will see). Former Deputy Safety and Security Minister Susan Shabangu – idiotic. Coastu’s spokesperson – idiot.

It’s beginning to read like the comments section on a blog.

Again, one is perfectly entitled to call someone stupid, or imply they are an idiot or fool – one would hope it is supported by evidence to that end – but when you spend your time moralising to others about how important tone and style is, it would seem, dare I say it, a little hypocritical to do so yourself?

So, pretty much everyone is stupid or an idiot of some sort. And, in order to pre-empt de Vos’s inevitable, morally outraged response, yes, I too am stupid. We all are. We get it.

Exaggeration and consistency

The fact that these are largely unthinking insults is demonstrated by de Vos’s lack of consistency on the issue. Julius Malema is an excellent example, as I alluded to earlier. I wonder, is there anyone, when the tide of moral outrage is full, one is less tempted to call stupid? Certainly de Vos, whose opinion ebbs and flows with the current, has regularly obliged.

Herewith more of this sage political expert’s advice: “[In Julius Malema] the ANC has a leader that is so stupid and outrageous that he is bound to say many more controversial and even illegal things during the election campaign. If I was an opposition party strategist I would be working on a ‘Malema strategy’ to exploit the words and wisdom of Julius Malema to scare decent, conservative, voters (if that is not a contradiction) of any race into not voting for the ANC.”

But hang on. Elsewhere: “Unless Malema is really stupid – which I do not think he is – he will never actually follow through on this threat.” Indeed, not just ‘not stupid’, but “brilliant” as de Vos puts it in another piece – “a master politician”.

Granted, it was a conditional compliment, a reference to the seeming invulnerability Malema’s demagoguery engenders. But presumably it is difficult to be both brilliant and stupid, both a moron and a master politician?

What is the purpose of calling him stupid then? Is it simply to genuflect public sentiment in the way de Vos has become so expert at doing? Or to insult? In which case, why stop at stupid? They are far worse insults to be thrown around.

That kind of exaggeration and hyperbole is evident elsewhere in de Vos’s work, something which inevitably makes him vulnerable to committing “one of the greatest sins”.

Consider his views on President Mbeki. When first elected, and the politically correct tide was in, Mbeki had “many admirable attributes. He is intellectually gifted, often thoughtful, respectful of the Rule of Law and the Constitution, and a stickler for rules.”

A while later and with the tide have retreated somewhat dramatically, de Vos lamented: “What did we ever do to deserve such a deceitful and corrupt man as President [Mbeki]?” Elsewhere he would describe Mbeki’s statements as “idiotic”, “deceitful” and “corrupt”.

No doubt Tony Leon’s tone concerning President Mbeki was the cause of much angst for de Vos. But Leon never called Mbeki an idiot, and he got his analysis right from day one. Perhaps if de Vos had worried less about tone, and more about the problem at hand, he would be more consistent.

And what of being “proactive”? How does de Vos measure up to that standard?

Not well.

His writings are highly critical, an almost unrelenting stream of negativity, the luxury of his chosen profession. De Vos lives in a world of hyper-criticism. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made he revels it. Read the last 20 posts on his blog, try to describe each as “positive” or negative” and you can be sure the overwhelming majority fall into the latter category. For my sins I have read the last 200, you are left with the impression we are in some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland. But the DA must be “proactive”.

Don’t get me wrong, all strength too him. He is a critic; something much needed in any democratic culture and a noble and worthy profession. But then don’t spend your time moralising about the critical tone of others, who share a similar responsibility.

The DA is constitutionally mandated to provide oversight and accountability but, even then, and say what you like about the nature of its contribution, the DA makes every effort to be proactive. Virtually every statement contains an action step – something it will do to address a problem. Its election campaign was entirely positive. It has many policies and produces a raft of documents designed to make things better.

Not de Vos though. He serves at the pleasure of unbridled criticism. Indeed, he has made a career out of it. Imagine an article from Pierre de Vos, wholly endorsing some achievement by the DA? I can see him shifting around uncomfortably in the Claude Leon Foundation Chair he occupies as I write.

Low self esteem

So why all the pettiness and name-calling?

Usually people who feel some profound need to demonstrate to the world how clever they are – to constantly place before the public their opinions on everything and anything – and, at the same time, to deride others as being stupid or idiotic, suffer low self esteem. By constantly reassuring the world and themselves they are clever (and others stupid) they generate some desperately needed sense of self worth. But one gets the sense it is a little more than that. That de Vos genuinely is “malignant”. He enjoys it. The pettiness. It gives him satisfaction.

He is clever enough to realise it’s a problem. When in 2009 he chose to print a retraction and apology to President Zuma, after calling him a “gangster”, he wrote somewhat begrudgingly: “I unfortunately reverted to the kind of intemperate language, which sadly has become all too common in our political discourse…” Later on, he would comment: “…as a constitutional lawyer I hold myself to a higher standard, aiming for vigorous debate, sharp criticism and at times even mockery of scandalous behaviour without descending into Malemaesque name-calling and bullying that would unnecessary alienate reasonable people from across the political spectrum. That is why I have stopped referring to Helen Zille as “Ms Botox” and why I have apologised to the President for using the “gangster” phrase…”

So, he has the right intention; just the wrong inclination. I suppose there is only so much name-calling one can eliminate from one’s personal vocabulary, when low self esteem and pettiness find a common platform from which to express themselves.


In conclusion, let me say this: what a glorious right is freedom of speech. And, by all means, call people “stupid” or ‘idiotic” or “Ms Botox” or “not the sharpest tool in the shed” or “airheads” or fools, or morons, or whatever you want. I would suggest the veracity of any such claim should stand up in the face of the relevant evidence, but even that is at any person’s discretion; albeit it that requirement is often ignored, to the detriment of our public discourse. But don’t spend your time lecturing others about tone and style, when you are incapable of care and circumspection yourself; indeed, when you actively indulge in name-calling and insults. And, as an aside, you might well find it helps your ability to analyse when you do so, when you stop worrying about being vindictive or riding the latest moral wave and concentrate on the evidence at hand.

Likewise, don’t defend your own brand of petty criticism as some sort of moral imperative, only to demand of others something more proactive. And don’t hide behind clichés like tone and style to give the impression you have some grasp of what is required, only to relentlessly indulge negativity yourself.

De Vos once wrote: “Don’t the DA politicians go to a political school or a re-education camp – or something – where they are taught the basic rules about how not to alienate the vast majority of voters in the country?” It is a curious question when applied to de Vos himself, because he seems to have all the answers. Just his own disposition, his attitude if you will, won’t let him apply them properly to his own behaviour.

He doesn’t stand alone. There are a great many other ‘experts’ out there, who provide criticism for a living. They too have strong opinions about the DA, its tone and style. And they too fail to pass their own test. Their work is not as easily analysed as de Vos’s, hidden away as it is in the corners of news stories and opinion pages but, very often, the same analysis applies. All of which is worth considering, the next time you pick up a newspaper.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development.