Appearance and reality: Liberal values in democratic South Africa

by The Editor

FEATURE: The Helen Suzman Foundation ( has just produced edition 65 of its Journal, Focus. The edition is titled ‘On Liberty’ and devoted to exploring some of the challenges, both social and political, which have confronted South African liberalism. You can find a full copy of the edition here (PDF). Among of a range of pieces by the likes of Bobby Godsell, Charles Simkins, John Matisonn and Michael Cardo (I see Pallo Jordan even makes an appearance) is the piece I wrote, below, on liberal values and how they are often the subject of subtle negotiation, almost always to their detriment.

Appearance and reality: Liberal values in democratic South Africa

By: Gareth van Onselen

July 2012


South Africa is something of an ideological twilight zone. Things are not as they appear. We spend much time debating the nature of those principles and values that define our constitutional democracy on paper, and much less time on the way in which they are interpreted in practice. And between these two things there often exists a substantial gulf. The result is a kind of unstated common confusion. Ostensibly a discussion will take place about an idea like, for instance, accountability, its nature and purpose, but in reality the two parties simply talk past each other. Each has in their head a set understanding. Each understanding differs. The differences are subtle; the effect, profound. The reasons vary. Sometimes the cause is cultural, sometimes political; but either way, there exists an unstated and ongoing negotiation for the very things we assume set in stone.

And here I am not talking about those more fundamental debates – where freedom of expression begins and ends or where exactly to draw the line between party and state – but those everyday ideas that constitute the bulk of our democratic lexicon. Often they receive less attention, simply because they never manifest at the centre of a significant public issue, but their role and purpose is no less important. And, sure enough, on closer inspection, they too are the subject of much contestation.

History and ahistoricism

Without exception, every liberal principle that underpins a free and modern democratic society exists and is understood in its current form as a result of long historical battle to entrench civil liberties and individual rights. On many occasions the world has paid a high price in order to uphold such ideals, a fact often taken for granted. The evolution of every central liberal tenet has behind it a bloody story. The many thinkers and activities who have fought for freedom and its component parts contributed in one way or another to that fight and today, as a result of their sacrifice and insight, we are able to define these ideas clearly and cogently. Perhaps more importantly, we are also able to understand and identify those threats to them.

South Africa is something of a frontier liberal democracy and the principles that define it are often debated as if isolated from a bigger democratic discussion that has been going on for decades. It is implied we are a special case and it is not just policy but principles themselves which are up for debate. This sort of ahistoricism is, however, to our collective detriment; for, as remarkable as the establishment of democracy in South Africa is, its foundational principles are now agreed upon, set out in a constitution with a bill of human rights, and their value will be only fully realised when they are accepted as primary and non-negotiable.

Like it or not, ignore it or embrace it, we live in a liberal democratic state and the values it demands we engender amongst ourselves, are quintessentially liberal in nature. More to the point, the principles that inform the nature of our democratic state predate the New South Africa by a substantial period of time.

A natonalist agenda

Yet there exists a significant force in our society that would argue otherwise. Nationalism, and racial nationalism in particular, has a powerful foothold in South Africa and its agenda is constantly promoted by those who stand opposed to these widely-accepted ideas. Against them they propose a set of quintessentially ‘African’ values and principles. We don’t practice ‘accountability’, we have an “African interpretation” of accountability. We don’t have a ‘democracy’, we have an ‘African democracy’, and so on. As if the universal and intrinsic good that underpins each of those ideals is not enough on its own. To be legitimate, they must have the requisite, politically correct, disclaimer. This flows from a disdain fuelled in large part by a particular political contempt for ‘the west’ and modernity, which is ironic, given how much emphasis we place on trumpeting the progressive nature of our constitution.

The idea, of course, is self defeating. Were this the case, every abstract principle would be denuded of its worth; for every country or culture would claim it practices a form of democracy unique to it and its history. There is room for that kind of thing when it comes to rules and regulations – that is, the nature of and emphasis given to specific policies – but not the principles that underpin them. Were it otherwise, there would be no common democratic ideal towards which a society might aspire, which lack leads down a sure path to warping its nature and purpose. In South Africa, however, this tendency towards ‘African’ democracy has resulted not only in a specific kind of policy agenda but a particular interpretation of those more fundamental principles and values that, constitutionally, should limit and shape them.

As with every ideological impulse nationalism promotes, its parameters are ill-defined. We have endless discussions about ‘transformation’, which often finds its way into policy. Yet no document, produced by the state or any political party, defines what exactly it is. We debate ‘Ubuntu’ but, just like transformation, no full and formal definition exists. Certainly not one commonly agreed. In many ways, we are a society that lives in the fog, breathing it in, grasping at it, aware it is all around us, but unable to capture it in a bottle and often oblivious to the sure footing on which we stand on. These amorphous, political ideas also contribute to the way in which we sometime misunderstand or misinterpret many key liberal principles.

Indeed, the very fact that these sorts of ideas defy a full and proper definition, serves a powerful political purpose: they can be used to mean anything and nothing; to justify everything but to explain little more than their warm and fuzzy appeal. I am reminded of the definition President Mbeki offered of ‘transformation’ in 2008, in response to a parliamentary question, an interpretation as vague as it is dangerous:

“…Transformation represents a new concept of a caring government underpinned by the belief that the central aim of transformation is to improve the conditions of our people especially the poor.”

That is the very aim and purpose of our constitution and the principles and values on which it is built. Yet these other ideas seemingly hold the same weight and, where politically appropriate, are used to interpret the constitution, as opposed to vice versa. By elevating the former to the status of the latter, effectively one is saying each enjoys equal legitimacy and with that, the ill-defined values and connotations associated with ‘transformation’ have had a disproportionate effect on our core democratic ideals. The result of all of this is that, in South Africa, those historically well established liberal principles which, on face value, one takes for granted, are in truth subject to a constant and subtle negotiation.

What are some examples of this kind of confusion, and the difference between an idea’s commonly accepted definition and the way in which it is interpreted in practice?

Negotiated values

Let us start with accountability, a powerful illustration of the problem. Best democratic practice dictates the word has to it two component parts, each inextricably linked to accountability’s full meaning: explanation and consequence.

In order for someone to have been ‘held to account’, they must have offered an explanation for their actions and, if it is deemed necessary (that is, depending on the nature of that explanation), face some sort of sanction. In turn, each component part – explanation and consequence – gives the other its full effect: without the possibility of consequence, there is no incentive to be forthright; without a full explanation, it is not possible to fairly judge what sanction should follow an indiscretion, if any.

Yet, in South Africa, we deal primarily in explanation. So long as someone has explained themselves, they are deemed to have been held accountable, a situation which is, of course, politically expedient. The inevitable consequence of that is any explanation need not be truthful or extensive. Why should it be? Without the possibility of any consequence, there exists no incentive to insist on honest.

And so, we spend much time straining for an explanation. When we do get one, it is necessary to sift through the obfuscation and ambiguity that defines it in order for a desperate public to squeeze from it every last drop of responsibility. Very rarely is its thirst quenched. Accountability has been stripped of half its meaning and the result of that is that it has likewise been stripped of its intended effect.

‘Respect’ is another example. It is axiomatic that respect must be earned. It is a response given freely by someone who, on assessing the behaviour of another, has come to the conclusion that they are worthy of respect. One cannot demand respect. To do so is to fundamentally misunderstand the idea. And yet routinely in South Africa we are told that there are things we “must” respect. Often it is implied we have a patriotic duty in this regard. But, no matter how much you demand respect, unless someone authentically believes it worth giving, you will never obtain it.

The confusion revolves around the idea of deference, respect’s counterpoint. Deference can indeed be demanded; in fact, for those bullies who need this kind of affirmation, it can even be physically enforced. Very often, when someone demands respect, what they are really saying is one should be deferential towards them. Certainly that is authoritarianism’s intent: respect, ostensibly a far more palatable idea, is used as guise to demand loyalty and engender unthinking obsequiousness.

Those who require deference inevitably suffer low self esteem and so ‘respect’ is often used to counter offence. Indeed, to cause offence is in South Africa is one of the great sins. The disproportional effect that offence has on public discourse has resulted in the right that any citizen enjoys freely to express their opinion being upturned: free speech in principle, un-offensive speech in practice. Instead of speaking freely, almost intuitively one first regulates one’s opinion against any possible offence it might cause. The competition of ideas is the poorer for it; as too is criticism, so important to identifying best practice. For fear of not causing offence, there exists a range of orthodoxies – ‘no go’ areas if you will – that much South African debate daren’t address.

‘Consultation’ is another idea misinterpreted in similar fashion. In order for any consultation to achieve its intended purpose, the individual charged with undertaking it must enter a discussion open to the possibility that their existing opinion might change, depending on the validity of whatever counter argument they are presented with. If, however, they enter that discussion with a closed mind, that consultation loses its intended purpose. Then it is not consultation at all, merely an occasion to inform someone else as to the nature of a pre-determined position they will have to accept. To consult someone is to seek out their advice, always with the purpose of arriving at the best possible outcome. If that necessitates one altering one’s existing understanding, so be it.

In South Africa, however, this is not the case. Whilst ostensibly much consultation takes place in public life, most of it is a façade – an illusion, designed to give the impression that wide-ranging advice was sought when, in fact, the various parties involved never stood any real chance of affecting the outcome, only legitimating it by giving the pretence of consultation their endorsement simply by taking part. That too can be misused to serve political ends.

Excellence itself is under threat. The reason is a misunderstanding of the relationship between effort and achievement, processes and outcomes. The value of excellence to a society lies in its pursuit, in the trying. By striving constantly to improve, progress is given the necessary force it requires to unfold. Determining what is excellent and what is not is a relative judgement, a moment in time. Pursuing excellence is timeless, because one can always aim to improve upon that which already exists.

But, in South Africa, because mediocrity has a relatively firm grip on public life, the relevant judgement necessary to determine what is excellent and what is not has become an exercise not in gauging an outcome against its potential, but against that which is just good enough. And so the ‘best’ outcome might well have been better than its counterparts but widen the net (indeed, include international best practice) and it falls short of the mark. Certainly it is nowhere near its potential, yet is celebrated as outstanding nonetheless.

Likewise, the very fact that any effort was put in at all is deemed to exemplify the pursuit of excellence. Many people will tell you, if asked, that they are ‘excellent’ because they try hard. Effort for its own sake is, however, meaningless, unless it is attached to an outcome, and excellence and its pursuit rendered impotent if that outcome is nothing more than those things that are merely acceptable or average. This is how mediocrity strengthens its grip.

That attitude speaks to a bigger problem: the relationship between processes and outcomes. Because effort in and of itself is rewarded, and not gauged against outcomes, the processes that define public life have been elevated in importance above the outcomes for which they are responsible. And so the South Africa public mind is regularly engaged in an interrogation of the various process of the day and its attention directed away from a focus on the relevant outcome they were designed to achieve in the first place. We concern ourselves with questions like was the process ‘inclusive’, was it ‘fair’, was everyone ‘consulted’, and is it ‘thorough’ enough, among many others. Any outcome is held hostage to such questions. To those who would strive for excellence, these are watchwords, to be approached with caution; to those caught in mediocrity’s embrace, they are weasel words, used to mask one’s true intent. Thus mediocrity has reversed best practice: instead of the outcome determining the process needed to achieve it, the outcome is warped to comply with the process.

Ultimately, freedom itself is being negotiated. There is a widespread belief that many rights guaranteed in the constitution are in fact entitlements, that the opportunity they represent is in fact a burden and that there exists on the state an obligation not just to provide that opportunity, but to fulfil it too – as if agency itself no longer has any meaningful role to play.

What is it that underpins this contestation between a principle’s literal meaning and the way in which it is interpreted in South Africa?

There are those more formal threats to freedom – nationalism and, with it, the political and politically correct programmes of the day – things like transformation and ubuntu. There are too, the consequences of these misunderstandings – things like mediocrity and victimhood – which act to reinforce the confusion. But those things alone are not enough to explain the phenomenon.

A cultural conversation

The primary explanation, one which is rarely touched upon in South Africa, such is its political volatility, is culture.

Playing itself out in South Africa today is a cultural war, at its centre, the meaning of those principles and values which define our democratic order. The dominant cultural force in South Africa is not a democratic one, not in the modern sense of the word. It is authoritarian, demagogic and patriarchal. As a result, it engenders deference and victimhood. Most importantly, it has certain expectations which it imposes on any idea, with little regard for whether or not they run contrary to its intended effect on a society.

And yet, for all this, that predominant cultural force cannot ever reveal itself for what it really is. For that would be to elicit a conversation that would strike at the very heart of a society which, through no fault of its own, suffers already from heartbreakingly low self esteem.

Far too many in South Africa, particularly those who concern themselves with analyzing politics and current affairs, spend too much time navel gazing, arguing about words on paper. This is of course important (one must first understand an idea if one is to properly interrogate it) but there is a far more important discussion that needs to take place: an honest assessment of the nature and condition of our democratic culture, the forces that impact on it and consequences of their effect.

Perhaps it is time to start such a conversation. Certainly it is a necessary one. The following questions might prove a helpful starting point: What sort of cultural forces are at play in South Africa today? Which are in the ascendency and which are in decline? How well are they defined and understood? What sort of values define them, and how do they relate to those values our constitution tries to encourage? What is their effect on best democratic practice? What is their relationship to freedom – do they augment it or undermine it? Why is it we are so disinclined to talk about it? What can be gained from such a discussion? And what is it, exactly, we stand to lose?

This article first appeared in the Journal Focus (65, July 2012) produced by the Helen Suzman Foundation. The full Journal can be found here.

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