Trevor Manuel and the ghost between the lines

by The Editor

FEATURE: Trevor Manuel, like Thabo Mbeki before him, is no stranger to mispresentation in order to try and make his point. In 2009 he took issue with a number of critics who suggested that Springbok coach Pieter de Villiers was not up to the job, acussing them, effectively, of racism. On one such occassion he responded to Business Day editor Peter Bruce with an argument that not only warped what Bruce had actually said, but contradicted his previous position in doing so. In the article below I tried to set out why his argument was both flawed and devious.

Trevor Manuel and the ghost between the lines

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 September 2012

Building a straw man

In his book on critical reasoning, ‘Thinking from A-Z’, Nigel Warburton describes the straw man fallacy as follows: “A caricature of your opponents view set up simply so that you can knock it down.”

He continues, “Sometimes it is a deliberate ploy; in which case it is a disreputable form of rhetoric. More often it involves a degree of wishful thinking stemming from widespread reluctance to attribute great intelligence or subtlety to someone with whom you strongly disagree. Over-confidence in your own views may lead you to treat dissenting views as easy targets when in fact they may be more complex and resistant to simple attacks.”

The straw man fallacy is a favourite form of sophistry routinely employed by the ANC. Perhaps its biggest proponent was Thabo Mbeki, who revelled in falsely ascribing a series of pejorative generalisations to his enemies (racism often being the subtle or explicit accusation) and then setting about damning them by reference to those generalisations, rather than the actual argument they had put forward.

It is, of course, an entirely disingenuous way of arguing, borne either of an awareness that one’s counter-argument is weak or an inability to separate personal prejudice from one’s line of reasoning; or both.

Trevor Manuel is no stranger to the straw man, or the kind of intellectual dishonesty that underlies it, and his recent letter to the Business Day is a case in point.

Responding to a comment by Business Day editor Peter Bruce, about the shortcomings of Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, he wrote:

“What matters in sport is the result. Surely what matters in respect of the Springbok coach in this instance is that, unlike so many of his predecessors, he [Peter de Villiers] scored a series victory against the British and Irish Lions? Perhaps more importantly, I would invite the editor, who’s not the sports writer, to compare De Villiers’s results with that of his predecessors and only then arrive at a studied conclusion about his fitness for the job.”

In and of itself, that contention seems entirely rational. Of course any proper assessment of de Villiers’ ability can only be undertaken after a full interrogation of his record, who would argue with that?

But Bruce’s comment was a bit more sophisticated than Manuel implies.

Bruce had ended off his Thick End of the Edge column with the following aside:

“What’s there to say about the rugby on Saturday? Peter de Villiers got to pick a team of his own for pretty much the first time since he became coach and we lost to a second-string side. Prepare for more of the same. All other things aside, he just isn’t up to the job.”

Bruce specifically states that his assumption – that de Villiers is not up to the job – is based on the contention that this was the first time he alone had decided the team selection, thus the Springbok’s most recent result is significant and telling. Put another way: one can only really judge de Villiers’ ability as a coach by the last test match, as it was in that match that his influence was most acute – the other games do not allow for a proper assessment.

Now, one may or may not agree with that contention but, if you don’t agree, the logical point to debate is the idea that this was the first time he got to pick his own team. To suggest Bruce is some sort of recalcitrant for overlooking the fact that de Villiers won a series victory against the Lions deliberately misses the point; indeed, it is a straw man.

Bruce deliberately distinguished de Villiers’ most recent test from the rest of his record; but Manuel bases his response on conflating de Villiers’s most recent test with his entire record. In doing so, he treats Bruce’s point as an “easy target” when in fact it is “more complex and resistant to simple attacks”.

Having set up the straw man, Manuel then proceeds to knock it down, with the requisite moral indignation with which he saturates all his rhetoric. Later on in his letter, and rather ironically, Manuel implores “sane people” to “battle against such intellectual laziness” – a reference to those who would arrive at conclusions without examining the facts; but, given that Manuel’s entire argument is designed to set up a straw man, a closer examination of facts would, in fact, be a good place for the Minister in the Presidency to start, not the Business Day’s editor.

(Looking past that straw man for a minute, there is a second, even more obvious red herring. Manuel introduces the criticisms leveled against de Villiers for his myriad outrageous remarks and, again, says one should look at his results before judging him. He implies Bruce, along with many others, have failed to do as much. But Bruce did no such thing; never mentioned de Villiers various comments.)

Double standards

That said, there is another, more fundamental bit of hypocrisy underlying Manuel’s letter that is worth interrogating; and it is best illustrated by examining his statement that: “What matters in sport is the result”.

That sentiment is a noble one indeed. Any professional sportsperson will tell you the purpose that underlies their every endeavor is the pursuit of excellence and a drive to be the best, by beating the best. But that is not a position Trevor Manuel is too familiar with, nor one he has espoused in the past.

If anything, Manuel has been fairly adamant that transformation and the imposition of racial quotas should be the overriding consideration when it comes to professional sport. For Manuel, winning has always been secondary to achieving demographic representivity, and there is plenty of evidence to this effect.

Perhaps the best example is an exchange of letters between the Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister for sport, Donald Lee, and Manuel, in 2005.

Manuel initiated the exchange by responding to a speech by Lee during the State of the Nation debate. Lee had argued that the ANC’s obsession with imposing racial quotas on our national teams was not only to the detriment of South African sport and sportspeople but stood in stark contrast to the values promoted by the ANC in opposition to apartheid.

In support of his argument Lee cited a speech by ANC stalwart Abdul Minty who, in 1971, had stood before the United Nations and called for South African sport to be boycotted by arguing that “Human beings should not be willing partners in perpetuating a system of racial discrimination. Sportsmen have a special duty in this regard in that they should be first to insist that merit, and merit alone, be the criterion for selecting teams for representative sport”.

As is his want, Manuel’s response was fairly personal and scathing. He accused Lee of “distorting history” and argued that we have a duty to “effect some corrections to ‘level the playing field’” and that “determined action” was necessary “to attain the Constitutional imperative of representivity”.

Space does not allow for all the details of the full exchange to be set out here but it can be fairly summerised as follows: Donald Lee argued that quotas are damaging, perpetuate an apartheid ideology (that your race determines your prospects) and that professional sportspeople want to win, not be demographically representative; Manuel argued that demographic representivity and the imposition of racial quotas is the overriding concern that should define South Africa’s approach to professional sport.

Nor was Manuel’s position in any way exceptional, it reflects the general attitude of the ANC and the particular view of Thabo Mbeki who, in 2002, told journalists at the South African Sports Awards, “For two to three years let’s not mind losing international competitions because we are bringing our people into these teams.”

Understandably then, and against that background, Manuel’s more recent remark – that “what matters in sport is the result” – jars somewhat. Since when was Trevor Manuel concerned with winning? Remember this is the same person who declared in 1996 that he supported the All Blacks and would continue to do so until there was “real development” in rugby.

The ghost between the lines

There are two options:

First, Manuel suffers from the same sort of delusion that defines the ANC’s approach towards racial quotas – that a single-minded focus on transformation can co-exist with the pursuit of excellence. In other words, Manuel feels obliged to defend Peter de Villiers, who was selected for reasons other than his ability to coach rugby (“…the appointment did not take into account only rugby reasons… we took into account the issue of transformation in rugby very, very seriously when we took the decision”, to quote Oregan Hoskins), as an example of excellence because to concede that he is not, would be to admit that those other “reasons” meant the wrong guy got the job.

Of course, anyone who suggests otherwise is a racist, or harbours some sort of discriminatory impulse.

Or, second, his letter was the kind of opportunistic moral posturing Manuel seems unable to resist, and its inherent contradictions regarded as the kind of petty annoyance that is easily overlooked in favour of a cheap shot. Consider, for example, the snide remarks he addresses to Bruce for daring to comment on sport – the same question could well be asked of Manuel. Who is he to comment on sport? And why does he sign his letter ‘Minister in Presidency: National Planning’? Does that title somehow qualify him as an expert on rugby? The evidence suggests there is a rather inflated ego at work here.

So intrinsically linked is sport to ideas of identity and nation building that no nationalist can resist its allure: a compulsion to bask in its success compels the fervent nationalist to attend important events and embrace the pomp and ceremony; and yet without any seeming contradiction, an ideological desire to impose uniformity, to dilute excellence and denigrate one’s detractors will mean the nationalist cannot resist proffering their opinion on the subject, regardless of their standing or its merits.

In this case, no doubt, both those options played their part – that unique combination of intellectual dishonesty and intellectual thuggary Manuel specializes in, with the subtle implication of racism ever-present, just below the surface.

In his seminal book ‘Straight and Crooked Thinking’, Robert H. Thouless has the following to say about the kind of argument Manuel puts forward: “It is a useful argument for the dishonest debater because it is adaptable to a large number of situations. It can be used as an argument against action for the abolition of any evil, for there is no evil so bad that a worse one cannot be found to compare it with.”

In racism the ANC has found the ultimate evil. South Africa’s history ensures nothing compares to it. In that sense it has the ability to also serve as the ultimate straw man. And, when it is misused in the manner outlined above, it only ever warps public debate and undermines a full and proper exchange of ideas, on their merits. Thabo Mbeki was a past master at it. His ghost lurks between the lines of Manuel’s letter.

This article was first published on 10 July 2009.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.