The sensationalized commission of inquiry into allegations of political, intrigue, betrayal and abuse of power on the part of South Africa’s national director of public prosecutions has finally ended. But its after-effects are unlikely to go away as easily. What has emerged from the nationally televised proceedings of the commission is a labyrinthine saga of media sloppiness and alleged corruption, conspiracy, cover-up, political blackmail and self-serving opportunism in the corridors of power.
Among the names of prominent politicians and individuals referred to during the commission’s public hearings was that of South African deputy president Jacob Zuma, implicated in allegedly receiving bribes related to a multi-billion dollar arms procurement deal. Other names included former transport minister Mac Maharaj and former African National Congress (ANC) underground intelligence agent Mo Shaik, who claimed South Africa’s present head of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka was suspected in the 1980s of being a double-agent recruited by the fascist, apartheid regime. Although retired judge Joos Hefer who headed the commission will have the final say on the affair when his report is eventually made public next year, Ngcuka has already been practically cleared of the allegations against him.
The country’s intelligence agencies refused flatly to co-operate with the commission, and the same was true of the journalist who first made the startling allegations against Ngcuka. Nor, probably, was the commission pleased with having had its terms of reference constantly revised and eroded by the Office of the President, the executive arm of the government, which ordered the commission in the first place. Thus, the full circumstances surrounding the affair will most likely never be known publicly, and the end result has been a deepening mood of public cynicism and mistrust not only of political reports by the media but of all things political in post-apartheid South Africa.
No amount of politically correct posturing can now disguise the empty hole at the heart of South Africa’s democracy. Governance, in South Africa as elsewhere, has simply become a depoliticized, bureaucratic, managerial affair — politics as such having been reduced to mere political squabbling and a grim sifting by the political elite through each other’s dirty washing. The country’s present-day culture of political mistrust and disillusionment is reflected in the fact that 80% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have not even bothered to register as voters in the country’s forthcoming elections set for 2004. It is indicative of the triumph of cynicism over politics, which the Hefer Commission has only served to exacerbate.
The old French saying C’est la guerre — such is war — captures the notion that war is dirty and bloody, yet sometimes worth it. Today, however, that saying has started to ring hollow for many surviving activists and veteran freedom fighters who made hard sacrifices during the long struggle for justice, freedom and democracy in South Africa. For them, and for many others besides, the very notion of a truth that is worth fighting and dying for has been called into question. Not only have many people become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of supporting a cause — whatever that cause might be — but public mistrust has become institutionalized, a habit. It is all around us. “Trust nobody” the T-shirts proclaim. Most people don’t even care if public officials lie to them. Many seem to expect it. This is democracy’s moment of truth in South Africa, and it reflects a much wider, almost universal phenomenon.
No wonder South African society, not unlike the larger Western society of nations of which South Africa is a part, sometimes appears to be coming apart at the seams. Trust is the bond that holds societies together, and trust is based on truth. Not to be duped about the past is of vital importance to a society’s future; and it is central to a healthy cultural identity. This is why most people today find it difficult to believe in politics or in politicians, and many don’t believe in anything much at all. People are disillusioned. This is not mere, healthy questioning of those in authority. It reflects a culture of fear and vulnerability, a destructive phenomenon of the age, based on cynicism and something akin to rampant paranoia – a sense that we are all powerless victims at the mercy of dark forces. Official lying, directly or indirectly, has eroded public trust and it has resulted in a loss of individual reference points. This poses a far greater threat to the health of the Western society of nations than any weapons of mass destruction ever supposedly hidden in some wretched Third World country such as Iraq.
This collective state of mind has not come out of the blue. It has reinforced what were already dominant trends in the public mind long before the lies leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Each new revelation of deception or of political intrigue on the part of those in power has merely bolstered public cynicism. “So what? They all do it”, is a common response. Such large-scale mistrust of officialdom accumulated gradually and fragmentarily until the body of evidence became so large as to be difficult to ignore. So often have governments asserted their right to lie, to manage the news and contrive to deceive the public, that their lies are taken as “normal” and almost irrelevant.
The public mood is not just anti-politician, but anti-politics — an institutionalised mistrust that is corrosive of democracy and of public life. In the United States, about half the electorate — tens of million people — did not even bother to vote in the election of 2000 which gained George W Bush his presidency. In Britain during 2001, Tony Blair’s New Labour party achieved an election victory based on the lowest electoral turnout for decades. One conclusion to be reached from all this is that a culture of cynicism, voter apathy and mistrust does not distinguish between good and bad governance — all government policy statements are treated as lies. It is taken for granted by vast sections of the public that governments will lie to us if they possibly can, and whether or not they actually do so does not even matter any more.
It is a manifestation of the paradox that covert actions have public outcomes. We assume we are being lied to because, most of the time, we are actually being lied to. The present is supposed to derive from the past and the future from both, but the moral certainties of the past have become seriously eroded, while no new moral consensus has emerged.
There has of course always been some degree of scepticism about politicians, not only in South Africa but throughout the world — but that was something quite different from today’s automatic assumption that they are all liars and cheats. The moral high ground has been exchanged for a culture of cynicism and incipient paranoia. Western society has arrived from a worldview ordered around blind faith in “democratic” governance to a psycho-social phenomenon in which large numbers of people today experience some form of free-floating doubt and anxiety about everything. Collective institutions such as the United Nations and humanist projects of all kinds seem to have collapsed, leaving most people today without any resolve with which to respond decisively to events.
Public disenchantment with politics has bred outright scepticism about any attempt by the political elite to exercise anything even vaguely resembling integrity. People experience historic events as being beyond their control and they tend understandably to see real or imagined conspiracies behind everything. The perceived truth of any one conspiracy theory lends credence to all the others, eating away at whom we trust and what we believe in, and this provides more fuel for the mass escape to cynicism. The media, meanwhile, dutifully reinforces the depths of moral confusion that characterise contemporary times.
There is nothing positive about the spread of New Age angst and an anti-political mood that is based on apathy, disillusionment and knee-jerk cynicism. Its corrosive effects seep into our personal lives, inducing a philosophy of futility and focusing people on the banal and superficial things of life, such as unbridled acquisitiveness and the notion that “greed is good”. Far from people being united, it is more a case of do nothing, say nothing — with everybody suspicious of the person next door. Clearly, if one can speak of a collective identity crisis, of a period of radical discontinuity in a people’s sense of who and what they are, the present comes close to having attained that condition. Gone are the great public debates about moral values, social issues and our essential humanity. Cynicism has become woven into the very fabric of Western culture. And a cynic, as Oscar Wilde once observed, is “a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
Uncritical cynicism can only intensify notions of powerlessness rather than aid any meaningful transformation. If society values nothing and trusts nobody, then constructive social and political change is impossible. The cause of human progress and development becomes retarded because, among other things, it means unscrupulous political leaders can continue lying as they have always done in the past, but now without even bothering to hide it, regardless of how tattered their credibility becomes. The fallout from such a crisis of credibility could end up doing irreparable damage to the notional legitimacy of democratic governance.
Profound changes are occurring beneath the surface society not only in South Africa but throughout the Western society of nations, principally in the form of a withering of the State. The word “democracy” is traditionally attached to the State, that is to the form of the State subscribed to in classical political thought, including Greek philosophy. “Democracy” is meant to signify the main organiser of consensus as inferred from “consensual opinion” — which has in turn been subverted through an information stream heavily polluted by official lies, incitement, disinformation, deception and covert propaganda in all its forms.
Although the word “democracy” derives from the Greek demos — the people — what we are experiencing today is not the will of the people in action, but the dissolution of any supposed opposition between dictatorship and democracy. Much as it voices the supposed interests of social groups, democracy as a form of State is fast becoming de facto dissolved. It has finally succeeded in subverting its own legitimacy. We are witnessing the end of statecraft, and the end of what was once the core of political life — the great debate over how best to create a Just Society. Hence, increasingly, the end of all relevance to the word “democracy”. Yet, there is no reason to believe that the process of human progress has come to an end, or, for that matter, that it ever will. Even though “democracy” still seeks to provide rewards for conformity and punishment for honesty and decency, there will always be courageous people to stand up for human rights, and to resist the filth of an age turned unheroic.