An address on the occasion of Speech Evening at St Charles College, Pietermaritzburg, 25 October 2007

I believe it was the American poet Ezra Pound who once said that “real knowledge is for the few who insist on pursuing it. For the rest, education is mere shepherding.” His words are most helpful in illuminating an affliction that has harmed us before in this country and which is making renewed efforts to do so again.

The affliction to which I refer is political correctness, known more commonly and practically as “spin.” It’s a process that promotes convergent thinking and shepherds it, as Pound would say, into the confines of a large room. There the only distinctions in expression are those of tone and volume. Nonetheless, those differences are hailed as representing variety and diversity when in reality they propagate the same message.

In time political correctness becomes a straitjacket that marginalises and suffocates divergent and alternative thoughts and views. In time political correctness becomes holy writ. Questioning it or daring to criticise it is viewed as heresy punishable by alienation, exile, imprisonment and even death. Tyranny is its ultimate harvest.

It’s a slow, subtle process that embraces guises such as nation-building, transformation and materialism as vehicles of advancement. It preys on the unsuspecting and the uncritical. It may be generous in rewarding compliance and scathing in exposing and opposing those who attempt to evade its designs. In time its work resembles a series of electrified fences erected in the realm of public debate that shepherd thinking in a pre-ordained direction.

In South Africa this process is quite well-established. It progress is facilitated by a willingness to accept that the wrongs of the past must be rectified. BEE-compliant, for example, has become a standard term in the business lexicon. Criticisms of an obscenely affluent nouveaux riche are muted despite the fact that their accumulation of wealth in a decade has eclipsed what figures like Raymond Ackerman took a  lifetime to earn.

Dereliction of duty, corruption and plain incompetence is waived as the learning curve of the previously disadvantaged whilst criticisms are scorned as the work of those who are out of step with the programme of transformation. The privilege of serving in office is confused with the right to rule. The line between state and party interests is blurred as the creed of political correctness substitutes ideological criteria and objectives for those of good governance.

It all begs the question: from what was South Africa liberated? The short answer is – the ideology of baasskap. To unpack that slightly means that South Africa was liberated from a regime in which policy was dictated by a tiny elite. In its place a broad-based, democratic, transparent and accountable system has, ostensibly, been installed. Yet it would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same. After all, isn’t the SABC as supine and sycophantic in its observation of political correctness as it was before 1994, even though it is supposed to be a public broadcaster?

But, before déjà vu sets in and you feel this is another Witness column[1] allow me to go back in time to 1898 and to consider the role of the media in shepherding opinion against the Transvaal. (Bear with me, a little, those of you who are not students of history).

Kruger’s Republic had become the world’s top gold producer, a fact that did not sit comfortably with the lords of the British Empire. Political control had to be wrested from Kruger. The position of the voteless  uitlanders was to be exploited with a view to creating a crisis that would lead to war. On December 18, 1898, the Commander in Chief of British forces in South Africa, Sir William Butler, sent a despatch to the Colonial Secretary in London stating that the alleged grievances of the uitlanders in the Transvaal were a fraudulent invention. “All political questions and information coming out of Cape Town are being worked by a syndicate for the spread of false information,” he wrote. In a subsequent cable Butler asserted that news concerning the Kruger government was “a prepared business.” This, as the historian Thomas Pakenham has written, would enable Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner in Southern Africa, to justify war against the Transvaal.

Pakenham’s study provides an object lesson of the power of politically correct thinking in shaping and swaying public opinion. As a result of a barrage of inflammatory editorials and news reports, London’s Fleet St press as well as the Cape Times in South Africa succeeded in persuading even senior British decision-makers that war against the Boer Republic was unavoidable. “If Mr Kruger wants war, then war he must have,” declared the Daily Telegraph.

Butler’s lone voice of dissent against the subversion of peace was ignored and he was removed from his post. Based on the manner in which information was manufactured, distorted then sanctioned and promoted, the Anglo-Boer War should never have occurred.

In the 1930s the power of politically correct opinion kept Churchill’s voice in the background as he warned of the dangers of placating the Nazi threat. Even in 1946 when he warned against the communist iron curtain that was descending across Europe, the politically correct voices of the Establishment, on both sides of the Atlantic, spurned his view. Of course, events subsequently vindicated Churchill’s vision. Nonetheless, one can only speculate on how differently history might have turned out had the blanket of political correctness been breached earlier.

How, then does one deal with the enveloping threat of political correctness?

In April this year [2007] I met that very brave and persistent witness to the truth of Zimbabwe’s plight, Cathy Buckle, author of African Tears, and asked her that question. Her response was to draw two columns on a piece of paper – one headed DO’s the other DON’Ts. Under the DO’s column, she wrote: unite, complain, expose, speak out, take legal action, from alliances,, collect funds for legal challenges, be involved in civil society, be continuously proactive.

Under the DON’T’s column she listed: isolation, separation, silence, going into a laager, apathy, allowing rulers to exceed their terms.

A question often asked is whether this country will follow the same path as Zimbabwe. I addressed that in my column in The Witness  on April 27. The answer was a qualified NO premised, inter alia, on the extent to which divergent opinions are tolerated and freely propagated, the maintenance of the independence of the courts and an end to state attempts at interference in civil society through social engineering.

The way in which totalitarians entrenched themselves in power in Russia and Germany in the last century was the result of intimidation of those with contrary views and their eventual silencing. Once the flow of information was controlled, opposition was marginalised and intimidated to the point where it either disbanded or was simply declared illegal and incarcerated or shot.

In this context it is appropriate to recall the words of that brave German, Pastor Niemoller, who spent nine years in Nazi concentration camps and survived:

First they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists. I was silent. I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists. I was silent. I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak for me.

The point here, as Cathy Buckle has emphasised, is that unless solidarity is shown with those parts of civil society that are threatened, those bent on aggrandising their power base can do so piecemeal, secure in the knowledge that with a kind of domino theory at work, a landslide takeover is theirs.

This is the case in Zimbabwe where every single organ of civil society, except certain churches, is controlled by Zanu-PF. Hence the expression that everything is “political.” When a single authority has been permitted the wholesale takeover of society, it is obvious that any repercussion or criticism will be seen as constituting political action. Here one recalls an example cited in that column of April 27. A baker in Marondera was instructed by Mugabe’s agents to dismiss six of his workers because they were members of the opposition MDC or face closure  of his bakery. When the baker retorted that he ran a non-political bakery, he was told that employing MDC supporters made his bakery “political.” Totalitarians do not tolerate what they perceive as threats to their power base and therefore resort to violence to enforce their rule.

But it is not enough to content oneself that because opinions critical of the government are aired and publicised, all is well. The process by which the blanket of political correctness is spread is often insidious. The actions of the Judicial Services Commission this past month have given rise to considerable disquiet. Despite the shocking admission by judge John Hlophe that he had been paid by an outside investment company on a monthly basis and that he had used his judicial authority to permit that company to sue one of his junior colleagues, the JSC saw fit to let him off with a mild warning. This, of course, is outrageous. He is not fit to be a judge as eminent legal figures like retired Judge Johan Kriegler have declared. An editorial in the Mercury (October 8) stated: “The JSC has failed the administration of justice, failed the Constitution and failed the people of this country.”

It is not widely known that the president appoints 15 of the 23 members of the JSC – 16, if one includes the minister of justice. That places the objectivity and impartiality of the JSC at risk and leads to the sort of conclusions that the Black Lawyers Association has drawn: given the constitutional status of the JSC, its findings are beyond reproach, regardless of the facts of the Hlophe case.

If political correctness is allowed to seep into the judiciary in this fashion, it is just a matter of time before the same culture infests other structures.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated: “The punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in government is to live under the government of worse men.” Criticism and the health of society are inseparable – the one is the gauge of the other. The more vigorous, penetrating and fearless the criticism a nation can stand, the healthier and stronger it will be. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

A huge responsibility, therefore, rests on you, the younger generation, to be aware of the need to preserve the free flow of information and opinions and to be wary of disinformation. Remember it was Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, a master of his craft, who said the bigger the lie the more chance of it being believed. In our time that means the louder and larger the messages purveyed by the mass media, the more careful we should be in heeding them.

Watch out for a spin in every field – not just politics. It’s churning away in all big issues – climate change, the health industry, business, sport.

Watch out too for materialism. It buys off or neutralises dissenters and detractors. “Every man has his price,” noted Cecil Rhodes. Juxtaposed with that is Thomas Jefferson’s warning that “material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction.”

Chase down the truth, as Ezra Pound exhorted. Henry Ford is scorned for having reportedly stated, “History is bunk.” But what he actually said was: “History, as it is written, is bunk.” There’s a world’s difference.

Gather your own source material. I have dated and referenced cuttings on Africa and South Africa going back 30 years. With the internet, it’s even easier to access material and to store it.

Read widely. Shopping for books has never been easier using online facilities.

Believe in yourself. Question and interrogate the facts. Develop independent thinking. When I was a second-year student at university studying history, we were required to produce written critiques of at least one page in length of the essay under review at a seminar. I made the effort, and it has become a habit and a routine in managing information.

Make your own waves and surf them accordingly. Speak out. It is simultaneously your right and responsibility. The opinion not aired or shared influences nobody. The opportunities to do so have never been easier and more effective.

FINALLY, a classic piece of philosophy that demolishes political correctness: the words of Felix Schelling, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania a century ago: “True education makes for inequality; the inequality of the individual; the inequality of success; the inequality of talent, of genius. For inequality, not mediocrity, not standardisation, is the measure of the progress of the world.”

[1] Between July 1992 and November 2007, I had a fortnightly column in The Witness.

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