By Imraan Buccus
Desmond Tutu was one of the greatest figures in South African history, and a global icon. He first came to international attention when he officiated at Steve Biko’s funeral in 1977. Throughout the 1980s he was present, a distinctive figure in his purple robe, at political funerals in the townships.
But unlike many others, he was never an ANC hack and never sectarian. He supported Black Consciousness and UDF activists, and took a principled position against the gruesome practice of “necklacing”. One on occasion he risked his life to stop a “necklacing”.
By the 1980s he was the most globally recognised public figure in the anti-apartheid movement after Nelson Mandela, and the most recognised figure out of jail and able to build solidarity by personal action.
Tutu became an important cultural figure. In 1986, the great jazz musician Miles Davis named an album “Tutu”. In 1988, the British reggae artist Eddy Grant recorded Gimme Hope Jo Anna, an anti-apartheid anthem that referenced Tutu.
Most people who supported the ANC during the struggle were unable to criticise it once it was in power. Tutu was different. He held the ANC to account for Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism, the party’s collapse into endemic corruption, and much more. He was, as obituary after obituary has noted, a man of genuine principle.
South Africa’s toxic public life
But the death of Tutu has illustrated, again, just how toxic public life has become in South Africa. Our problems in this regard are not unique. One only has to look at the right-wing media in the US, much of which has been funded by the Koch brothers, to see that the situation is just as bad in the US. It’s equally bad in India where anyone on the left is deemed by the right to be an agent of the Chinese state, unless they have a Muslim name in which case they’re deemed to be an agent of Pakistan. Videos showing the public murder of Muslims, termed “lynchings” in India, are regularly shared via social media.
But the obvious reality that right-wing toxicity is common in many countries does not mean that we should accept the dangerous toxicity, much of it taking the form of fake news and personal bile, of social media in our own country.
In the days after Tutu’s death, the historical facts of Winnie Mandela’s life were once again abandoned in favour of fake news. The claims in Pascale Lamche’s now thoroughly discredited 2017 documentary Winnie, were recirculated. Tutu was blamed for the failure of the ANC to prosecute human rights abusers after the TRC. He was even blamed for the ANC’s failure to seek justice for the Black majority after apartheid. The tone of much of this fake news was simply vile as peacetime pseudo-radicals – most of them would be kleptocrats – spat on Tutu’s legacy, and on ubuntu.
A threat to democracy
This kind of discourse is a threat to democracy, and to the possibilities for rational engagement to work out a resolution to our current crisis with its endemic corruption, massive unemployment, and collapsing state capacity.
The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas is one of the key theorists of democratic discourse. He argues that creating a more equal and rational society requires what he calls “communicative action”, a process by which public speech works to “mobilise the potential for rationality”.
This is not, as the peacetime pseudo radicals on Twitter would likely say, a liberal idea. Leon Trotsky, the great Russian revolutionary, argued that, “Abusive language and swearing are a legacy of slavery, humiliation, and disrespect for human dignity – one’s own and that of other people”.
He makes two central points in an argument for what he calls “cultured speech”. One is that, “Language is the instrument of thought. Precision and correctness of speech are indispensable conditions of correct and precise thinking”.
The other is that, “the revolution is, before and above all, the awakening of humanity, its onward march, and is marked with a growing respect for the personal dignity of every individual”.
Trotsky was no lily-livered liberal nor was he a peacetime pseudo radical. He was the leader of the Red Army, one of the great revolutionaries in human history.
We cannot resolve our urgent social and political problems without evidenced-based rational debate. We cannot overcome oppression without respect for the dignity of the oppressed.
Fake news, personal venom and the politics of intellectual thuggery are a serious threat to democratic politics, and the struggle for social justice. It is time to draw a clear line in the sand between those who engage in public debate with respect and intellectual seriousness and those who have degenerated into Trumpian forms of intellectual thuggery.
Dr Imraan Buccus is a political analyst and senior research associate at ASRI.