“We had to show them who is in charge.”


By Tony Reeler

We all have an unscientific weakness for being always in the right, and this weakness seems to be particularly common among professional and amateur politicians. But the only way to apply something like scientific method in politics is to proceed on the assumption that there can be no political move which has no drawbacks, no undesirable consequences. To look out for these mistakes, to find them, to bring them into the open, to analyse them, and to learn from them, this is what a scientific politician as well as a political scientist must do. Scientific method in politics means that the great art of convincing ourselves that we have not made any mistakes, of ignoring them, of hiding them, and of blaming others for them, is replaced by the greater art of accepting the responsibility for them, of trying to learn from them, and of applying this knowledge so that we may avoid them in future.” (Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism)

The comment from Blade Nzimande says it all, and the scales have finally dropped from the eyes of all in Southern Africa. As the South African parliament descended into chaos, we realize now that the “miracle” that is (was?) South Africa was merely a temporary aberration from “normal” Southern African politics, and we can see that the “deep structure” of democracy – tolerance of criticism – has yet to embed itself in South Africa, as it has not in the whole Southern African region. This is the point of the Popper quote: that unless there is tolerance for criticism, democracy cannot flourish.

Democracy is not merely the separation of powers, regular elections, or the rule of law: it is much more than that if it is to truly flourish, and it is more than mere tolerance, but active encouragement of criticism.

South Africa and Zimbabwe are interesting in this respect. Both countries have executive presidencies, and currently both are led by presidents who seem hugely intolerant of any criticism, but the consequences are very different. In South Africa, President Zuma is regularly criticized, even ridiculed, and the latest events in the South African parliament show that there is no place that he can hide from criticism; as much as the ANC tries to keep him away from having to answer questions, the people keep demanding answers to their questions, and, despite the Stalingrad strategy, they will hunt him down even in parliament.

Zimbabwe, by contrast, has a president that seems wholly unaccountable, rarely having to answer any critical questions from any quarter, and certainly not in parliament. Parliament will debate the president’s state of the nation address, but the president will not be present to answer the questions, which President Zuma now seeks to emulate. Furthermore, publicly criticizing the president is a tricky business, even if we are now allowed to call him a goblin according to the Chief Justice. However, this may be trickier than we think, because only idiots would do this according to Chief Justice, and presumably anyone who did the call the president a goblin might be put to proving that he or she was an idiot in this ferociously intolerant country.

What seems to be the major problem in our Southern African “democracies” is the refusal to see that criticism is the basis of both good politics and good development. This is what Amartya Sen pointed out a while ago: good democracies have sound economic development, and this is considerably more than merely having robust institutions. This is not to say that robust institutions are not important. Independent courts and electoral bodies, professional state agencies, and a parliament that rigorously exercises its oversight function are of course critical, but without the acceptance of the fundamental role of criticism, these institutions erode and become shells.

Now, this is not to say that all criticism is valuable. Insult, ridicule and hate speech that so frequently masquerade as criticism serve no great purpose. Contrast the media storm over the President tripping and falling with the tepid response to his remarks about women at the recent AU summit. The former seems to have been predicated exactly by the way that the president immunizes himself against criticism, and thus his minor misfortune provides many frustrated citizens with an opportunity to show their anger, but this is trivial.

His remarks about women – amounting to a view that their best place is in the home and having babies – are much more serious, and especially when assuming the chairmanship of a body that is committing itself to empowering women in 2015. This should require demands from Zimbabwean citizens, and especially Zimbabwean women, to explain whether he is serious in this view and whether this view will render him conflicted about implementing the AU agenda. This is the kind of criticism that politicians should expect, and is what Popper is pointing out.

The point here is that politicians, just like scientists, are rarely right. Policies enacted by governments are very similar to the experiments carried out by scientists, but, unlike scientists who know that they are only likely to get partial truths (and will have the errors pointed out very quickly), politicians tend to insist that they have the right answers, that there are no hidden problems likely to emerge from their policies, and that criticism is unpatriotic. Yet history is largely a record of poor policies and mistakes by governments. One could construct an immensely long justification by reference to all the failed policies revealed in the historical record.

Take one small example from our own recent history. Government decides to follow the strictures of the World Bank and the IMF and implements an economic structural adjustment programme, with the inevitable impact on the poor as the social support framework largely disappeared. The many critics of ESAP pointed out, with recourse to the empirical record across the world of dozens of ESAP programmes, that this would have exactly the effect of marginalizing a substantial number of people. Some of those marginalized were those supporters of the government that had been responsible for removing the former colonial government, the war veterans, and they were not happy. Nonetheless the policy was applied, and the “hidden effects” that followed were the looting of the War Veterans Compensation Fund, the massive unbudgeted payout to the war veterans – leading to collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar – and food riots in 1998.

And when, during all this time in the 1990s, everyone (bar the capitalist enclave) said this is not working for us and change the policy, government merely persisted in telling us that it would work in the end. As Naomi Klein has put it, shock therapy is good for you!

And why do politicians and governments not behave like scientists? Give up their precious views when confronted with refuting evidence? It is precisely because they abhor criticism. As Popper puts it, they practice the great art of convincing themselves that they have not made any mistakes, of ignoring them, of hiding them, and of blaming others for them. Even worse than merely being immune to criticism, governments can take steps to prevent criticism: by banning political parties, shutting down the press, and even resorting to violence. In the farce that was the State of Nation Address in South Africa, both shutting down the press (by jamming electronic media) and violence (forcibly ejecting MPs) were seen. But worse happens elsewhere in Southern Africa!

Acceptance of criticism is the fundamental basis of democracy, and, even more than this, is the active fostering of criticism. It is what politicians should expect, encourage, and practice: without criticism, we can never learn from our mistakes, and we should expect to make mistakes – it is the human condition to do so. As Karl Popper has eloquently put it:

The war of ideas is a Greek invention. It is one of the most important inventions ever made. Indeed, the possibility of fighting with words and ideas instead of fighting with swords is the very basis of our civilization, and especially of all its legal and parliamentary institutions.” (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge)

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