When the leader of the opposition feels the need to defend a beleaguered African National Congress (ANC) minister from journalistic attack, you know the national debate has lost the plot.
Helen Zille’s defence of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga may reflect a shared irritation at the way activists are trying to hold provinces accountable for the state of their schools: as premier of the Western Cape, Zille undoubtedly enjoys the attentions of Equal Education, the activist group leading the fight to press the government to address the needs of pupils in the townships, as little as Motshekga does.
But it may also suggest that politicians across party lines are frustrated with reporting and commentary, which reduces much of our political debate to a simple morality play in which politicians are declared "good" or "bad".
Zille made some telling points about "pack journalism": she is right to warn of a trend in which many reporters and commentators talk only to each other and never to citizens (or at least those citizens not on social media) and in which they therefore tend to create their own reality. This makes it easy for lobby groups to campaign for or against politicians. It also explains why figures such as Julius Malema can be portrayed as so popular because a few insiders say they are.
She also, appropriately, warned against commentary and journalism that ignores how our system of government works (seen here in blaming the national minister for issues for which provinces are responsible). This is part of a wider problem — debates can proceed for months in blissful ignorance, not only of the constitution but also of the law. So much of the "nationalisation debate" ignored the fact that, since 2002, mining resources have been publicly owned and mined under licence.
But perhaps most important was that Zille drew attention to the degree to which serious national problems are reduced to the failings of individuals. Simply blaming the problems in our schools on Motshekga, she suggested, ignores the extent to which they are the product of problems that would exist whether or not this minister was in office.
In Zille’s view, the problem is that voters elect ANC provincial governments that let them down. She implies that voting for the Democratic Alliance (DA) would ensure a solution. The problem may be far more deep-seated: if the DA were to win more provinces, not much might change, because we are dealing with legacies. But there is no doubt that the debate targets individuals rather than discussing what is wrong in our schools.
Despite Zille’s defence, Motshekga has triggered legitimate questions about whether she should hold her office. These have nothing to do with her "failure to deliver". But her ministry did issue a statement in her name claiming that Equal Education was a white group using black pupils for its own ends. Equal Education’s leadership is overwhelmingly black — even if it wasn’t, the charge sounds like the mud thrown at the Treatment Action Campaign by a government intent on denying the need to fight HIV and AIDS.
But, whether or not Motshekga is best equipped to deal with demands for change from activists, it is a fantasy to believe that, if she was replaced by someone else, the problems in our schools would disappear.
While Zille made this point about only one minister, it has much wider application. It has become part of the stock in trade of commentators to reduce all our problems to a few individuals in the government. It is, after all, far easier to denounce people than to analyse problems.
Our difficulties will not disappear if President Jacob Zuma resigns tomorrow; we will not have a fault-free procurement process if Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi goes, or huge agricultural growth if Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson steps down. Nor will our society collapse if Planning Minister Trevor Manuel leaves politics.
The tendency to reduce our prospects to which people are in charge prevents us from dealing with our problems. By misrepresenting them as the product of a few individuals, we avoid dealing with obstacles and fail to make use of opportunities. To name but one example, much enthusiasm for the National Development Plan seems to be admiration for Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa rather than a serious attempt to evaluate the plan.
We have, in some ways, not moved that far from the early 1990s, when academic analysis of the prospects for and obstacles to democracy in this society would be interrupted by demands that the analyst predict who would occupy particular jobs in the government.
Who occupies which post in government is not irrelevant. But it matters far less than most of our public debate will allow. Increasingly, obsessing about particular personalities is drawing attention away from serious debate on our difficulties and what we need to do about them.
By Steven Friedman
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
Source: Business Day