The reaction to FW de Klerk’s comments on Bantustans and the uproar about racism in social media highlight the degree to which our society is still divided. IF OUR society is to progress, we badly need a prison break. The prison out of which we — or those who wield influence — need to break is the one in our minds that prevents us seeing any reality except that of ourselves and others like us.
The reaction to FW de Klerk’s comments on Bantustans and the uproar about racism in social media highlight the degree to which our society is still divided. They are symptoms of a deeper malaise in which credibility in public debate seems reserved for those who trash those from whom they differ while failing to find any fault with anyone like them.
Among business people and professionals, saying anything vaguely positive about the government in public is to invite abuse. Bashing trade unions is now increasingly popular and there is a growth in "labour research and analysis", which somehow always finds, after objective study, that unions and their members are problems and that letting employers do whatever they want is the solution.
Elsewhere in society, credibility now depends on claiming that all whites — and sometimes all racial minorities — are racist and that the compromise that produced democracy in 1994 was a trick to deprive black people of their birthright. The governing party joins in by blaming the media and judges for some of our ills. These divisions are reflected in our media, which often seem more like pamphlets for a section of society than vehicles to convey news.
What is achieved when public conversation consists largely of voices confirming the prejudices of those like them by yelling at those who differ? Those who yell no doubt feel better but no-one’s mind is changed and no problems are solved when dialogue is replaced by yelling.
The problem is not that we express our differences loudly and forcefully. That is part of what democracy is about. There will always be substantial differences between us, and calls to unite behind a common vision generally mean that everyone should see the future the way those peddling the vision do. We are better off differing, as long as we do so within democratic rules, than being corralled into a unity based on forcing us to see the world the way others do.
But an important part of our reality is that no actor in our society can get what it wants without other key actors. Which is why we make progress through compromises — not by blurring our divisions but by conceding some ground to those who differ, while receiving concessions in return.
The negotiations that ended apartheid are the obvious example. A more current one is e-tolling. Yelling across the divide might have stopped the tolling — if it has, we still have to find a way of paying for Gauteng’s roads.
This can be found only through compromises between the key actors whose interests will be affected.
Many other examples illustrate the reality that no actor or interest in this society can simply impose itself on the others.
If we accept that reality, it follows that we need to ask whether a conversation as polarised as ours can possibly move us forward. While there will always be strong differences between us that will be expressed loudly, if that is all we have to say to each other, the problems about which we yell will deepen.
And so, at the same time as we continue to express our differences, we need also to find common ground. And we can do that only by acknowledging that those like us are not always right and those who differ are not always wrong.
Is it, for example, plausible to insist that everything business people do here is healthy and everything labour and the government do threatens our wellbeing? Is there nothing businesses should be doing to contribute more to building a fairer society? Does it really make sense to denounce the government as autocratic when it ignores citizens and to deride its weakness when it listens? Would business really be better off without trade unions, which continue to ensure, amid all their real and presumed flaws, that workplace conflicts can be resolved?
These questions are posed to business not because it is the only interest that needs to reflect — similar questions could be put to all other interests. Business is singled out here because most of the people reading this are likely to be in business and it is impossible to find common ground by pointing an accusing finger outward at those who differ — it needs a finger pointed inward at the mental shackles that prevent our group making constructive deals with the others.
The type of national debate this would entail is not an impossible Utopia — it was precisely this sort of conversation in the 1990s that saved us from perpetual conflict. If we are to rescue ourselves from the problems that beset us now, social actors need to find the voice of compromise again. And they can do that only if they look, not only outward at the faults of others, but inward at the flaws in their own group’s approach.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
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