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UJ: Prof Steven Friedman’s views on propaganda and the inconvenient truth

Sometimes even a crude propaganda campaign can teach us. The campaign is the attempt to trash the fear that private interests have “captured” the state: it labels those who stopped vested interests from appointing a finance minister of their choice conspirators against a democratic government, writes Prof Steven Friedman.

Prof Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Rhodes University. He wrote an opinion editorial, The dangerous illusion and the inconvenient truth”, published in Business Day Live, 30 March 2016.

The dangerous illusion and the inconvenient truth

Sometimes even a crude propaganda campaign can teach us. The campaign is the attempt to trash the fear that private interests have “captured” the state: it labels those who stopped vested interests from appointing a finance minister of their choice conspirators against a democratic government.

This is no doubt a sign of the well-resourced campaign to defend those who use private money to wield public power, which this column predicted last week. While it uses democratic rhetoric, it is filled with flaws of logic and fact. And yet it raises, accidentally, issues important to democracy’s future here.

The campaign claims that bankers bullied a legitimate government because they did not like its choice of minister. This, it is claimed, is no different from the influence the Guptas are said to wield — African National Congress (ANC) politicians who wanted the appointment reversed are simply pawns of the bankers. It does not take much skill to demolish this. Resistance to the appointment came from within the ANC alliance before any bankers expressed themselves so it was not a response to business pressure; there is a huge difference between lobbying a government to change a decision, which is every citizen’s right, and handing out government jobs. Nhlanhla Nene’s replacement served the interests of people outside government — far from resisting special interests, it did their bidding.

But, while this campaign is a fig leaf for the connected, it would not have been tried if it did not strike a chord with many. It does this because it feeds off two widely held views about democracy here — one is a dangerous illusion, the other an inconvenient truth.

The illusion is the idea that elected governments can and should be all-powerful — if they recognise that others also have power, they are being manipulated and betraying the people. A government that listens to business, unions or any organised group is weak or in the pay of the powerful.

This idea that governments can do as it likes has deep roots here. Since the country suffered under an apartheid government that seemed able to do whatever it wanted, it seems natural to ask why a democratic government does not do the same. But the apartheid government could not do what it liked — if it could, it would still be here. Even when it seemed most in charge, it was forced to take seriously those who could frustrate its plans — not only the majority who resisted it but those within the privileged group whose interests were not served by some of what it did.

If undemocratic governments need to take note that power in society limits what they can do, democratic governments, which must let other power holders speak and act, need to do so even more. Interest groups — and citizens — can often find ways of frustrating government plans. Force alone is not a solution — it cannot make workers work or people with money invest. And so any government that tries to govern by ignoring power in society will end up with less power than those that listen.

As the saga of the finance ministry shows, governments always listen to interests in society: the question citizens must ask is whether they are listening to those who they need to govern effectively or those who look after them. But if listening to the powerful is “state capture”, all effective states are captured. Yes, governments should not do what the powerful want if it is not what voters want. But they must take them seriously if they want to govern.

A government that ignored society would also not be democratic. In democracy, citizens rule and so the public has a right to organise to try to get government to do what they want. Citizens must be in charge all the time — they are not meant to vote and then get out of the government’s way.

What truth does the propaganda highlight? While the economically powerful may influence government, they may not buy it. What the Guptas are said to have done is only an extreme example of a pattern in which people with money use it to get politicians to do not what voters want but what they want.

It is a huge problem here for several reasons. A pattern has been established over decades of links between money and public office: old habits die hard. Huge inequalities make many politicians prey to temptation. And the law does nothing to keep money away from politics.

Yes, corruption is a crime but nothing else stops people with money subverting democracy. We may not know who gives to parties and politicians — the official opposition supports this as avidly as anyone in government. And so those with money can buy parties and politicians without our knowledge. Until this changes, “state capture” will be not an occasional scandal but the way things work here.

Those who claim that listening to bankers and unionists means the state has been “captured” don’t understand how government and democracy work. But ensuring that democracy belongs to the people, not the monied, is a battle we are yet to fight.

The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessary reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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