President Jacob Zuma. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

FORMER Democratic Alliance (DA) spin doctor Gareth van Onselen, now masquerading as a journalist, misdirects himself on a whole variety of issues such that readers must actually wonder about his intelligence. (Why debating the president’s intelligence matters, January 18)

We touch on some of these here.

Intelligence as the ability "to understand the complexities of any democratic system and the global political economy in which they operate" is a fair definition. So also is the reference to understanding the "intricacies of modern democracy … through insight and comprehension", and ability to be "best able to navigate them".

Two problems arise, however. First is how this understanding is to be judged, and second, whether the "categories" of democracy and global political system have a universal meaning. Those of the same world view may be astounded at the claim that these categories do not in fact have a universal meaning. We come to this later.

A critical factor to answering the first problem is also integral to, even if not the only, factor with regard to the "language barrier". Readers will note that whether each actor has facility in one and not the other, the language barrier here cuts both ways. It is very easy to misunderstand one another, precisely because the concepts are understood and expressed in the particular language and its idiom. Those who speak indigenous languages often find their "culturedness" being questioned because of the idiom they have used, which would be contextualised differently among same language speakers.

Often equally confused journalists and mischievous commentators revel in such stories. Language is the medium in which beliefs and values are captured and communicated, but we come to that later.

Democracy as "the rule of the people by the people" has a universal meaning. However, who the "people" are is a matter of interpretation. A simple example for South Africans is that there was democracy in the Boer republics, British colonies of Natal and Cape, and the Union of SA. The "people" in this case were white settlers. As Fukuyama observes, democracy in terms of universal adult suffrage took centuries to evolve in the Old and the New Worlds. Democracy there was the rule of propertied men. They were "the people".

Property relations are central in the understanding of such categories as "democracy", "equality before the law", "equal human rights", and so on.

Without belabouring the point, the question is: Whose definition of democracy are we to use?

The "global political economy" fares no better in this regard. Here one question is whether this should be accepted as given for all times or subject to change, and who must decide? Suffice it to point out that the current global economic order and the need for its transformation is on the agenda of the United Nations in which, by the way, you have five permanent members in the Security Council that determine the facts for the other 195 independent states. The five include the "mature democracies" of the US, Britain and France.

We have alluded to the issue of values and value systems above.

Van Onselen decries the "obsession with identity politics" in the South African value system. By this we guess he refers to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and so on. The reader could be justified to infer that he actually means that black people are obsessed with identity politics and white people are the victims. We are digressing.

Thou shalt not steal is a "universal" value. But what does that mean? Colonial powers stole the lands and animal stock of peoples of the world in Africa, the Americas and Asia. They did this while holding the bible and observing its injunction "Thou shalt not steal". They did it while murdering the Khoisan and other peoples of this our Motherland. Other readers will actually argue that a small section of the population (not necessarily white) today continues to plunder the natural endowments that belong to the people of SA as a whole.

Another category that Van Onselen misinterprets is "intellectual scepticism". He decries concepts such as "patriotic intellectuals" and "patriotic reporting". Since he does not provide his definition of patriotism we have to infer this from how he writes about it.

Patriotism as a concept has similar problems as with the other categories discussed above. The "essential meaning" according to the Cambridge Online Dictionary is "the feeling of loving your country more than any others and being proud of it". The Merriam-Webster Dictionary puts is as "love or devotion to one’s country". It is fair to assume that Van Onselen understands patriotism in this sense.

One problem of course may be precisely that in his mind there are two countries in one here: one that he loves and is devoted to; and the identical other that is inhabited by fools and being messed up by savages. In this he may be right. The concept is sometimes called Colonialism of a Special Type (it should probably be neocolonialism since 1994).

There is no necessary contradiction between being patriotic and being sceptical and critical. Acknowledging the great achievements of your country, even while criticising its shortcomings, is patriotic. Dwelling almost exclusively on the negative is unpatriotic.

We are then forced to come to the conclusion that characteristic of the bigot, Van Onselen is barking up the wrong tree. It is not President Jacob Zuma and his supporters and followers whose heads need to be checked. It is Van Onselen’s.

• Shabalala is a political adviser to President Jacob Zuma