IN 1948 at Carnegie Hall, New York, Arthur Koestler, the most famous communist apostate in western intellectual circles, made an influential speech. He noted: "You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons ... The fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of lack of self-confidence."
Koestler was referring to the liberal critics of communism, who were often afraid to voice their opinions in public for fear of being "tarred with the brush of reaction", as the social democratic historian Tony Judt says in Postwar, his history of Europe since 1945.
Thus it was that as the first major show trials in Eastern Europe were being held and as Joseph Stalin’s tyrannous and murderous fist expanded beyond the Soviet Union, the cheerleading for the Soviet Union and the mute silence of most European intellectuals against its atrocities was a standout feature from those times.
Judt gives a compelling explanation for this lack of backbone: "The Left had the wind in its sails and history on its side…. At the core of the antifascist rhetoric of the official Left was a simple binary view of history. They (the fascists, Nazis, Franco-ists, nationalists) are Right, we are Left. They are reactionary, we are Progressive. They stand for War, we stand for Peace. They are the forces of Evil, we are on the side of Good."
Since no one wanted to be seen, even inadvertently, in the bad company of fascism, now defeated in the Second World War, this "tidy symmetry" worked to the communists’ polemical advantage: "Philo-communism, or at least anti-anti-Communism, was the logical essence of anti-fascism."
The official opposition here showed its own lack of self-confidence when it tried to parachute in a new leader, from a rival party, on the eve of the election-date announcement. Botched as that attempt might have been in its execution, it does demonstrate just how comprehensively the African National Congress (ANC) dominates the rhetorical space. Rebutting the fear of the "return of the Boers", to borrow the phantasm conjured up last November by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, was apparently front and centre of the strategic thinking on this move.
And that uncontested domination extends into the ideological space as well: do not expect this election to provide a serious debate on rolling back the welfare state (now set to reach 17-million recipients of social grants this year, on the back of just 6-million personal-tax payers) or a push for the privatisation of useless, mismanaged state-owned assets. Interrogating racial and gender quotas and the distance we have strayed from the protection for minorities embedded in the constitutional settlement of 1993 will also be off limits for fear of being accused of nostalgia for apartheid. Rather, there will be a bidding war to see which side can offer more entitlements and expand the reach of government at the precise moment when the machinery of state has seized up.
Unbowed by such state failures, it might be said that some of our political masters and mistresses suffer from the political equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome, or involuntary outbursts of inappropriate speech. In a crowded field of competitors, the prize for inhabiting a parallel universe utterly detached from reality must be jointly awarded.
First, there was Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu. Her "Little Miss Sunshine" appearance at the Mining Indaba was something to behold. After violent strikes in the platinum belt, and huge industry concern with the latest amendments to mining legislation and its incoherent regulatory framework, she offered another set of meaningless promises on top of what Songezo Zibi called "a terrible record of poor performance". Noteworthy was the silence from the panjandrums of the mining industry, fearful, no doubt, of the cost of speaking out.
Then there was Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa lauding the public-order policing units as "among the best in the world". Perhaps, in comparison to North Korea or Ukraine. But, should it ever finish its work, the Farlam commission on Marikana might just disagree.
Finally, flogging a dead horse, with yet another taxpayer-funded injection into state-owned South African Airways, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba drew an Alice in Wonderland distinction between a "bail-out" and an "equity injection". But fear not, the difference this time, he told Chris Barron in the Sunday Times, is that there will be more government intervention in its operations. That’s reassuring.
In an interview last week, US President Barack Obama said: "It’s definitely a good thing that the president of the US cannot remake our society." Our local political overlords and ladies are seized of much greater ambitions than the leader of the most powerful country on Earth.
But who will point out that the emperor’s clothes are threadbare?