ATTACK has become the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) defensive tactic of choice, and with good reason. It has served the party well over the years, most recently in the case of its over-the-top objection to artist Brett Murray’s depiction of President Jacob Zuma with his manhood exposed.
Taking the fight to critics is an effective way to divert public attention to avoid political embarrassment. Accusing Mr Murray of racism helped Mr Zuma avoid answering questions about his private life, for instance, while personal attacks on then Anglo American CE Tony Trahar several years ago allowed then president Thabo Mbeki to sidestep questions about rising political risk in South Africa.
However, apart from being undignified and unpleasant, this approach is also bad for democracy — knee-jerk aggression, condemnation, threats and outrageous rhetoric suppress reasoned debate and discourage compromise. Attitudes harden and solutions become more difficult to find.
The hullabaloo over First National Bank’s (FNB’s) latest advertising campaign is a good example. The content of the advertisements is fairly innocuous by any democratic standard, even if some of the comments made by youthful members of the public are mildly critical of the status quo. From FNB’s point of view, the whole idea was to encourage participatory democracy by asking thousands of young people their opinions on the state of the nation and suggestions for how things could be improved.
To condemn the TV adverts that arose from this campaign as "treasonous", "appalling", "disrespectful" and an "obviously lame attempt to recreate an Arab Spring" in South Africa is hyperbole of the most destructive kind — that which is intended to intimidate and suppress dissent.
Does the ANC really believe such a response to a campaign with the theme "You Can Help" is going to convince the public that any criticism the participants voiced was misguided? On the contrary, it has reinforced perceptions that the party is thin-skinned and overly defensive because it knows there is more than a hint of truth to many of the concerns the youngsters raised.
There is no place for such boorishness in a democratic South Africa, and the ANC will pay the price at the polls if it continues to treat the electorate of the future with such contempt.
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