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Criticism

2013-11-07

Giving credit where it is due

It is pointless to throw mud at the government while failing to praise it in cases where it has done a proper job

Nobody thrives on criticism. Universities the world over are so conscious of the need to balance it with encouragement that they use a safeguard known as the feedback sandwich to censure underperforming students. Professors are taught to begin with a top layer of acknowledgement, citing what’s been done well, then to discuss the meaty bit in the middle that needs to be improved, followed by another layer of positive comment.
Those of us engaged in the public discourse around democracy’s inevitable and indeed relentless criticism of government might give more thought to the feedback sandwich as a way of encouraging our leaders to serve citizens better while, hopefully, retaining our influence as guardians of accountability. If we dole out nothing but the harsh words of disappointment and condemnation, the people in charge may stop listening or even shut us up.
Not that shutting down media freedom is a present danger in South Africa – where we have more outspoken journalists than ever before – though such oppression is commonplace on the continent. But as long as we have among our leaders those (often expensively-clad politicians) who subscribe instinctively to the top-down authoritarian structures of traditional African society and therefore find lowly-paid, highly-opinionated journalists in jeans obnoxiously critical, we might be wise to adapt a little. After all, how well we communicate is determined not by how well we say things, but how well we are understood.
A lawyer writing in this paper last week accused journalists of a hidden agenda in creating the perception “…that our ministers and officials are committing serious wrong if they buy a car or an appropriate house. The perception is created even though we are aware that our ministers are acting within the rules and the law.” He went so far as to suggest that the media “…intended to instigate the poor to revolt against those who are committed to helping them” – an alarming charge. In his opinion, furthermore, leaders were being needlessly humiliated by media criticism of their flashy lifestyles.
In truth, we loosely-termed “Western” media commentators are synthesizing what we observe in public affairs on the basis of our own instinctive (though possibly theoretical) moral perception that people living among the hungry should rather live relatively modestly than flaunt their wealth – notwithstanding the awkward fact that the white South Africans among us know more than most about living as conspicuous consumers among the needy.
At any rate, we are judged to be failing to take account of a disconnect between the values of two cultures which, despite their similarities far outweighing their differences, sometimes see things rather differently. The issue reminds me of my attempt years ago to write about the anger I assumed I’d find in Soweto towards Winnie Mandela for building herself a big house while NM was still in prison. When I got to the township to record the opinions of residents on what my editor and I saw as her profligacy and insensitivity, however, I couldn’t corroborate the premise. Everyone I interviewed breezily supported the notion that Winnie was a queen who was entitled to live in a palace.
I don’t have an answer to this perennial but worrying disjuncture, except to offer a warning from Goethe: “Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”
On the subject of what matters most – and seeing that giving credit where it’s due is going to be my resolution come year’s end – I would like to commend (albeit pompously) everybody in the ANC, regardless of what they wear or drive, for upholding our constitution. To hear some of us holier-than-thou pundits arguing for the sanctity of the country’s codified, collective values you’d think the ANC was ever-ready to shred the constitution, whereas the ruling party is deservedly proud of the world-famous document that embodies its Freedom Charter. There have been some queasy moments over the years involving, among other matters, property rights and threats to the independence of the judiciary but most in the ANC – the party that has always had the two-thirds parliamentary majority to change whatever it likes – are committed to our bible of rights.
Frankly, the way some of us go on about corruption as if we were purely victims and in no way implicated in unlawful activity ourselves would make a more reflective middle-class crimson with cringe. A recent survey showed that 85% of children in up-market primary schools have witnessed their parents bribing officials, including the police, while 65% of kids in the same schools live in families that have knowingly bought stolen goods or are acquainted with someone who has purchased nicked stuff.
Another recurring but ill-considered indignation among our chattering classes involves the so-called black taxis that load and drop passengers in the middle of intersections. Nothing raises the ire of drivers more than their rude recklessness. But here’s a reality check: taxis were barely factored into city planning by either the apartheid gang or our current administrators. Despite providing revolutionary relief in their door-to-door service to poor commuters who had hitherto risen pre-dawn to board buses and trains, black taxis were not given lay-bys on existing streets but left to make their own arrangements – which is what they did, in the process showing contempt for cities that had treated them with, er, contempt.
Recently, when an English couple checked into my Melville guest house after booking their accommodation in the UK but finding on arrival that the place they’d pre-paid did not exist, I had cause to reappraise SA’s undervalued police service. Although the tourists had reported the matter, I offered to follow it up while they went on to holiday elsewhere. Armed with the case number but little faith in the country’s much-maligned cops, however, I stared unenthusiastically at the phone and briefly considered not bothering, before dialing as promised. Within minutes, I was connected to a brisk fraud squad detective who already knew all about the incident because it had been prioritized, she explained, due to concern for South Africa’s hospitality reputation in the run-up to World Cup 2010.
And there, dear reader, endeth the lesson on giving credit for what is good in the state of South Africa before filling the feedback sandwich with negatives – not in pursuit of political correctness but as a way of protecting our society against the devaluation of such important things as fair-mindedness, freedom of speech and the rule of law.

 

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