When silence speaks

Posted on October 19, 2011


The problem with South African politicians is that they spend so much time on megaphone communication shouting at each other that they can’t spot the significance of silence. When they finally get the idea that something damaging is developing they are so out of touch they are clueless how to handle it. The row over the second failed attempt in 24 months by the Dalai Lama to get a visa to visit South Africa is a case in point.

The Tibetan spiritual leader had planned to attend Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday but after a protracted delay in processing the visa he withdrew it. The government claimed it was the Dalai Lama who failed to get it rather than the government refusing to give it to him. But they have failed to give a reason for the extended delays and it is this silence that is fuelling a furious debate. When senior figures were asked to intervene they countered that it was not their job to do so.

Critical voices have stepped into the silence. Former ANC activists have described their shame. Tutu has accused the ANC of ‘behaving worse than the apartheid government’ because at least with them you would know a visa would be refused. Justice Malala accuses the most senior figures in the government of an abdication of moral responsibility to prevent injustice. The academic and blogger Tinyiko Sam Maluleke identified a poisonous triangle in South Africa’s growing trade relations with China and the latter’s oppression of the people of Tibet. South Africa’s public diplomacy is coming under new scrutiny as people ask how can the party of liberation have turned into the party that supported Mugabe in Zimbabwe  and Gaddafi when others had turned away. The debate across the blogosphere has shifted. Now people are asking what has happened to the heart of the ANC, when did it turn rancid’, given over to the ‘venal greed of men who prefer dancing with Chinese dragons and offering safe havens to Africa’s dictators’?

Employing better or more public relations experts is not going to help with this one. Nor is the old assumption that just because the leadership says so it is so. There is more to legitimacy than winning the vote. When people question the moral credibility of those who lead, they start to doubt the legitimacy of the leadership. Without legitimacy the choice is to lose power or retain it by force. Government curbs on the media and information flows are the first part of this.  But silence speaks; it is a discourse and in this case it is damning and, if the comments in the blogosphere are anything to go by, it comes with a growing sense of betrayal.