SHOOTING THE MESSENGER, the bearer of unwelcome tidings, is a well-known national failing. In South Africa we have a bad habit of attaching labels to people and ideas and using them as a substitute for debate. Does it matter that a point of view is, for argument’s sake, a conservative one if it is persuasive and has merit? After all, we talk approvingly about conserving flora and fauna, libraries and museums, energy and water. Is change always right and desirable? The answers to both these questions must clearly be negative because the value of a particular idea depends on time, place and context once it has satisfied various tests of truth, honesty and integrity. But, as we know only too well, these are the first casualties when politicians enter the fray, which is the main reason why the voice of civil society is so crucial to the health of every nation.

We have been, and continue to be, very fortunate in this regard: the professions, churches, trade unions, universities and non-governmental interest groups continue to produce people committed to forthright commentary that eclipses the shallowness of all our political parties. If you need evidence of this, listen to AM Live on SAFM radio and marvel at the tedious and often downright nonsensical responses of politicians and senior government officials to simple questions. Most of them appear to have diplomas from an institute of evasive answers and meaningless, but fashionable cliché.

As in the past, people and ideas are sometimes dismissed not for their quality, logic or rationale but through the attachment of unflattering descriptions. One of the strangest experiences of living through the late 1980s in South Africa was the spectre of the National Party discovering a concept called human rights. Gradually it began to dawn on a beleaguered minority believing in a divine right to rule that it would, with the passage of time, become politically virtually powerless. This useful idea of human rights became all the rage. Yet from the late 1940s (when South Africa was a notable absentee from the list of signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) onwards it had been impossible to have a national debate on the topic. Liberal … communist … socialist …traitor … terrorist … ranted the grim-faced, dark-suited men who ran the country. Many people suffered appallingly in the struggle for an idea that virtually overnight became politically acceptable, the solution to all our problems.

Significantly, liberal remains a term of abuse but other labels are new. Now you and your ideas are on the margins if you are ultra-leftist, anti-transformation or, of course, an apartheid-era spy. While the Hefer Commission huffs and puffs its way towards the inevitable conclusion that it cannot provide a definitive answer as to whether Bulelani Ngcuka was a spy, he has become something of an emblem of South Africa ten years after liberation. There are differing views about his success as National Director of Public Prosecutions. But the question he is ultimately posing is explosive: how high up in the ANC is corruption to be found? Once this thought was lodged in the public consciousness Ngcuka was accused of having been in the pay of the apartheid-era security police. Someone careless managed to get the number wrong, jolting a sad character now living in London back into her past. The idea that if Ngcuka had been a spy this would not have been known to those appointing him is hard to credit. But, more to the point, it has nothing to do with the cases he is investigating. The essential questions have to be, is he a good prosecutor and does he have a case?

Labels are used with the deliberate intention of closing down debate and suppressing information. The most intriguing is colonial old-boy. This largely mythical figure legitimises the current fashionable indulgence of summoning up the imperial as well as the apartheid era as the root of all ills, allowing those with more immediate shady pasts to fade into the backstage of the new South Africa. Remove the symbols of the colonial past, runs the argument, and we shall have been transformed. Like many of the contemporary buzzwords, transformation is a concept that has yet to be defined in a meaningful way. Of course our society is desperately in need of transformation, change that would decrease appalling levels of poverty, corruption, road deaths and crime; and improve productivity, standards of service and the work ethic. But all too often transformation is reduced to a superficial matter of skin colour. Those who criticise are labelled unpatriotic or, ironically, racist.

The national debate is being deflected on the one hand by name-calling and dominated on the other by ill-defined terminology. In the case of individuals it matters more that a person is hard working, incorruptible and committed than left or right wing, conservative or progressive, whatever these terms might (or might not) mean. Labels are used, of course, not only to dismiss people’s ideas but also to stereotype the individuals themselves by consigning them to broad groupings and to diminish their individuality and humanity. By such a route we betray what so many fought to change.

This article was first published in The Witness on 25 November 2003 and entitled ‘Tagging man’