One of the greatest gifts of our Constitution is that it gives all of us rights

This week’s Judicial Service commission interviews for the vacant chief justice post have been vital viewing – and reading. They are yet another example, despite the cacophony of doomsayers and political opportunists, of the intrinsic strength of the democratic state we were gifted 27 years ago.

There’s been plenty of agit-prop from the usual suspects banging the Hoggenheimer WMC drum, but none of it can drown out the incredible quality of the four short-listed candidates being interviewed for the position. As someone noted plaintively on social media the real tragedy is that we can’t replicate this public inquisition for potential cabinet ministers, especially in the light of the damning second instalment of the Zondo Commission released on Tuesday revealing Malusi Gigaba in his full ignominy.

The public hearings have thrown up some wonderful observations, but a vital one for the current place we are in as a country – and the world – was provided by Justice Mbuyiseni Madlanga. Asked whether or not judges could be criticised, he said they could, but that the criticism should be based on fact. It’s the simplest statement and, as such, the most obviously true and correct, yet it’s also at the root of so much that ails us. One of the greatest gifts of our constitution is that it gives all of us rights – including the right to criticise institutions and individuals that would be unthinkable (and punishable) under apartheid. But every right has limits. 

Cabinet Minister Lindiwe Sisulu only a month ago, launched an intemperate, in parts illogical and wholly unsubstantiated attack on the judiciary, effectively accusing black African judges of being Uncle Toms. This was grist to the mill of the RET-istas, and other kleptocrats, but was not based on a single fact. Indeed, a cursory glance at our judicial history since 1994 would suggest entirely the opposite. The failure of the South African project lies squarely at the door of government, of which Sisulu has been one of its longest serving senior members. 

But not letting the facts stand in the way of a good story – or a toxic opinion – is no longer the sole preserve of lazy journalists and putrid politicians like Boris Johnson (who has managed in one lifetime to be both), it’s now open season for anyone with a smart phone and access to WiFi. We see it every day, especially with the anti-vaxx lobby who’ll find science factoids, quote them out of context or use non-peer reviewed fringe theories to back up their own crackpot theories. The greatest tragedy is that opinion has become fact; the ‘truth’ of the politically more powerful truer than the ‘truth’ of others.

It was the great CP Scott who gave us the immortal phrase “comment is free, but facts are sacred” 100 years ago. We have to start letting the facts stand in the way of the story. We have to start calling out the bullies, the charlatans, the liars, the rogues and the thieves, because if we don’t, ultimately, we won’t be able to tell the difference between what is actually true and what we are led to believe is true.

We might already be there.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 5 February 2022.