I am writing to update you on developments related to Politicsweb, and our supporter programme. Firstly, to explain the new logo, and secondly, our new slogan.
Firstly, the logo. The image is that of John Stuart Mill, in profile, and is meant to convey a sense of community, and continuity with the Western liberal tradition. There are two quotes from Mill’s On Liberty, published in 1859, that have informed and guided our work since the site’s establishment some twelve years ago.
In the introduction to the book Mill described a particularly perilous moment in the transition to democracy, or rule by “the people”. In the previous order, the ruling group was seen as being completely distinct from the governed, and there was significant antagonism between the two. It was thus regarded as both natural and necessary to try and place constitutional checks upon such rulers, limit their powers, and secure the rights of the ruled. Yet as Mill observed:
“As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been placed upon the limitation of power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was that the rulers should be identified with the people, that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannising itself.”
In contrast to the old lot, democratically-elected rulers could be trusted with power. “Their power was but the nation’s own power, concentrated and in a form convenient for exercise.”
Such a feeling was overwhelming in South Africa in the mid- to late 1990s. The African National Congress was seen as embodying the will of “the people”, and it enjoyed the support of a huge majority of the population. The party aspired to rule “unfettered by constraints”, and as soon as it could it proceeded to cut a swathe through the checks and balances it had had to accept as the price of the transition. This involved, inter alia, using cadre deployment to capture one state institution after another, and through the demand that all institutions in society submit to its racial goals. This received very little push back from the media or civil society, at the time, as what could be more “democratic” than the liberation movement accumulating vast power to advance the historically deprived majority?
Unsurprisingly and not unpredictably, many among the ANC elect did not use these unfettered powers to uplift “the people” but rather to enrich themselves. The institutions that had been broken to clear the way for transformation often happened to be crucial for the maintenance of honest and effective governance, and the Zuptas were able to exploit the resultant weaknesses in the system to embark upon a barely stoppable frenzy of looting that has brought the nation to the brink of ruin. The same pattern was even more evident at provincial and local level with patronage barons using their loot not just to consolidate their own political support base but to sway elections for ANC national leadership, thereby checkmating any attempt to govern the country honestly.
It is clear that a quarter-century of ANC hegemony has not just been destructive institutionally and economically, but intellectually as well. Most of our public debate continues to occur within the parameters set by ANC ideology, and as such it cannot come to terms with the obvious failures of that political project, let alone articulate or motivate for a serious reform agenda. After a decade of severe institutional state decline combined with no meaningful economic progress the search is rather on for magical solutions and racial scapegoats; a trend facilitated by social media, through which mobs can be quickly formed online and off, and fuelled intellectually and financially by the self-righteous but sinister “social justice” movement in the West.
This brings us to the second quote.
Mill noted that among the more egregious offences that could be committed against reasoned debate were: to suppress facts or argument, misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion. These are all too familiar to anyone who carefully follows UK and US reporting about racially fraught issues in South Africa. Then, under the heading of intemperate discussion, there was invective, sarcasm, and personality. Such methods, Mill noted, could not only be safely used against the unprevailing opinion without general disapproval, but would also likely attract praise for “honest zeal and righteous indignation”. The worst offence of all which could be committed by a polemic was to “stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men”. As he noted:
“To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feels much interested in seeing justice done them; but this weapon is, from the nature of the case, denied to those who attack a prevailing opinion: they can neither use it with safety to themselves, nor, if they could, would it do anything but recoil on their own cause."
"In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them.”
As part of our work Politicsweb continues to produce and publish articles that run against the dominant line in the rest of the English-language media, both locally and internationally. This year we have run in-depth articles on the Clifton beach controversy, the Schweizer Reneke story, the Rodrigues prosecution, and the apparent miscarriage of justice that occurred in the Coligny sunflower murder case (see here, here and here).
All this reporting has disrupted the simplistic, and often false, narratives being peddled elsewhere. Getting these right has involved painstaking and time-consuming research, writing and editing. This is not just because this is the right thing to do in itself; but also because in arguing against the prevailing opinion, as Mill observed, you have to meet the highest standards, or you will quickly lose ground and credibility. By contrast, if you choose to run with the hounds, you can get away with the most inaccurate and propagandistic journalism imaginable.
In establishing this membership programme we were advised to come up with a slogan that encapsulates what it is we stand for. After much thought and consideration we believe that “Fair. But Fearless” best captures what it is we aspire to do.
From our establishment our mission has been threefold: 1.) To provide a comprehensive record of the political communications of the day; 2.) to facilitate debate across the political divides; and, 3.) to publish the highest quality political analysis and opinion no matter how contrary it may be to the prevailing opinion.
However, we are not a politically neutral or non-partisan publication. As Orwell wrote, the starting point of (his) great political writing was and is “always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice”. There is some lie that needs to be exposed, or some neglected fact to which attention needs to be drawn. We have thus sought to write and publish fearlessly.
Equally though, we are and have always been committed to giving all sides a fair hearing even, and indeed especially, to those with whom we may most seriously disagree. The first step too, towards countering mistaken or dangerous ideas, is to try and understand them, and their popular and ideological appeal. This is a necessity in the South African context, given that racial nationalism of one form or another has been the guiding ideology of our rulers for as long as anyone can remember.
The path that we have taken as a publication is an anathema both to corporate advertisers and the Anglo-Saxon donor class.
We thus rely on our community of supporters to finance our work. Thanks to your contributions we have, over the past six months, been able to greatly improve the quality of our editorial content. Apart from the investigations mentioned above, we now have some of South Africa’s best authors and columnists – among them David Bullard, Andrew Donaldson and Jeremy Gordin – writing regularly for us.
We have also been able to remove most of the intrusive advertising on the website, greatly improving the reader experience for everyone who uses it.
This is but just the start though of building up Politicsweb as an ever-improving and more influential publication.
If you appreciate our work, but have not yet become a supporter (and can afford to do so), I would appeal to you to finally take the plunge and sign up here https://steadyhq.com/en/politicswebfc
With best regards,
Publisher of Politicsweb