Power over probity

Ian Kilbride writes on the elusive search for decency in our politics

Is there a place for decency in politics? A broadly used, but ill-defined term, decency connotes living and behaving by a moral code in which the characteristics of respect, integrity, kindness, tolerance, reason and courage are central features. Decency is not bound by ideological or party political affiliation, nor by racial, ethnic or religious identity, rather it is about individual behaviour, character and demeanour.

At a minimum, decency in the maelstrom of political contestation means respect for political opponents, tolerance of a diversity of viewpoints and avoiding the use of language that stokes conflict and enmity. Hate speech and lies are the mortal enemies of decency. To be sure, decency does not equate to supine political behaviour.

After all, at root, all politics is about the acquisition, retention and distribution of power which is seldom achieved merely by good manners and sophistry. Rather, decency is about playing by the rules, operating within the letter and spirit of democratic good practice and the eschewing of violence be it verbal, threatened or physical.

Yet, the current political landscape is largely devoid of decency and politics is the poorer for it. Increasingly, the path to political power is channelled through the use of emotive language, dehumanising opponents and appeals to the basest of instincts. Election campaigns are defined less by debating issues and the merits of policy, but more by cynical politicians playing and preying on the fears, alienation, suffering and prejudices of voters. This behaviour debases democracy and has damaging long-term consequences.

The most cynical, corrosive and widely practised feature of indecency in politics is lying to the electorate. This takes many forms, ranging from the crude falsification of facts, to the more subtle, but no less damaging practice of providing false hope through unachievable election promises. As an exemplar of political indecency former US President Donald Trump reportedly made in excess of 30, 000 false or misleading claims.

The most egregious and notorious of these denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, which in turn fuelled the violent occupation of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. Alarmingly, still today, some 30 percent of Americans believe Joe Biden won the 2020 election through electoral fraud. Writ large, indecency in US politics undermined the legitimacy of its democracy.

On a smaller scale, but no less indecent, is the lie repeatedly peddled by Ministers and politicians to the South African public and parliament that a publicly funded swimming pool on the obscene Nkandla estate was a safety feature fire pool.

Today, the threat to democracy of indecency and lies is far greater through the abuse of social media and artificial intelligence. The pervasive, if not decisive impact of social media manipulation on the UK ‘Brexit’ referendum and the 2016 US election is well documented. In essence the electorate in both instances was fed a slew of plausible disinformation the effect of which was to stoke fear, suspicion and to corrupt the democratic process.

The use of bots, artificial intelligence and even avatars by campaign spinmeisters has yet to penetrate South African politics, but it is coming.

At root, decency in politics is about living by a moral code and set of principles befitting the trust bestowed by the electorate. Probity is the DNA of decency. By contrast, South African democracy is weakened by political parties and practices that permit and indeed promote electoral list candidates devoid of decency, but rather who are local, regional or national power brokers and vote winners. While the selection of candidates for their power relationships and vote-winning impact has a Machiavellian rationality, it incentivises power-seeking behaviour at the expense of rewarding the qualities of decency vital to representative democracy.

In the final analysis there is a simple, yet effective, litmus test of decency in politics and one that innumerable South African politicians fail dismally and that is the principle and practice of resignation. The concept of innocent until proven guilty is a legal rather than moral precept and one that is chronically abused by indecent politicians and public officials.

In effect, this transfers the onus of responsibility for the adjudication of right and wrong onto courts, commissions of inquiry and integrity committees. The net effect is the widespread abuse of the legal system, often at the taxpayers’ expense and commissioner reports that ‘recommend’ remediation or prosecution, but lack the powers to act leaving politicians and public officials languishing or luxuriating under suspension on full pay.

By contrast, decency behoves any politician or public official to resign their office when failing to meet and uphold at a minimum the standard of behaviour required by the constitution, rules of parliament, legislation, regulation or employment contract. But decency in public life is more than the mere adherence to public standards, it is fundamentally about personal behaviour which cannot be codified, but rather rests on inner goodness.

Ian Kilbride

Chairman, Spirit Invest

Honorary Professor, Stellenbosch Business School

[email protected]