Denialism: A National Deficiency?

By Glenn Ashton · 9 Oct 2009

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Picture: /*dave*/
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South Africans have an alarming tendency to deny wrongdoing. This trait is shared, to varying degrees, with other nations but it is far more extreme here. Our reluctance to acknowledge fault is remarkable. South Africans, particularly men, apparently have an inability to admit wrongdoing or culpability - even if caught red-handed.

This national quirk rears its ugly head every time some sort of scandal breaks. The first response is always denial. The second response is to shift blame. Responsibility is avoided, at all costs, even if it means making a real moegoe of yourself. Sure, this happens elsewhere, but nowhere else on earth is it as rampant as here, nor is the denial as vehement.

The recent Caster Semenya saga is exemplary. Leonard Chuene, soon to be axed head of Athletics South Africa strenuously denied responsibility for more than a month. He tossed about barrels of blame. He refuted knowledge of gender testing. In an exhibition of appalling leadership he ducked and dived, dissembled and gobbledygooked his way through a month of obfuscating nonsense, casting aspersions on everyone but himself - and I suppose to his limited credit - Caster Semenya.

Surely it would have been far easier – let alone honourable – for him to intervene from the outset and admit that testing had been done but that immense pressure was on ASA to bring home gold, forcing him to go for broke in the 'national interest'? Displaying even this limited degree of transparency would have been far less damaging. Instead the public were yet again treated as dolts. Some admission, some explanation, would have taken the heat off a young woman struggling with her identity in the gaze of the world, and instead put it where it belonged, in the lap of Chuene. Surely that was the way to deal what has now devolved into a sordid mess?

Chuene is not a once off. He is but one example of a collective deficiency. Evidence shows we have a habitual pathological terror of telling the truth, especially if we are in the wrong.

There could be some perfectly good reasons for this shortcoming. The trait could spring from our individual, intimate knowledge of the law. We have each had to interpret immoral and unethical laws, either as perpetrators or victims of Apartheid. This has blunted our individual sense of responsibility.

The first thing a lawyer – or a jailbird – is taught is to vehemently deny any sort of guilt, culpability, responsibility or blameworthiness. Contrition or remorse must never be exhibited. Especially if you are wrong.

Those of us fortunate enough to be insured are told to deny everything when involved in a car accident. Otherwise your insurance company will deny you are insured. Which they will anyway, just to prove a point. We have learned from our experiences of corporate denial, and now mimic this survival tactic.

Cheune has a panoply of role models drawn from both the old and the new South Africa alike. Let us not confuse matters; this neither a racist thing, nor is it something new. Shifting blame is an historical habit. 

Van Riebeeck blamed the thieving Khoisan for helping themselves to a few livestock, completely overlooking the reality that he had stolen their place in the sun. The mother city would still be a veritable Eden if Harry and his merry band of Khoisan comrades had access to a decent lawyer. But even in those days it was the man with the biggest gun who got to rule. Things are not much different today. Ask Dick Cheney. Blame it on the gun. 

The truth is that our colonial masters served as appalling role models. They stole, raped, pillaged, backed by the power of distant kings, queens and corporate businessmen. Territories were annexed in the name of the king or fortune. Royal houses were expert at keeping their hands clean, but were as keen as mustard to acquire their little piece of the pie. Letters of marque, calling pirates 'privateers', plundering by mercenary armies were all deniable. If not deniable, blame was laid at the door of the nearest marginalised people that fingers could be pointed at. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

And so it goes. At least we seem to have moved on and no longer hang the marginalised for redistributing a few livestock or transport them to the colonies for nicking a handkerchief. For that we can thank lawyers and their denialist manner.

The Boers blamed the Brits for just about everything, which is not entirely unreasonable. The Poms certainly have quite a few things to answer for besides the Arms Deal. When the 'rooinekke' got their asses kicked they blamed it on bad generals. It took us almost a century to get over the Brit/ Boer thing - longer if your name is Terreblanche. 

Which is actually quite a depressing thought. Can we really afford to sink ourselves into a deeper pattern of denial for another century, endlessly blaming apartheid for our ills? Surely it is about time that we collectively and individually start to assume some culpability when we are clearly and utterly wrong? It’s not just ugly, immoral or unjust to refuse responsibility, it's dof. Enjoyment of the fruits of our constitution is associated with responsibility. 

Many would pounce on the ongoing Hlope saga as another case of denialism in face of overwhelming evidence. But lets face it, Hlope is a lawyer, which immediately puts him into the category of generic denialists. We can't expect one man to break the national mould, surely?

From a legal perspective he may indeed be innocent. But surely there was a significant  degree of failure to apply a large dollop of common sense to his dogmatic denialism? We may accept that lawyers deny, but surely judges should display a greater degree of objectivity? It seems not.

There are dozens of local examples. The garbage bag of SACP money that went walkabout remains denied. Julius Malema is perfect, he is never wrong, according to his take on the world. 

How many white people, besides Adriaan Vlok, have proffered anything approximating a heartfelt apology? Of course no whites benefited from Apartheid. Just PW Botha, that master of denialism.

Apartheid was an authoritarian regime born of denial – denial of the humanity of others, of the universal truths of man, of basic human goodness. Laws were written and lived that were founded upon lies, denial and isolation, rather than truth, inclusion and consensus.

Apologies from whitey old guard like FW de Klerk have been couched in the most evasive of terms. Admission of moral wrongdoing is obvious and inevitable when confronting the enormity of the crime of apartheid. Yet FW's limited mea culpa must be seen against his baffling denial of knowledge of the 'third force', of a police security branch out of control, of arming Zulus in KZN, of any sort of culpability for flagrant human rights abuses. This  illustrates why most politicians have legal backgrounds. If anybody can dissemble better than a lawyer it's a politician. 

Perhaps we should not be surprised that many of the bigger scandals revolving around denial emanate from the sports sector. This seems to be where failed lawyers and politicians - sport lovers all – go to bottom feed off the physical superiority of others. The South African Football Association has a well-established track record of denialism. Cricket administrators set Gauteng cricket against Cricket SA with handbags at two paces. Fortunately they only hurt each other.

Rugby SA showed how ugly the whole thing can get by dragging an iconic president into court to prove a point of law, to deny that rugby remains a sport shaped by racism. Ha!

In politics, in law, in sport and in everyday life the deafening screams of denial prevent us from hearing the truth.

I do however have a solution. I move that we evolve stronger ties with Japan and learn about the importance of losing face. Of honour. Perhaps a bit of training will get the next silly sod to surprise us by committing seppuku instead of plummeting into denial. 

Our world could become a far nicer place if a few prominent parliamentarians began to disembowel themselves on the floor for acquiring ill-gotten aircraft tickets, for improper enrichment, for stealing from the poor or just for choosing cars too flash to justify. It would certainly liven up parliament a bit.

But then parliament would rapidly empty, as would most of the country. Perhaps that would not be an entirely bad thing. At least the minority who remain will start to set an example for the rest of us to follow. But then change does begin at home. 

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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