On Deliberation: (epistemic)justice and (press)freedom in South Africa in word and deed


The rancid and acrimonious public exchanges peppered with strong racial and gender undertones that mark what goes for public debate in South Africa, raises a question that may at first glance, seem preposterous: are we sliding into a form of “civil war by other means”?

Words, information and knowledge can easily become dangerous weapons of a different kind.

Although deliberation – a free and critical public dialogue – is an essential feature of a stable and robust democracy, it is by no means certain that its citizens will know how to engage in this civic art. Besides, freedom of speech and expression as civil liberties are necessary but not sufficient conditions for this (that is inclusive, deliberative and equitable democracy) to happen: amongst many other things the citizenry has to be capable and the body politic free too.

But what does this freedom mean?

Certainly it means different things to different people and like all concepts, the dominant meanings ascribed to it have evolved and changed over time. In his 1997 Inaugural Lecture in Modern History at the University of Cambridge – later published as a book entitled Liberty before Liberalism (1998) – Professor Quentin Skinner skillfully traces the rise and fall within Anglophone political theory of what he labels “a neo-roman or republican understanding of civil liberty”. He describes how the “neo-roman theory rose to prominence in the course of the English revolution of the mid-17th century…but the ideological triumph of liberalism left the neo-roman theory largely discredited…the rival view of liberty embedded in classical liberalism went on to attain a predominance in Anglophone political philosophy which it has never subsequently relinquished.”

In the neo-roman conception of freedom, civil liberty was not defined by civil society or non-interference, but instead, by not being in servitude. In other words not being ‘in potestate‘ or literally ‘in the power of someone else’ as for example in the case of slavery; or something else as for example in the case of colonialism. The patronizing, patriarchal and paternalistic idea of “the good Master” is therefore anathema to the republican notion of freedom as non-domination.

Importantly, this is not necessarily the case in the classic liberal motion of freedom as non-interference.

In his 2014 book ‘Just Freedom: a moral compass for a complex world’, the political theorist Philip Pettit argues that “freedom in this sense requires the absence not just of interference, but of the subjection to another that was known at the time of the Roman republic as dominatio or domination”. He goes on to explain that “a common metaphor suggests that you are free insofar as you are given free rein in your choices. If you have all the leeway or latitude you could wish for, if you enjoy carte blanche in determining how to act, then by this suggestion you enjoy freedom in the fullest measure. The phrase ‘free rein’ is drawn from horse-riding. When a rider lets the reins hang loose, the horse enjoys free rein: it can go in whatever direction it wishes. When you are given free rein, so the metaphor suggests, you too can take whatever path you choose: you are under no one else’s operative control. But while giving the horse its head in this sense, I remain in the saddle…I do not exercise operative control over the horse, then, but I do enjoy potential or reserve control. And as that holds in the literal case, so it holds also in the metaphorical. When I give you free rein, I refrain from exercising operative control, but I still enjoy the reserve counterpart of that control. I may not pull on the reins but I do remain in the saddle.”

According to Pettit, a “republic, as it came to be conceptualized, is nothing more and nothing less than a community organized around these ideas of equality before and equality over the law. By a curious irony, however, it was at this very time that another way of thinking about freedom emerged to displace republican ideas. Under this conception, freedom in any choice requires just the absence of restriction or interference, not the absence of domination. One can enjoy freedom, in other words, just by enjoying free rein; it does not matter that another party sits in the saddle, retaining reserve control over how you choose”

This conceptual contestation is crucial to understand in our current debates, disagreements and firefights about transformation – in particular transformation in and of the media – towards a society in South Africa that is both free and just. It also raises the real question: what are the subtle and not-so-subtle residual forms of domination – of un-freedom – in the infosphere and beyond, that still plague our stuttering journey towards a fuller democracy?

And perhaps it explains the bitter tones between former comrades and across racial divides in our public discourse: the intuitive and tacit use of entirely different conceptions of freedom and what it means?

Albert O Hirschman in his wonderful 1991 Essay entitled “The Rhetoric of Reaction: perversity, futility, jeopardy” argued that “a democratic regime achieves legitimacy to the extent that its decisions result from full and open deliberation among its principal groups, bodies, and representatives. Deliberation is here conceived as an opinion-forming process: the participants should not have fully or definitively formed opinions at the outset; they are expected to engage in meaningful discussion, which means that they should be ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of arguments of other participants and also as a result of new information which becomes available in the course of the debate”.

But he hastened to point out that to achieve this informed, self-critical and free opinion-forming, deliberative process, is far easier said than done for there are several obstacles and dilemmas that stand in its way. These obstacles require further scrutiny and we will briefly look at three: 1) contextual dilemmas; 2) rhetorics of intransigence; and 3) epistemic injustice.

The first difficulty arises from the context because most modern democracies empirically-speaking, come into being not as a result of a pre-existing consensus on shared or basic values “but rather because various groups that had been at each other’s throats for a prolonged period had to recognize their mutual inability to achieve dominance. Tolerance and acceptance of pluralism resulted eventually from a standoff between bitterly hostile opposing groups.” (Hirschman 1991).

One will be forgiven for thinking that Hirschman had South Africa in his mind when he wrote this, for in trying to understand this as well as his later descriptions of the nature and the rise of conservative, neo-conservative and reactionary politics that flows from such standoffs and subsequent transitions, one cannot but notice the relevance of this and of what he observes next:

“A people that only yesterday was engaged in fratricidal struggles is not likely to settle down overnight to those constructive give-and-take deliberations. Far more likely, there will initially be agreement to disagree, but without any attempt at melding the opposing points of view— that is indeed the nature of religious tolerance. Or, if there is discussion, it will be a typical “dialogue of the deaf”— a dialogue that will in fact long function as a prolongation of, and a substitute for, civil war. Even in the most “advanced” democracies, many debates are, to paraphrase Clausewitz, a “continuation of civil war with other means.” Such debates, with each party on the lookout for arguments that kill, are only too familiar from democratic politics as usual. There remains then a long and difficult road to be traveled from the traditional internecine, intransigent discourse to a more “democracy-friendly” kind of dialogue. For those wishing to undertake this expedition there should be value in knowing about a few danger signals, such as arguments that are in effect contraptions specifically designed to make dialogue and deliberation impossible.”

Secondly, these arguments, contraptions and rhetorics of intransigence that block social change – transformation in South African parlance – and make sound deliberation impossible, can be defined, according to Hirschman (1991), as three reactionary narratives: 1) the perversity narrative in which policies or actions intended to effect socio-political and economic change are portrayed as having the opposite effect; 2) the futility narrative in which all attempts at transformation are portrayed as likely to fail creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy and negative-expectancy behavior; and 3) a jeopardy narrative in which the costs of transformation are portrayed as too high and as endangering some previously achieved accomplishment.

But if we need to broaden our conception of freedom, then what about our conception of justice? For a lot has recently been said about freedom but much less – if anything – about justice. From Charlie Hebdos insistence on its supposed freedom and right to publish offensive religious symbols – even in the face of vociferous protestations – to debates about press freedom in South Africa and the right of journalists to express their political views freely albeit in a playful, social manner.

What is ignored is often more telling than what is said.

This point was not lost on African political observers, many of whom have remarked on the disproportionate media coverage given to violent events in Paris relative to similar violent events – but with much higher casualty rates – at roughly the same time in Nigeria; all perpetrated in the name of one or the other religion as such atrocities often are.

What then politically-speaking, is at play here? For this discursive game is not at all innocent but reflects quite vividly the underlying power relations in our society battling to transform itself away from an unjust to a just society: away from the evils of the past: discrimination, exclusion, violence, paternalism, patriarchy, inequality, dispossession and domination. In this sense, our democratic Constitution, based on the Freedom Charter and the wide consensus of our society, not only embodies what we mean by a “free and just society” but also calls upon all citizens to actively and practically transform our lives individually and collectively in this ongoing process.

Freedom must not come at the expense of justice.

The philosopher Amartaya SEN in his book “The Idea of Justice” argues that “We may often enough agree that some changes contemplated – like the abolition of apartheid, to give an example of a different kind – will reduce injustice, but even if all such agreed changes are successfully implemented, we will not have anything that we can call perfect justice. Practical concerns, no less than theoretical reasoning, seem to demand a fairly radical departure in the analysis of justice.” This call for a critical analysis of justice; and implicitly of freedom and of the relation between these two concepts, brings us to the third and last obstacle towards an inclusive and deliberative democracy: epistemic injustice.

What does epistemic justice entail? According to Free State University academic Tania Rauch-Van der Merwe in her provocative and insightful new study entitled “The political construction of occupational therapy: A critical discourse analysis of curriculum as discourse” and drawing on the work of Miranda Fricker, Nancy Fraser and Michel Foucault, epistemic injustice entails the unexamined a-priori assumption – often imbedded within discreet discourses of superiority and domination – that some groups of people such as women or blacks (or the poor or African?) are illegitimate or less-legitimate “bearers of truths” (Rauch-Van der Merwe) or “carriers of knowledge” (Fricker).

It’s importance derives from the simple fact that in a deliberative democracy where diverse opinions, the inclusion of marginal or excluded voices, and non-paternalistic modes of communication are critical transformative acts, epistemic injustices remain a major if hidden obstacle to making progress away from societal injustice and towards an undoing of forms of discursive domination that curtails freedom and negatively impacts on the potential for greater justice.

My contention is that such forms of epistemic injustices – a residual form of domination and therefore of un-freedom – are widespread in the South African media, public discourses and knowledge work. The opinions of white or male intellectuals and journalists in public debates frequently carry more weight than those of black or female intellectuals. If we want to move towards greater social cohesion and a society that is both free and just, then creating space for more rational, sober, inclusive and self-critical public debate, must become a priority. A free press and the media must play a central role in doing so but it will require that we all as citizens and as a society, honestly address the pernicious obstacles to real democratic deliberation and transformation that face us: the contextual dilemmas of our violent and divisive past; the rhetorics of intransigence to transform it; and the unfreedom that derives from pervasive and ongoing epistemic injustice.

But first, what masquerades as public debates or deliberation must cease to be conducted as though they are the continuation of civil strife and war by other means; we are equal citizens and not enemies after-all.