IN TODAY’s column I introduce a new feature that will run on an ad hoc basis to identify “weasel words” — empty phrases, jargon, clichés and cant used by politicians to hide the truth. The meaning has been sucked from these words, just as a weasel sucks the content out of an egg and leaves the shell. And South African political discourse is rife with them.
The weasel: The Cabinet
Following a Cabinet meeting on Monday this week, a prepared statement described its response to the Zimbabwean elections as follows: “The Cabinet congratulated the people of Zimbabwe and political parties on holding successful harmonised parliamentary and local elections.”
The weasel words: “Successful harmonised elections”.
The Cabinet went out of its way both to torture the English language and to subvert best democratic practice in a desperate attempt to avoid using the phrase “free and fair” in describing the Zimbabwean elections. Because, of course, the elections were no such thing. To do so, a new phrase was invented — a meaningless bit of jargon that will generate ridicule and contempt in equal measure: “successful harmonised elections”.
When asked directly by a journalist, in response to the statement, “Do you accept the result, do you think it was free and fair?”, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, the one minister in attendance, obfuscated further: “We didn’t make any pronouncements on the state of the election. So there has (been) no pronouncement on whether the election is free or fair. We have just acknowledged that it has been successful…. So we are in no way making a pronouncement on the elections, we are congratulating that the elections ran smoothly without violence and without any incident of severe violence.”
First, “harmonisation”, whatever that is, is no measure of democratic compliance. Stalin “harmonised” the process whereby people were sent to the Gulag. It ran like clockwork. What of it? Second, you cannot have your cake and eat it; either the election was free and fair, or it wasn’t. You cannot both congratulate a country on a successful election and withhold judgment on its validity.
In his book Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Clichés, Cant and Management Jargon, Australian author (and former speech writer to the Australian prime minister) Don Watson says: “Totalitarian states use weasel words to hide truth and slew or complicate meaning. They use them, as they use clichés and other dead forms, to exercise and maintain power.” Until it makes a pronouncement on the elections, South Africa can now consider itself complicit in that objective.
The net effect is to add to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s credibility, not lessen it. Remember, President Jacob Zuma himself offered his “profound congratulations” to Mugabe on “winning” the election, so it is hardly as though the phrase comes from a place of criticism or condemnation.
But weasel words and Zimbabwe go hand in hand where South Africa is concerned. “Quiet diplomacy” was another empty shell of a phrase that, for almost a decade, allowed the South African government to maintain the facade that Zimbabwean elections were anything but illegitimate.
The natural counterpoint, of course, is “human rights”. That should have been the country’s guiding principle when making policy or determining what action to take in response to developments in that country.
Instead there existed an amorphous, all-meaning and entirely ambiguous idea, which also constituted something of a false choice. Demand the government take a harder line on Mugabe and it would respond, as Trevor Manuel did in 2002, by saying: “They say quiet diplomacy has failed. Should we act like Ariel Sharon? Should we? Should we just go in there, kick butt, blow them up, drive over their cars … should we send in our tanks? If there are alternative solutions, let’s hear what they are.”
The false choice given: it’s quiet diplomacy or nothing. In truth, there were myriad different options on the table, from sanctions to withholding financial support (at least twice South Africa has granted Mugabe substantial loans). But it was far easier to pretend quiet diplomacy was the only choice. That negated any real responsibility.
And, like Zuma’s “profound congratulations” this time round, in the past quiet diplomacy was revealed as a farce by the very same man who said of the 2002 Zimbabwean elections: “We sent observers here who were observing each and every detail. They have reported … the elections were legitimate, are valid. They were free and fair and we have got to respect that.”
Zuma might have been relatively more guarded in 2013, but make no mistake — he has no intention of demonstrating anything other than support for Mugabe. The Zimbabwean president, in turn, as he did with Zuma’s adviser Lindiwe Zulu, will not hesitate to bite Zuma’s head off if he senses an inkling of dissent. Zuma has learnt his lesson well.
Holding the whole charade together are weasel words. Diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe have become no more than a word game built on jargon. And each component, on inspection, is revealed to be nothing more than vacuum, devoid of principle or democratic value.
Chances are South Africa and Zuma will again skirt their responsibility when they eventually determine the validity of the Zimbabwean elections, outsourcing their morality to the collective wisdom of the Southern African Development Community, itself something of a weasel word. Indeed, so abused has the phrase “free and fair” become with regards to Zimbabwe that it, too, has had the meaning sucked from it.
But until the last vestige of democratic authority is squeezed from that idea, take a moment to appreciate the blatant incoherence of the substitute and just how bigger fool the South African government assumes the average person to be — that gobbledegook, not human rights, now defines our international relations.