Monday, February 20, 2006

The unequal cost of lying

There is nothing more tragic than watching a public figure fall from grace. Recently, the UK witnessed a spectacular. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the third most powerful political party in the UK, resigned after denying and then later admitting he had a drinking problem. Allegedly, the problem was not that he was an alcoholic, but that, when asked about his drinking habits a few months earlier, he had denied it, thus effectively lying. This opened the door for accusations of dishonesty, which ensured his political demise.

The controversy surrounding Kennedy is a familiar one in politics. Remember the attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton? The issue was not that he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, but that he initially denied having “sexual relations with that woman”.

Machiavelli says that governments have different rules to individuals when it comes to honesty. From a Machiavellian perspective, one wants politicians who can tell lies. Telling lies can, in some circumstances, protect the interests of the State and its citizens. This distasteful truth is offset by democracy. Democracy demands a bond of trust between citizens and the State. You must trust your political leaders enough to know they will lie or keep secrets, only if absolutely necessary and to defend life. If they lie to the electorate for other reasons, they should be held accountable.

However, lying is a tricky business, and a government’s access to power often means that it can shape how a ‘lie’ is understood. According to the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, a lie is a declarative statement to another person, that one believes to be false, made with the intention that the other person may believe that statement to be true. In other words, lies, by definition, involve active deception. Politicians seldom own up to any form of deception. Take, for example, what I would call the recently invented ‘honest lie’ introduced during the Iraq war scandal. When Tony Blair claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that they posed a “serious and current threat” and was subsequently proved to be wrong, he said it was the fault of the intelligence services. He claims he believed the information presented to him and, as such, had not lied. He sincerely, or so he says, told the nation what he thought was true. He told a sincere lie.

But is that different from the situation with Kennedy? When asked publicly if he was an alcoholic, he said no. What we know about alcoholism is that it is common for those afflicted to fail to recognise their condition. In this sense, perhaps, he equally lied in all sincerity. But is it only the sincerity of a lie that matters, and not its consequences? The sincerity of a lie seldom matters to the victims of it. This is undoubtedly the case for the colleagues who had to cover for Kennedy when he was allegedly too drunk to perform his public duties or to Iraqi civilians and allied soldiers killed as a result of alleged misinformation.

Clearly, individuals are treated differently to governments. If an individual acts against another in ‘preemptive self-defence’, having been misinformed about the level of threat, she or he must face the law and pay the price. If a politician, on the other hand, causes the death of thousands based on misinformation about the level of threat, it is apparently entirely excusable. Unlike active deception, incompetent deception is seemingly completely forgivable when it comes to politicians.

If one man’s inability to be honest about his fondness for a tipple is enough to topple him and cost him his political career, then another man’s failure to ensure that information used to end the lives of thousands is accurate, no matter how sincerely he believed it was, should be equally damning.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, January 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 20 January 2006.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

INCORE Summer School

INCORE is running its annual Summer School in June this year. Myself and Wilhelm Verwoerd will be running a week long course on "Reconciliation in Societies Coming Out of Conflict". There are also courses on The Management of Peace Processes
Evaluation, and Impact Assessment of Peacebuilding Programmes. Our course will present an overview of the concept of reconciliation in societies coming out of conflict. Different theoretical and practical definitions of reconciliation will be explored. The relevance of the term in societies grappling to deal with a legacy of human rights violations will be critically examined. The course will investigate how the concept relates to and influences practical reconciliation work and its relationship to political transformation and transitional justice. The course will draw on the international learning of academics, policy-makers and practitioners, as well as the facilitators own experience. The course will combine both traditional lectures, guest speakers involved in reconciliation oriented work in Northern Ireland, and an interactive case study based approach. Discussions and group activities will be key aspects to the course design and delivery. To read more about the course click here and if you interested in the Summer School more broadly click here. The deadline for signing up for any of the courses is 10 March 2006.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

In Memory of Duma Joshua Kumalo

Duma Joshua Kumalo passed away in his sleep at a hotel outside Johannesburg, South Africa on 3 February 2006. Duma was one of the founding members of the Khulumani Victim Support Group and is best-known internationally as one of the “Sharpeville Six”. He, with five others, was accused under the problematic "common purpose" legislation in 1984 of killing a local councillor. Duma was at home at the time of the killing. He spent 8 years in jail and 3 of these on death row. He received a stay of execution only hours before he was to be put to death. The trauma of this experience must have been immense, but Duma came through it and was quick to remind people that he was a survivor and not a victim.

Duma came close to losing his life during the fateful “Sharpeville Six” ordeal as we know. In fact, when he returned to his cell after receiving the news that he was not going to be executed, his final meal was waiting for him. He ate the meal, but has subsequently said that something inside him died that day. Although this may in part be true, Duma’s experience also lit a fire inside his heart. Duma came out of jail determined to have his name cleared. This was his only plea to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other government bodies. His wish was never granted. None of this however deterred Duma from his struggle for justice both for himself and for others. He tirelessly helped fellow survivors of apartheid violence.

Duma spoke internationally many times about his experience. He contributed in immeasurable ways to the growth and popularity of Khulumani as an organisation in South Africa and overseas. He was a strong advocate against the death penalty and supported Amnesty International on several occasions in this regard. He also told his story through the play The Story I am About to Tell, as well as through other film and theatre productions. In all his endeavours, and throughout his time in jail, he was supported by his wife Betty. Betty was his rock. Duma also has two sons. My thoughts are with them and Betty at this time.

Personally, Duma was one of the most warm-hearted people I have known. His smile and sense of humour was legendary. I could spend hours talking of my experiences with Duma in South Africa and abroad. People still speak of Duma in Derry in Northern Ireland. His large frame etched in my mind as he ambled about the town speaking with passers-by and always grinning. We spent much time, perhaps too much time, in small Irish pubs as he regaled the locals with stories and song long into the night. If you met Duma once you remembered him. Across the globe people often ask me about him. My heart will be heavy now as I have to pass on the sad news that the great tree has fallen.

Duma loved life despite all the hardships it had thrown at him. He was fighter. In light of this it is not surprising that it is the spirit of Muhammad Ali that comes to mind when I think of Bra Duma. Duma, you inspired people from inside the darkness of your cell and shook the world; you inspired people whilst quietly assisting Khulumani members with their problems; you inspired people across the globe when your voice boomed out on the world stage as you spoke of your experience; and you inspired people with your honesty, grit and charm under the theatre lights.

Duma Joshua Kumalo may have lost some fights in his life but he won a much bigger war. Muhammad Ali’s words are a fitting tribute to him: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before [you] dance under those lights”.

Duma, I will miss your hearty laugh, your generosity of spirit, your courage to always fight for what was right and your burning desire for justice. You were a champion of a man. Hamba Kahle.

Brandon Hamber (8 February 2006)

A small fund to assist the family with the funeral arrangements has been set up, if any of you would like to contribute please email me.