Last week academics, intellectuals, civil society activists and journalists converged on the Wits University Centre of Origin to discuss one of the most important tenets of democracy.

Last week academics, intellectuals, civil society activists and journalists converged on the Wits University Centre of Origin to discuss one of the most important tenets of democracy.

The discussions were part of a conference titled South African Democracy at the Crossroads organised by the university's public intellectual life research project.

The conference's aim was to review the state of public debate in the country.

So what is the state of public debate and dialogue in South Africa?

One of the conference's organisers, Carolyn Hamilton, said the state of public debate and dialogue in South Africa needed such a forum.

Writing in the conference brochure Hamilton said: "Despite the new South African political order bringing with it all the freedoms of association and speech, there have been chilling signs during the past decade of substantial silencing, self-silencing and evasion rather than confrontation of the fetters of the convened public sphere." [sic]

Cited as examples of how the ruling party wanted to define and determine the direction of public debate was the blacklisting of certain commentators by the SABC. Of importance in this regard was the fact that those banned were regarded by the SABC management as being anti-President Thabo Mbeki. On the list were Xolela Mangcu, Willem Gumede, Karima Brown, Vukani Mde and Moeletsi Mbeki.

Also cited was the ANC's proposal for the establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT).

In terms of the proposal the tribunal would be a statutory institution accountable to parliament. In terms of the proposal, MAT could have powers to overrule decisions made by the existing self-regulatory institutions such as the Press Ombudsman, the Press Council and the Press Appeals Panel.

The crux of the ANC's argument is the media have become so "irresponsible" in their reporting that they needed to be reined in by a statutory body like MAT.

The problem with this approach, as some of the conference participants pointed out, is that the ruling party has appropriated the right to decide what is "responsible or irresponsible" reporting.

This raises the issue of how the ANC seeks to inhibit public discourse. In doing so the ruling party is dismissing institutions put in place by the media industry to deal with unethical and unprofessional reporting.

As the Rhodes University-based media specialist Fackson Banda has suggested, instead of trying to "officialise public debate" the ANC should strengthen the existing self-regulatory systems by giving them greater political legitimacy and support.

Another important issue raised during the conference was the ruling party's tendency to label its critics as "either being racist or being surrogates of racist masters".

Those using this tactic refer to white critics as racist - while black critics are regarded as "coconuts who do not have the credibility to speak on behalf of black people".

In his book Derailed: The State of Democracy in South Africa, author and commentator Xolela Mangcu calls this phenomenon racial nativism.

"Racial nativism (by contrast) harkens to purist, essentialist conceptions of identity. It is enough that one has a black skin or that one has participated in the liberation struggle to overthrow apartheid. Those 'qualifications' provide one with exclusive licence to speak or banish those with opposing views. It is as if those who participated in that struggle have the monopoly on wisdom and morality."

Mangcu argues that by resorting to racial nativism the ruling party is undermining one of the basic tenets of democracy - unbridled public discourse.

Those using racial nativism as a tool to undermine dissenting views usually claim to do so in "the public interest".

Ironically the public they speak about is also defined in their own terms to the exclusion of reactionary forces such as "coconuts and commercially white-owned racist media".

Another interesting aspect raised at the conference was the role of the media and the public intellectual in a democratic society.

In this regard it was pointed out that the media addresses various forms of "the public". Does Ukhozi FM - with more than six million listeners - address a different public from SAfm.

What does this mean - that because South Africa has different "publics" it cannot achieve the objective of building one new South African nation? Not necessarily, as some of participants observed. The first thing to be laid on the foundation of a new nation is tolerance. Also important is the acknowledgement that no culture can remain untainted by its interaction with other cultures.

For example, those practising Western culture in South Africa cannot afford to pretend that the African culture, as represented by the majority of South Africa's people, cannot influence their way of life. Mangcu refers to the phenomenon of cultures being influenced by others and adapting in a manner that enhances development as syncretism (the dynamic processes of identity formation that have always underpinned black people's encounter with European modernity).

Mangcu's argument is that black intellectuals such as Tiyo Soga and Steve Biko were influenced by the interaction with, for example, the missionaries. What they did was to appropriate the good aspects of European culture - education - and used it to deal with their political situation.

There was no essentialised African identity.

What does this mean for the South African agenda of building a new nonracial society? Instead of appealing to racial nativism and cultural chauvinism we should entrench the freedom of expression and association to build bridges among the different racial and class groupings.