Blurred line often separates a Zuma critic and apartheid apologist

Glen Agliotti is no stranger to infamy in South Africa. (Gallo)

Glen Agliotti is no stranger to infamy in South Africa. (Gallo)

As South Africans watched the rand plummet on Wednesday night, there was a strange sense of unification. In some moments, generally when President Zuma pulls a surprising move (remember Nkandla?), we find ourselves strapped together to get through the mud. But there’s always that one person who has to dirty an already dire situation. 

Glenn Agliotti is a dubious figure in South Africa’s public arena. He shot to infamy for being a convicted drug dealer and, more notably, being arrested in connection with mining businessman Brett Kebble’s murder. But like many South Africans, Agliotti has a Twitter account where he is free to say whatever comes to mind. 

On Thursday morning, while everyone was gloomily watching the rand fall to new lows following Zuma’s dismissal of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, Agliotti was tweeting that back in the good ol’ days (read: apartheid) life was much better.

You know it’s bad when someone starts off a sentence saying, “apartheid sucked, but…”. Just the use of the word “sucked” is arrogant in itself: describing a system of dehumanisation as sucky can only come from someone who has benefitted enough not to experience apartheid’s violence despite being alive at the time it thrived. 

But for white people to be disconnected from a history of violence isn’t surprising in South Africa. What’s truly interesting is that it was Nene’s dismissal and the plummeting rand that provoked Agliotti’s tweet. Zuma’s bad choices have always sparked some form of longing for apartheid from racists in South Africa. It happened after Nkandla, and it’s happening now. To debate against such obnoxiousness is a lesson in critical reading 101: always ask who is benefitting. In the case of Agliotti’s tweet: who did the apartheid infrastructure work for? Who was the economy good for? 

“Full employment, in combination with labour controls, limitations on the free movement and employment of non-whites, and the use of colour bars at company level, contributed to high levels of disposable income for the white population,” historian Anthony Butler writes in his book Contemporary South Africa.

Although Zuma has laughed away responsibility for South Africa’s economic difficulties by blaming apartheid, we know he’s not all wrong. Earlier this week the Reconciliation Barometer pointed out that generations of South Africans poor under apartheid are still poor today. But Zuma does have a lot to answer for with regards to the selfish decision-making – such as Nene’s dismissal – that has contributed to more suffering on the people he’s meant to safeguard the most: the poor. 

There’s no doubt that President Zuma’s dismissal of Nene is indefensible, particularly because no explanation has been given to justify the sacking. Nene was doing a fair job, taking SAA to task for financial mismanagement and keeping an eye on the ANC’s nuclear procurement budget. But principles don’t win you favours in a political climate where power matters more than ethics. 

Yet still, we cannot use the recklessness of our president to justify apartheid. The criticism we choose to respond with speaks volumes of our own character. When people mock Zuma’s language in his speeches, or Zapiro uses Zuma’s polygamy as a marker of his intellect, we know there is a deficit in public engagement because the president’s blackness will always be used as evidence that whiteness is better. 

Agliotti’s tweet is racist. Anything that props up a system of racial hatred can not be anything but discriminatory to the oppressed race group. That it’s Agliotti who wrote that tweet is irrelevant – what matters is that there are many people in this country, coloureds and Indians included, who echo his sentiment despite knowing what apartheid did to black people, and their own people. 

In cases like this, where people like Agliotti arrogantly say “give me an explanation”, the tables must be turned because it is apartheid apologists who owe everyone else an explanation.

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather


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