Citizens of the battered rainbow nation, we need to talk

Children are naively taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. But Eugene Terre’Blanche’s murder and its inevitable linking to Julius Malema’s resuscitation of Ayesaba Amagwala with its “dubul’ inbhunu” (shoot the boer) lyrics makes one wonder.

Although the police investigation may reveal the murder to be the result of a wage dispute, Terre’Blanche’s status as the iconic white supremacist leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the ultimate boer, means his murder will have political and social significance. Its consequences have already included threats of vengeance and race-baiting.

But the murder should also prompt reflection on the ill health of our political debate and the way we use language in South Africa.

Terre’Blanche and Malema shared oratorical skills and the ability to please crowds eager to hear their incendiary racist rhetoric. Both understood that their words resonated with the insecurities, frustrations, anger and fears felt by their audiences.

In Malema’s case populist and popular sentiments about radical economic redistribution are welcomed by those who remain permanently unemployed, disillusioned and excluded from the promised prosperity of our democratic era. For Terre’Blanche, those feeling impotent, besieged and threatened answered his call for the restored self-determination and autonomy of the boerevolk.

The point is that words alone do not entrench populist worldviews. Only once a profound connection is made between the speaker’s sentiment and the listener’s disaffected, marginalised situation can this rhetoric move from the crackpot fringe to mainstream political discourse. The traction achieved by both Malema and Terre’Blanche’s messages with their respective constituencies confirms that South Africa remains polarised and unequal, as it was under apartheid.

The economic and social inequality and precariousness of our society must be reduced if we are to reach the promise we made to one another in 1994. A tangible improvement in the material circumstances of most South Africans and a renewed commitment to nation-building are required, not more empty words.

These two leaders’ words highlight the deficiency in our public discourse caused by South African identity politics in which we, and our views, are identified first and foremost by our race and gender. This bald, unsubtle rigidity makes nuanced discussion impossible and detailed debate pointless. Those with the loudest voices and the most provocative soundbites are setting the agenda for our national conversation. This drowns out the concerns, views and interests of the rest of us, the bewildered majority.

Meaningful dialogue is the only way to achieve the substantive transformation prefigured in the Constitution, rather than the superficial window-dressing created thus far.

Since the start of the democratic era, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the poor and marginalised only ever get speeches and promises, with no delivery on their content. These words and sentiments are met with cheers and hope, but are ultimately empty, cynical rhetoric.

It wasn’t always so. We tried to create another story. We spoke of the rainbow nation, basking in Madiba’s magic and facilitated by the catharsis of revelations at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Fascinatingly, even the AWB, in its submission to the TRC, expressed regret for its human rights violations and racism. It said that AWB members had committed acts under the misapprehension that they were contributing to the freedom struggle of the volk. This illustrates the level of apparent commitment to transformation and nation-building espoused by whites, even by the AWB, in those days. Today it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that perhaps this was all half-hearted, if not downright illusory.

First, AWB member Adriaan van Straaten, convicted for the robbery and murder of two nightwatchmen in Vereeniging in 1989 out of “pure racial hatred”, told the TRC’s amnesty committee that “I was still a stupid. I did not understand the importance of negotiations. I didn’t realise that violence will not solve anything.”

The AWB then made a commitment to furthering freedom of speech and association when it sought amnesty for the convictions of two of its leaders, including Terre’Blanche, for the 1978 tarring and feathering of Pretoria academic Floors van Jaarsveld over his interpretation of the Battle of Blood River and for the 1991 “Battle of Ventersdorp”, when AWB members disrupted a National Party meeting addressed by former state president FW de Klerk. The AWB apologised through the TRC, acknowledged that it had been wrong and recognised that denying freedom of speech to one person or organisation could mean it was denied to all.

It is almost impossible to imagine such a thing today when we seem mute; depressingly speechless in the face of too many missed opportunities to engage in this difficult, messy business of transformation. Now, our words themselves cause yet more disputes — about the role of songs in farm murders, insults in the murder of lesbians and history in the naming of streets and places, to name just three.

Of course, I don’t suggest that the AWB represents the views of all whites or that Malema speaks for all blacks, only that our failure to create a truly nonracial discourse means that their rhetoric still appeals and gets undue attention. Loudmouths always do.

A national conversation started about our past and the hopes for our reconfigured future, but it has foundered, probably because nothing has really changed. We need to talk. What happened? Why have ordinary South Africans stopped the dialogue that will create our shared values and the framework necessary to achieve substantive transformation? Why are we listening to inflammatory talk instead? Or, as Bertrand Russell asked: “Why is propaganda so much more successful when it stirs up hatred than when it tries to stir up friendly feeling?”

Michelle le Roux, a member of the Johannesburg and New York Bars, co-authored Precedent and Possibility: The (Ab)use of Law in South Africa with Judge Dennis Davis

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday