When Mbongeni Ngema claimed in the hit song AmaNdiya that Indians were responsible for the oppression and marginalisation of Africans in KwaZulu-Natal he was called to order by then-president Nelson Mandela, who demanded, and got, an apology, albeit rather mealy-mouthed.
Madiba’s objective was not to ignore the complex history of both solidarity and tension between oppressed communities in the province, but to put beyond the social and political pale the racism that Ngema so clearly evinced.
That was in 2002. Just eight years later, under a president who counts among his closest advisers and most senior ministers Indian struggle veterans like Mac Mahraj and Pravin Gordhan, such talk has become grotesquely respectable. How else could Jimmy Manyi, a senior civil servant, complain as he did in 2010, that Indians were disproportionately represented in management because of their talent for bargaining? He claims he was joking, but that is no defence. That is how the social space for hatred is opened up.
And it is how it comes to pass that we see the Judicial Service Commission considering a bizarre letter from the Pietermaritzburg branch of the Black Lawyer’s Association attacking the suitability of KwaZulu-Natal deputy judge president Chiman Patel for promotion to judge president. Their grounds? He is Indian and would therefore favour other Indians when asked to appoint acting judges. The letter found a more nuanced echo in answers from another candidate for the post, Judge Mjabuliseni Madondo, who referred to “all kinds of things which need more insight which a person who is not African cannot be privy to — We were oppressed, but not in the same way.”
And finally there is Julius Malema, speaking in Thembelihle, where service-delivery protests have been lent a sharper edge by perceptions that Indian residents of nearby Lenasia are treated better by the government. When Malema spoke of amaKula, or “coolies”, he closed the circle with Ngema and set up a resonance that the worthies of the JSC ought to find deeply uncomfortable. There is no space on the commanding heights of our society for racism, whether cloaked in lawyers robes, or in naked, demagogic display.
If Zuma wants praise for his decisiveness, he should make that clear.
Read the first half of the editorial “Zuma’s questionable motives“