'Umm, yes, I did vote leave on Brexit but I didn't expect them to win the damn thing'
I’m writing this from a country where I’m starting to despair for the democratic process. No, no, not South Africa. I’m in England, where the political scene is so chaotic that it makes our own benighted politics look like those of, I dunno, Switzerland.
Seriously, as much as we may complain about our country’s political leadership, can we just take a moment to contemplate the fact that at least our leaders exist? England, by contrast, is a nation where every single major political party is now facing a leadership crisis in the wake of the Brexit election result.
Each morning I wake up to the news that another prominent politician is gone. Today it was right-wing hero Nigel Farage, possessor of one of the world’s most smackable faces. Farage led Britain squarely into its current crisis via his dog-whistle politics of racism and xenophobia and then had the astonishing gall to announce airily: “I want my life back” — as if he had been held hostage by Somali pirates for the past decade.
Of course, there’s something to be said for politicians stepping down, an event that seldom happens on our continent. It’s one thing to gracefully realise when it’s time to go, though, and another to march a whole country to the precipice of political isolation and then decide to have an extended lie-down.
If the Brexit outcome has taught us anything, it is that certain political decisions are too important to be put to referendum. Call me antidemocratic, but there are times when vox populi totally sucks.
Witness the number of people interviewed by British media after the vote who said that they voted “leave” but never expected anything to actually happen. What did they think they were doing, writing to Santa Claus?
“I Bregrexit” was the headline on one first-person account of voter regret, where the author wrote that after the results started coming in, “suddenly it wasn’t funny any more”. Apparently, a referendum to determine your country’s geopolitical position for generations to come was viewed by many as the electoral equivalent of a whoopee cushion.
The mood in London has been predictably sombre, as you’d expect in a city of immigrants who voted overwhelmingly to remain. It probably doesn’t help that the temperatures have been slightly lower than Cape Town in midwinter, as if summer itself is so depressed by the nation’s decision-making that it refuses to show its face.
In Brighton the other day, I got talking with a man whose appearance screamed “Brexit” — by which I mean he was wearing an England football shirt. “Of course I voted leave,” he told me. My friend Steve, a South African who has worked in London for more than a decade, asked: “Do you mind us being here?” Mr Leave replied without hesitation: “I don’t give a fuck, mate. You know the funny thing? My missus is half Polish.” But then again, there are “good” immigrants — expats — and bad ones. “You’re not like them” is a refrain my Greek friend Cristina, a junior doctor in London, hears repeatedly. “It’s not people like you who are the problem.”
Cristina says she doesn’t get it. “Surely a doctor’s job, which I’m taking from some Brit, is more valuable than a cleaner’s job?” she asks. “And if people are worried about cultural dilution, let me tell you: I’m definitely not eating bangers and mash on a Sunday. I’m cooking stifado.”
I once watched a British documentary called The Day the Immigrants Left, which should have been compulsory viewing for everyone who believed the right wing’s claims of immigrants stealing jobs. In it, the producers arranged for 12 English people on the dole to take the jobs of 12 Eastern European workers for a week. The Brits fell apart. Half of them simply didn’t turn up for work or were chronically late. Two of them, sent to work on a factory assembly line, claimed that the conveyor belt had been specially speeded up to make them look like fools on television. In reality, it had been slowed down far below the speed at which the immigrants normally worked. I’m not saying this is reflective of the full picture of the British labour market, but it’s pretty telling.
If I were a young person in Britain right now, I’d be rounding my mates up in the way that happened in 2011’s Blackberry Riots, except probably using a different smartphone. The prospect of losing the right to live and work in 27 European Union countries in one fell swoop must be a bitter pill to swallow.
Even more bitter, however, is the outpouring of racist nationalism seen in pockets of the United Kingdom since the referendum result, with rightwingers seemingly more emboldened to express their toxic views.
All we need now is for the United States to vote in Donald Trump as president and the world will seem a dark and hateful place.