Two countries. Some true stories. During the recent Supreme Court hearing about the elections in Kenya, the lawyers for the electoral commission’s main piece of evidence on why the election should not have been declared null and void was a video of John Kerry stating that the election was free and fair. The opposition called the statement racist.
After the nullification of the elections, the opposition would often quote the European Union representatives and their list of what was to be changed to prove why the electoral commission should implement certain changes.
Some years ago, before a rather important election that brought a certain man to head a certain Southern African nation, I wrote some rather unsavoury things about what he stood for.
An acquaintance, who was a supporter of this man, called me and wanted to know why I had written as I had. “Because it’s true? At least unless you can prove otherwise?”
That’s not the point, he informed me. The point was, this man whose policies I was denigrating was a leader of the governing party that my late father had been a member of.
My criticising him meant, according to what this person told me, that I was showing a lack of respect for the office that he held and, by extension, would probably cause my poor dead father’s skeleton to turn in its grave.
I was being a Clever Black, impimpi, an agent of whiteness or some other label to that effect.
What was interesting, though, was that, when a DJ compatriot of the paler hue said pretty much what I had stated earlier, members of the same party who thought what I had to say was not credible found it worthwhile to invite him to lunch and address his “concerns”. As though he is more of a citizen than I am. Which perhaps he is. By virtue of his heritage, he probably has more land than I do, which means, hectare for hectare, he has more stake in the country than my family and I do, despite our more limited options should we need to escape.
I have been thinking of these stories a lot lately since a discussion I had with some friends about Jacques Pauw’s celebrated or controversial book (depending on who is talking) The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma In Power and Out of Prison.
Two things stuck out for me and my friends.
The first was that, if everything Pauw tells us is true — and there is no reason to disbelieve him — one man and his cronies have seriously compromised South Africa. Much of what Pauw tells us is not new to anyone who has followed South African news in the past 20 years, but what is new is still deeply saddening and should make all of us question the direction the country is taking and demand change.
The second thing that struck me was the racist undertone of the book in a “best white” accent. I think here of the incident of the stolen laptop at the beginning of the book or this description of Jacob Zuma in Chapter Four: “Think of him standing in Parliament delivering the State of the Nation address or answering questions from the opposition. Or even more daunting: think of him addressing the United Nations in New York. Gauche, bumbling, unworldly, clueless, fibbing, awkward.”
Unfortunately for Pauw, the second point is what has stuck out for a majority of black opinion makers, which, sadly, has put others off the book. As is to be expected, the first point is what has attracted many non-black citizens who seem to read it with relish and comment with an “I told you about these people” font on social media. And what works for marketing Pauw’s book, his non-blackness, is precisely what makes it difficult for others to engage with it.
It should not have to be that way.
We should be able to engage with a work critically because of its contents, rather than what the writer looks like. But in South Africa, as everywhere on this continent, what non-black people say matters more than anything black folk could ever say. The ANC has probably done more marketing for this book than anyone could have imagined with their attempts at banning and making a noise.
On the other hand, had this book been written by, say, a Mondli Ma-khanya, the reaction would have been whispered threats and warnings akin to the phone call I received those many years ago and not the use of state machinery that Pauw has got, which has everyone wanting to know what it is they don’t want us to read.
To the ANC members speaking out against the book, as to the politicians and lawyers in Kenya — and indeed many black folk on the continent — the import of a statement is directly proportional to one’s race even as we whine against racism, white monopoly capitalism and tell the world we are sovereign nations.
It is more important for our governments for Pauw, Gabriel Dolan, Kerry, the EU and The New York Times to validate us more than it is to listen to the concerns of fellow citizens who look like us and who may be hurt most by our unsavoury actions.
How else do we explain that much of what Pauw says was said by former public protector Thuli Madonsela, intelligence officers and many others? But the governing party never bothered to self-correct.
So too in Kenya. As talk of secession appears to gain traction, it is not African diplomats but those from EU nations who are making statements on why it is not a good idea.
It is tempting to assume that African diplomats are quiet because they believe in the sovereignty of member nations but the truth is less complex. They are aware that no one in their host country would pay attention to their utterances and their home country may recall them.
Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya