It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in South Africa’s current political discourse. It seems that the light at the end of the tunnel is in fact a train hurtling at the social fabric of our society.
There is growing and justified pressure from various constituencies to resolve racism, poverty, inequality and institutional incapacity. It must be said South Africa is not alone in this regard. The shadows of the four horsemen (poverty, inequality, violence and environmental instability) are becoming increasingly visible in most societies grappling with the effects of unbridled capitalism.
Like those of several of its Western counterparts, including Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, members of South Africa’s political elite have chosen to tackle this problem head on with a tool box filled with populism, ethnic rhetoric and what I would call “politics of suspicion”.
The politics of suspicion has displayed itself in various political movements, such as the flurry of anti-immigration political parties in Western Europe, the economic populism in Venezuela and, of course, in the recent “anti-trade nativism” and “anti-immigration” of Donald Trump’s presidency.
What they all have in common is a claim to be anti-establishment, a voice for the marginalised and a shared penchant for pursuing a sort of politicking that makes race, ethnicity and/or nationality axiomatic.
The words of Duncan McDonnell might better capture the sort of politics I am referring to. “It’s a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.”
The politics of Afrikaner nationalism and racial ideology underpinned the National Party’s discourse in apartheid. Fully overcoming the consequences of their rule will take time. Those who think otherwise are simply not acquainted with the deep ramifications of colonialism and apartheid. It will take deep political and social will to fully exorcise the demons of our past.
What worries me as a young South African, however, is the manner in which some in our political elite have responded to the challenge. Too many are taking the path well travelled: racial and ethnic mobilisation combined with the promotion of fear and contempt for those who do not reflect our constructed identity in society, be it race, religion, gender, ethnicity or language.
Let us examine four pertinent examples.
In 2007, the then president of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), Fikile Mbalula, gave a memorial lecture at the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal during which he said the university was “into nothing but Bombay”, referring to the Indian capital renamed Mumbai. What does it say when political elites are questioning the presence of students at an institution based on the colour of their skin or their ethnicity?
At a recent parliamentary sitting, when questioning Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, it was suggested by Economic Freedom Fighters deputy president Floyd Shivambu that Gigaba should produce his birth certificate, suggesting that he is a foreigner. Shivambu went as far as suggesting that Gigaba is a foreigner as he is “too dark to be a Zulu”.
In 2010, the same culprit sent a message to journalist Carien du Plessis: “You must learn to respect people. I don’t comment on ANCYL issues and please stop being stupid … I wouldn’t want to earn respect from white bitches … so dream on.”
Shivambu in another incident very recently questioned the credentials of treasury deputy director general Ismail Momoniat and, by vicious innuendo, suggested that he cannot take orders from “Africans”.
In 2017, EFF leader Julius Malema claimed outright that Indians were to blame for poverty in KwaZulu-Natal as they were “monopolising” the economy by capturing the ANC.
Three of the four examples of the politics of suspicion include serial offenders Malema and Shivambu of the EFF. An organisation is the sum total of the individuals who occupy it. Slowly but surely, members in high-ranking positions in the EFF are displaying flagrant racism and a politics that vociferously attacks individuals on the basis of their social identity.
The EFF are unapologetically playing the game of cultural politics, shifting blame for genuine social problems to the door of entire population groups such as “Indians” or “foreigners”. They do this while portraying themselves as the vanguards for “black liberation” in a world hell-bent on sabotaging the African child.
The EFF’s racist and xenophobic remarks misdiagnose deeper structural problems. But as inequality and poverty become a common feature in South Africa and other parts of the world, so has what Edward Said has called “othering”. Group-based differentiation, tribalism and nativism are manifestations of the contradictions of neoliberal globalisation, which has led to widening national and international inequalities.
Scarcity has been exacerbated by rapid climate change and population growth. The dominant response, unfortunately, has been to organise into tribe or group and reject those who don’t fit their own cultural identity, with natural identification being the springboard to claim rights. It is indeed a time of heightened politicisation of identities, on the left as well as on the right.
We should not mask the very real problems that the EFF calls out but is proving incapable of addressing in a progressive way. But the rush to the politics of suspicion and cultural, racial or religious nationalism is merely a seductive way of avoiding confronting difficult questions of economic inequality. This approach puts the blame of social problems at the feet of foreigners, “house negroes”, “clever blacks”, whites, and the list goes on, doing absolutely nothing to engage with the deep-seated structural problems South Africa faces.
We need not delve too deeply into historical examples for us to see the logical conclusion of such ideological responses to structural and economic stress. But it is worth emphasising that South Africans are often rightly accused of being parochial and uninterested in learning from the experience of our neighbours.
It is especially ironic when this is displayed by those preaching “decolonisation” and an end to “Western” domination over our thinking. We ought to learn lessons from events on the continent we call home. Look at Rwanda, and we ought to learn from our Kenyan sisters about the havoc ethnonationalist politics can cause in society.
Populism, ethnic nationalism and narrow racial identity politics emerge in conditions of extreme inequality, poverty and deprivation among the masses. Leaders, intellectuals and others ought to reflect honestly on the many problems our nation faces in some of the discourses they are endorsing and engaging in. This is particularly important for those erstwhile progressives who believe there is something strategically useful in indulging in the discourse of racial or ethnic essentialism. We ought to abandon the politics of suspicion and its supportive discourses.
What a shame it would be to inhabit the world under the pressures to conform to an ethnic or racially homogenous agenda. What a shame to think that this would represent utopia. I may not have the answers to all the problems that face our nation but I know that new “pencil tests” driven by the ethnonationalist rhetoric and desire to define and then police the boundaries of “authentic” identities is not the way forward.
Bongi Maseko holds a BSocSci degree from the University of Cape Town in politics and international relations. He is currently in his penultimate year of a LLB degree and an intern at the Institute for African Alternatives, publisher of New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy