I don’t like talk of a “third way” or a “middle-ground” in politics. Not because I am against the idea of a synthesis of extremes but because third ways and middle-grounds strikes me as an attempt to come across as being above the fray. Yet, despite this minor irritation with these political phrases, we need to have a crack at figuring out what it might really mean to occupy a position that rejects a dichotomy of horrors. Take that of Senekal, where suspects in the murder of a farm manager were appearing in court.
First, there is a handful of racist white rightwingers who are clearly nostalgic about colonialism and apartheid — periods during which they wielded absolute political power over everyone else. They have not come to terms with their perceived loss of power. No doubt many of them have felt emasculated ever since the end of apartheid.
These people didn’t go to Senekal out of some sort of commitment to the rule of law but rather to menacingly display their disdain for democracy and their yearning for white nationalism and a return to, in their minds, an idyllic past in which white supremacy found total political expression. Their time has expired but they refuse to accept objective reality.
Second, there is the annoyingly inconsistent Economic Freedom Fighters lot. Annoying, because at times the EFF can be a useful part of our consolidation of democracy (when they so choose). They have, even with their resort to the politics of spectacle, played an important part in helping parliament to improve its role of providing oversight over government. This has counterbalanced lazy and deferential ANC backbenchers who snore for their supper. Even the EFF’s resort to lawfare has resulted in important developments in jurisprudence that have strengthened democratic accountability.
But in Senekal many of the EFF supporters were nakedly thuggish, brandishing weapons and behaving in ways as appalling as the rightwingers. They intimidated some journalists, vandalised parts of the town and generally spewing anti-white bile as a kind of end-in-itself, a lacklustre performance of crude populist politics. Neither they nor the rightwingers represent the best of our society.
These seemingly disparate groupings have several things in common. Neither of them, despite pretending otherwise, respect the democratic state enough to allow the criminal justice system to be the defenders of the country’s laws. They each want to substitute constitutional authority with their goons.
They are also addicted to toxic masculinities that find violent expression in their politics. Ideological differences aside, these groups are exemplary of the crisis of masculinity. Guns, sticks, cricket bats, golf clubs and other objects that get waved about become extensions of bruised male egos running amok.
Each side also uses the pathetic trickery of co-opting constitutional language to justify their abuse of basic constitutional freedoms. Julius Malema, the EFF leader, keeps telling us that they went to Senekal to protect the constitution and the rule of law. This is nonsense. You don’t even need a three-digit IQ to see through this lie. You cannot pretend to be deeply committed to constitutionalism when you use the right to protest to also subvert the rights of others such as the right of journalists to cover a story. You cannot talk constitutionalism while marching out of constitutional step.
The same is true of the racist rightwing white Afrikaans nationalist. Some of the individuals who were interviewed kept self-describing as democrats who are sweet and who have been compliant with the laws of the country since apartheid’s end. But let them ramble on for long enough and they cannot help but say crudely that they want to live separately from the rest of the country and threaten that they may not remain law-abiding for long.
You cannot have it both ways. If you are truly committed to an inclusive South Africa, as well as to the rule of law, why are you holding on to a nightmare of yesteryear’s “separate development” project and why make support of the basic tenets of constitutionalism, like respect for the law, conditional on your racist vision being allowed by the democratic state? That, too, is incoherent balderdash.
But here’s the crux. How did the rest of us who make up the numerical majority of this country come to allow these extremes to be the only loud voices in our politics currently?
If you are black and angry or disappointed with the ANC’s uselessness, is the EFF really the only option for expressing your feelings? If you are white and uncertain about your place in our country, are AfriForum and other right-wing groups the only political structures through which you want to assert your citizenship?
This is where the serious work needs to start in making sense of a third way or a middle-ground.
First, there must be clear and detailed theorising of an alternative position in our politics. The idea of “the middle” should not be a buzz phrase used as a form of political virtue signalling. What, precisely, is meant by it?
The starting point would be to define a third way as a return to the vision of the constitution. This will not be as easy as it sounds. We are an excellent example of a country where the vision of a just and equal society doesn’t guarantee the realisation of justice and substantive equality. Visions have to become reality. Ours has not. Consequently, the normative beauty of the constitution means nothing to millions of black South Africans who cannot eat a document.
This is where the political astuteness of Malema comes in. He has tapped into the discontent of many who do not have a stake in a society that remains deeply unjust. To return to the hope of a constitutional democracy founded on the aspirational vision, and underlying principles and values, of what was negotiated in the early 1990s, is quite a tall order for any political party. This is because the constitution is no longer, for many, seen as sufficiently radical and urgent in its demands that the state (and non-state actors) get on with the business of making South Africa just and equitable. The empirical realities of our country undermine this sell.
So a lot of strategic communications work and genuine political mastery will be required to make the constitution sexy again — and to challenge the rise of populism as the wrong way to try to achieve a South Africa that is just and equitable. It can be done, but a separate strategy discussion is needed to thrash out the details.
I have sympathy for those who mistakenly regard the constitution as meek. It is not meek. It is not anti-poor. It is not anti-black. But neither the ANC nor the Democratic Alliance seem to have the ability to get South Africans excited about the constitutional democracy we signed up for. This political failure on their part opens up space for far-left and far-right politics to take root. It is a hot mess and a bloody shame. The silence of ANC leaders on the Senekal moment captures this political failure.
Once the constitution is back in play in the imaginations of even marginalised people — which will be no mean feat — it is important, when looking to disrupt the dichotomy of horrors, to fight for that third way or middle ground with the same passion as crude race nationalists and conservatives fight for their convictions. It is mind-boggling how so many people who have strong private views about the moral bankruptcy of the ANC and of the horror of populist political movements are so resigned.
I am not saying that liberals or Marxists or whatever must shout and brandish their own weapons publicly but for goodness’ sake stop choosing silence or bitching and moaning on social media, around the braai or at the watercooler in the office. You must enter the fray and not be above it. If you are a white farmer who hates the hijacking of your politics by rightwingers who dress like the caricature of a racist farmer, why not bluntly tell them to go to hell and show up the EFF for crudely lumping all white people in one WhatsApp group?
If you are a black person who thinks our country has a hell of a lot to achieve, and you are not sure of the EFF, DA or the ANC even, why not puzzle through your complex politics and reject a ridiculously reductive expectation that anyone who is black and serious about racial justice must be sympathetic to the EFF or must treat the ANC with kid gloves?
Most South Africans are better than the lame options dominating the political space. It is time to organise and seriously contest that space. If your views are not on the political menu for others to see and choose from, then you cannot complain about the horror of non-choices available currently.