It really is a sorry state of affairs when a country that has produced so many remarkable people and movements is reduced to abandoning its national political stage to the spectacle of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) and Julius Malema publicly shitting on our democracy.
The AWB are racist and violent thugs drunk on their fragile fantasies of white supremacy. Their brandy and coke fascism was routed by the South African Police in Ventersdorp in 1991, and again by the Bophuthatswana Defence Force in Mmabtho in 1994. They are not the Waffen-SS. But while they are too inept to pose any real threat to the state they are not simply buffoons. They are, like the Ku Klux Klan in some dismal Mississippi town, partisans of a brutal regime of white terror that, as Andile Mngxitama argues, has never released Ventersdorp from its grip. Mathatha Tsedu is quite right to insist that to reduce them to their buffoonery is to do a serious injustice to their victims.
Malema is a reckless and patently anti-democratic demagogue. He shows no evidence of any social vision beyond the sort of crude identification with money, fame and power that sent him to visit Molemo "Jub Jub" Maarohanye in the holding cells of the Protea Police Station, rather than the families of the children Maaronhanye had smashed into while racing his Mini Cooper at three in the afternoon. Malema wants, in the exact style of the elites excoriated by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched the Earth, to lead the lumpen-bourgeoisie to prey on the people in the name of the people. Xolela Mangcu has noted the historical similarities between Malema’s language and the language of fascism.
Malema’s attack on the British journalist, delivered with all the elegance of spirit evident in the painstaking care with which SGL Engineering Projects build each of their bridges, climaxed with a declaration on the state of the journalist’s penis: “Rubbish is what you have covered in that trouser - that is the rubbish." One can only assume that Malema prefers his journalists to have a better class of penis. Perhaps all this trouble could have been avoided if his security team had set up a penis vetting system at the door to Luthuli House.
The penis made its unwelcome entry into our body politic with Jacob Zuma’s rape trial. We had the return of Umshini Wam before Dubula Ibhunu. And the penis is going to be at the centre of our political theatre for the foreseeable future given the speculation around the fact that Eugene Terre’Blanche’s body was found with his penis exposed. Already Zanu-PF have seized on claims of a homosexual encounter with glee while AWB members are declaring that there must be a conspiracy.
No one should be surprised if it turns out that Eugene Terre’Blanche did attempt a homosexual encounter with one of his attackers. Fascism is invariably as homophobic as Zuma, his execrable ambassador to Uganda or Zanu-PF. It murdered thousands of gay men in Nazi Germany. But the hypermasculinity of fascism inevitably has repressed homoerotic overtones and Terre’Blanche would hardly be the first fascist with a homosexual double life. In fact as Johann Hari, a left wing gay writer, points out “With the exception of Jean-Marie Le Pen, all the most high-profile fascists in Europe in the past thirty years have been gay. It's time to admit something.”
Recent TV news bulletins have made it look as if we should be getting ready to throw the Constitution away, change the national anthem to Umshini Wam and let the big men work out some new deal. But of course neither the AWB nor Malema can claim any significant support base. Malema’s power within his own organisation is so tenuous that he has resorted to defending his position, in Limpopo, with a mixture of strategies that he seems to have picked up in Harare. They included whacking an ANC Youth League member on the head with a plastic chair and calling on the police, some of them boers, to shoot rubber bullets at others to stop them from participating in a meeting in which they would have voted against his orders.
There was a time when many of our most important public debates were between the ANC and organisations like the Treatment Action Campaign and COSATU. We need to think about why it is that we have, even if temporarily, abandoned the political stage to contesting big men who do not speak for a mass constituency or for any kind of democratic principle.
The obvious starting point is that our democracy has failed in a variety of respects; many of which come down to the fact that it has always been an elite deal that excludes the majority from substantive access to its political and economic benefits. This kind of deep failure, a failure that results in, say, a million evictions, most of them unlawful, from farms since 1994 can be managed for a while with the right spin and a little repression. But it cannot be managed indefinitely. Something has to give.
The massive rate of popular protest is one sign that the time when an elite deal could be passed off as real democratisation will soon be up. Some of these protests are a demand for popular political empowerment. But there is also a turn towards a politics of xenophobia, homophobia and hypermasculinity which are a turn away from democratic values and towards a much narrower and more predatory conception of empowerment.
It is clear that we cannot continue to pass off the elite deal as real democracy and to leave it at that. The response of Zuma’s government has largely taken the form a shift towards social conservatism with the militarisation of policing and a dramatic increase in the violent repression of the grassroots left. But it has not yet been enough to contain discontent.
The solution to the impasse in our democracy doesn’t have to be conservative and repressive. It could also take the form of concrete commitment to substantive practices rooted in an immediate recognition of equality. But if we don’t find a way to move a serious and rational discussion of the question of substantive equality to the centre of our politics we’ll be left with the sorry spectacle of the politics of big men trying to rally their troops behind nothing but the promise of their protection on their turf. We’ll have even more dangerous idiots lining up with Julius Malema and Andre Visagie to enter the political stage from the right. They way to avoid this fate is the patient work of democratising society from below by organising democratic alternatives, powerful and mass based democratic alternatives, from the ground up.
Savage, Brilliant, Funny
Richard, I've never seen you write in such a rage before. It's savage but brilliant. Funny too.
Inequality a Bigger Agenda
There lies still a serious problem of inequality in this beautiful country of ours, and I know we love it. Hence we can no longer continue to ignore that there are problems, as you mentioned, service delivery protest are on a shocking rise, we still bury youngsters in their prime from the BIG desease with a small name, we still produce pathetic matric results in truck loads. I've asked myself the question as well, surely these issues should be bigger agendas and discussions than the Malema and Visagies' of this world. They are too small for all this noise. Too small to paint our country and democracy with dirty, stinking brushes. We need a serious dialogue and we need to be honest and truthful, and this has unfortunately become as urgent as finding tickets for the opening match between RSA and Mexico.
I think after the visitors have left our shores in July, we need to start a new dialogue and address these racial tendencies that keep cropping up -- and Malema and Visagie feeling entitled to promote such irresponsible and selfish behaviour.