What do you do when you wake up one morning to find that there are mini-Malemas at every turn?
Once upon a time – it was August 29, 2013 if anyone is interested in the precise details – I went to sleep as normal. When I woke up the next morning I couldn’t watch or read the news without encountering mini-Malemas ranting away at every turn. It seemed we had turned into a society unable to discuss issues without foaming at the edges of our mouths and adopting the sort of theatrical aggressiveness more usually seen on the wrestling stage.
It seemed to me that there were two reasons why our public sphere was starting to look more like a franchise of the WWF. I mean the wrestlers, not the wildlife people. Our public sphere has become rowdy and raucous, not suitable for rational discourse. The first reason surely has to do with the degeneration of our political culture. The second has to do with how the explosion of consumer culture, often channelled through social media, is changing our relation to the public sphere.
There have always been ranters of various sorts at the margins of our public life, right from the advent of the democratic era. But if you were to pinpoint the exact moment the shift happened, you could say with certainty that it was the onset of Jacob Zuma’s march to the Union Buildings. It was his campaign for the presidency that moved showmanship and macho posturing to the centre of a stage rather than an agora. Zuma has turned out to be a lot more like Silvio Berlusconi than a man of the left. His reign has produced an absolute masculinisation of politics. This began in earnest during his rape trial, in which, as Nomboniso Gasa and Pumla Gqola have noted, oppressive patriarchal tropes were bandied about.
“100% Zulu boy,” the T-shirts declared. Yet he was silent in this face of this campaign that undid the ANC’s long history of frowning on ethnic politics, and even went so far as deploying calls for highly gendered acts of violence to try to cast doubt on his accuser’s legitimacy.
As president, Zuma reinforced the patriarchal shadow that he has cast over our public life via recourse to incredibly problematic interpretations of culture and tradition.Who can forget his dinner with Dali Tambo? It was 2012 and our democracy was supposed to be secure and consolidated. There he sat at the head of the dinner table playing the grinning father, dispensing advice to the nation. When asked by the sycophantic Tambo about his daughter’s recent marriage, Zuma replied: “I was also happy because I wouldn’t want to stay with daughters who are not getting married, because that in itself is a problem in society. I know that people today think being single is nice. It’s actually not right. That’s a distortion. You’ve got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother.” WTF?! Need I say more? Need any of us say any more?
And, just like Berlusconi and George W Bush, Zuma has produced a proudly anti-intellectual brand of politics, with its roots in spectacle and dubious claims and links to tradition. Suddenly it felt like we all lived our lives in discrete racial and ethnic ghettos and wanted nothing more than to have Zuma visit our leaders for a braai or Diwali.
We have gone from rule by a major intellectual to unapologetic contempt for learning, nuanced thought and careful discussion. How did we elect a president who is hostile to “clever blacks,” something that must have resulted in one last beat out of Verwoerd’s rotting heart?
Zuma has brought down our politics to the level of Bush and Berlusconi – and the chickens are coming home to roost. It was Zuma who unleashed Julius Malema’s brutish politics, with its hyper-masculine posturing and simplistic slogans. It replaces ideas and calls to the people for engagement with the presentation of a spectacle that we are supposed to watch, passively. Now Malema is unleashing his bizarre mix of hyper-consumerism and neo-fascist theatrics on all of us.
But it is not just Malema. When the patriarchs of the ANC in Parliament jeered at Lindiwe Mazibuko’s fashion choices rather than debate her, they all started sounding like Malema. And it’s not just the ANC. Everywhere you turn, South Africans are retreating into simplified notions of ethnicity and race, and insulting one another with all the grace and wit of primary school bullies. Principle, as a pole of allegiance and a mode of engagement, seems like a quaint anachronism. It’s become impossible to read the comments section on most news sites without wanting to gag.
On August 30, the usual cacophony slipped even deeper into WWF territory when we learnt that a philosophy lecturer in Pretoria declared that child rape was part of African culture. The lecturer has clearly never understood Nietzsche, the subject of her academic work. If we thought she was a right-wing nut on the outer fringes of both sanity and our public life and that we could look to activists for a model of principled engagement, we were wrong – very wrong. On the same day, we learnt that protestors in support of the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli state had chanted “Shoot the Jew” at Wits.
As academic Raymond Suttner incisively argues, this song severely “compromised the BDS campaign against apartheid Israel more broadly”. Around the world, the BDS campaign has taken a clearly principled stance against both anti-Semitism and the appalling oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state. But here, in an act of massive stupidity that will set back years of principled work by the local and international movement for BDS, we get young men singing about shooting Jews. Are these Zuma’s chickens coming home to roost? These chickens look more like hideous, leering psychotic ostriches than anything I’d like to roast on a Sunday afternoon.
But the hard fact of the matter is that we shouldn’t be surprised that in South Africa – where racial and ethnic laagers have become the new common sense of our public sphere – a philosopher, supposedly a person in search of wisdom, feels entitled to express her poisonous racism as if it were thought. We shouldn’t be surprised when there is a growing political culture of macho posturing and sloganeering – much of it based on a simple understanding of the politics of race that never really gets beyond notions of “us” and “them”. With just the singing of a song, years of consistent and anti-racist international solidarity work in support of Palestine has gone up in flames.
To be sure, Zuma did not cause our fundamental problems. But his political style has poisoned the well of wisdom from which we used to draw. Of course, Zuma is not solely to blame for the degeneration of our public sphere. There are other factors. The wounds of our traumatic past and the brazenness with which some white people express their racism are also major factors. So are the changes in consumer culture, technology and communications over the past 20 years. The meteoric rise of Twitter and Facebook – and years of television with 180 channels but little that is not entirely stupid to watch – has led to a global rise in desire for instant gratification.
All of this technological advancement has led to the dramatic democratisation of the public sphere, which is an entirely good thing. But it has also led to a shift in the way politics works. The 140-character tweet does not allow for much nuance or subtlety in expression. If this becomes the dominant form of expression, as it has for so many, it’s unsurprising that the individuals or politicians with the most tweetable slogans become popular. And when there is such an avalanche of tweets, those that are the most crude, and pander to our most base fears and desires, will often win the most attention.
Throughout history, humans have always been swayed by the politics of spectacle. Although someone like Camille Demoulins or Thomas Paine could electrify millions with a pamphlet, it has often been true that popular campaigns, full of theatre, have done more for advancing political projects than the staid musings of politicians. Just think of the women’s march on Versailles, the storming of the Bastille, the hunger strikes of suffragettes, Gandhi’s Salt March, the Defiance Campaign and the Million Man March. These campaigns were not just empty gestures. They were either meticulously planned and disciplined forms of collective political action. Their apparent spontaneity actually came out of years of political organisation and discussions.
It’s this legwork, the years of political work and discussions –and in some cases careful training – that’s largely absent from mainstream politics today. When Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi marched, their interventions were powerful, moving and undertaken by individuals, supported by followers, who had, together, sacrificed a large portion of their lives for their ideals. When Malema marches, his actions are nothing but the machinations of an opportunistic man who will utilise whatever discourse is most easily available – from class to imperialism, race and outlandish claims about the CIA – to gain access to power.
On March 5 1960 Alberto Korda took the now iconic photo of Comandante Che Guevara because he was struck by the “absolute implacability, as well as anger and pain” on the face of Argentinean revolutionary. Reflecting on the photograph years later, Korda added that the photograph represented Guevara’s firm and stoic character. In this ever popular image, Guevara wears a black beret – a symbol of the revolutionary action sweeping across the globe in the 60s.
In South Africa today the berets on the heads of Malema and co have turned a potent political symbol into nothing but opportunistic appropriation. Malema – with his Johnny Walker Blue and his Rolexes, his plundering of the Limpopo treasury and tax dodging – could not be further from a figure like Guevara. But he always has the right one-liner to make the news.
Malema is convenient for young people looking for answers in a society where the state is failing to provide any credible direction. His form of simplified politics fits well with their desire for quick fixes and easy trends. But social media, technology and consumerism do nothing to prepare people for serious political engagement and work. Liking or retweeting something a little outré that requires a second of attention is far from the sort of serious intellectual and political work that changes the world for the better. An operator like Malema, or the morons singing “Shoot the Jew” at Wits, get their political messages across, no matter how devoid they are of substance, because when there’s nothing but vitriol and rhetoric being sprouted, it’s easy to cut it down to 140 characters or a thumbs-up.
If this version of populism grows without substantive political practices or ideological work, then we are going down a very similar road to somewhere like India. There, state politics has largely descended into different populist factions fighting for a bigger chunk of the political pie without making any substantial progressive changes to society. It is time for us to undo Zuma’s poisonous legacy and take ourselves, our country and our future a lot more seriously.
Image: Delwyn Verasamy