Informed people live longer
23 July 2014 07:00 (South Africa)
Opinionista Paul Berkowitz

Manufactured outrage and the art of being under political house arrest

  • Paul Berkowitz
In South Africa one’s identity is defined by race. Therefore party identity is scrambled with race. Voter identity becomes race identity. And the narratives and myths around voter loyalty and party allegiance are linked to race.

Another week in paradise has brought another manufactured political outrage to us all. On Tuesday, fresh from basking in the glow of a favourable decision by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), Helen Zille tweeted that “the W Cape has built 30 schools in [two] years to accommodate E Cape education refugees.”.

Slap me with a canary-yellow running bib and turn me into a Nike billboard if that wasn’t the cue for the ANC, its alliance partners and many of its supporters to cry racism and let slip the dogs of outrage and Tweeting. So much Tweeting. Tweets that buzz dully in your brain like a dentist’s drill.  

I’m not abusing this column to bore you with my thoughts on the whole meshuggas: I am a bear of little brain, and heavy discussions of semiotics bother me. I will direct you to smarter people here and here who have shone a bit of light on a heated debate. I want to talk about the political climate in the country and not just the weather.

This week’s fun and games is but the latest example in an ongoing, low-grade war between the DA and the ANC. Thanks to the growing reach of the Internet and social media, the partisan supporters of the two parties can continue battling each other long after the original incidents have run their course in the news cycle.

Whether it’s the mental patients that frequent the news24 and iol.co.za websites, smearing their virtual excrement on the walls or the Twitter subtweeters with their passive-aggressive little barbs, the geniuses on both sides of the party divide will waste perfectly good bandwidth in order to snipe, carp, badger and dog the other side.

I like to think of myself as an independent voter, and I try as hard as I can to offer the same levels of disrespect and irreverence to all politicians, irrespective of their party. Here are my observations on the partisan South African party supporter by way of comparison with her US counterpart:

First, the similarities between the political landscapes in the two countries: there are only two parties of any appreciable size and impact and in recent years there’s been a growing trend of partisan politics and politicking in both countries. That’s it, really, off the top of my head.

Next, the differences between the two. The US has a mature democracy of some 200-plus years (although universal suffrage in spirit and letter is only about 50 years old). South Africa’s democracy is in its teens. The main US parties have shared power more or less equally for a long time. In South Africa the ANC is the overwhelmingly dominant party, enjoying over 65% of the popular vote.

Although party support in the US can be stratified along racial and ethnic lines, most of the campaigning is done along economic and social issues. Party supporters identify and group along the economic and political continua – the stereotypical Democrat favours more economic intervention by the state, the stereotypical Republican favours less intervention. Republicans are traditionally more socially conservative than Democrats. In South Africa the identity politics of race dominates any other stratification and has done so increasingly in the last five years. The stereotypical ANC supporter must be black African and the DA supporters must be white/other minority groups. 

What’s interesting is that although the opposing parties in the two countries use different language to describe themselves and each other, and although the issues that form the battlegrounds may differ, the inter-partisan fighting is just as dirty and brainless. In the US the Democrats are demonised as godless, abortion-happy, limp-wristed pacifists bent on creating a totalitarian welfare state. The Republicans are rendered as Bible-thumping, patriarchal, robber-baron, environmental rapists. There are people in that country with lucrative careers that amount to little more than cheerleading one side or the other on radio and TV.

In South Africa one’s identity is defined by race. Therefore party identity is scrambled with race. Voter identity becomes race identity. This week a colleague of mine wrote a column about the DA, race and identity. Since he is black and he had the temerity to suggest that some young black people might make the DA their future political home, he was called a housenigger, among other charming epithets. To betray the party is to betray your race, and whites who vote ANC risk being accused of having whatever the analogous tendency is. Presumably it involves being a kaffirboetie, or something equally offensive, childish and regressive.

The narratives and myths around voter loyalty and party allegiance are linked to race. Black South Africans are told to educate themselves, vote “responsibly” and to ditch “blind loyalty” in order to save the country. Translation: black voters are stupid and a vote for the ANC cannot come from a rational, adult place (in its grossest iteration, the ANC is a black party that will screw up South Africa like the rest of Africa).

DA voters are “colonialists”, “white liberals” who answer to Madam Zille. Translation: white voters care only about preserving their privilege and a vote for the DA is a vote for oppression.

It’s fun to feel morally and intellectually superior and God knows that the Internet affords me ample opportunity. It’s hilarious to see all the circular logic, chest-beating and rah-rah warcries of the yellow and blue camps. Unfortunately the laughs aren’t as good as the destructive power of partisan politics is bad.

While all the morally outraged supporters of the ANC and the DA have the energy to chase their tails round and round, they don’t stop to think about who might have painted their bums blue or yellow in the first place, or who might benefit from their frantic activities.

Those badgering Zille on Twitter for her use of the r-word haven’t taken the time to interrogate whether Jackson Mthembu’s response actually makes sense. They might decide, after careful consideration, that they still agree with him. They might not. As long as there’s a charge of racism levelled against Zille and/or the DA in his press release, it’s more likely that the confirmation bias of their pre-existing prejudice will kick in before their brains do.

Similarly, DA supporters are much more likely to gloss over the suggestion of corruption in DA-held municipalities like Midvaal or Bitou then to engage critically with the party and hold it to account.

Here is the coldest, hardest fact for partisan supporters of all stripes. The ANC and the DA are bound by the same legislation. They contain good members and rubbish members. They are both led by people with a conservative, paternalistic streak.

Both parties refuse to consider party funding reforms. Both parties contain members who are pro-democracy and pro-liberty, but both probably contain a majority of people who became politicians because they like telling people what to do.

At the moment the DA appear to have more momentum and less dirt sticking to them. But as the DA gains market share they will attract more and more opportunists, carpetbaggers and dodgy business types looking for access to state resources. Both parties contain and have contained any number of career politicians and political crosstitutes, from Philip Dexter to Ziba Jiyane, from Peter Marais to... well, Peter Marais.

Both parties will use your intellectual laziness to screw you, given half a chance. Both parties are only too happy to have you waste your energy engaging in trench warfare with your slow-witted counterparts.

Your vote is your endorsement, at a certain time and for a certain time. It’s not a marriage contract or a golden ticket. It isn’t your soul, your birthright or your skin colour.

Look to your brothers wearing the enemy’s colours. Imagine if the generals called for a war and nobody pitched up. Imagine what you could do if you drafted some bipartisan demands that included party finance reform and opening up all government tenders to public scrutiny. Not just tenders for the provinces and municipalities run by the other side.

If not for yourselves, do it for me. I’m getting tired of watching your blue and yellow behinds.

“On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."

"Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."

"I did," said Ford. "It is."

"So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't the people get rid of the lizards?"

"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."

"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"

"Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."

"But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"

"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?"

(Douglas Adams – So Long And Thanks For All The Fish)

DM


  • Paul Berkowitz
PaulBerkowitzBW

Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

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