Mental floss for the discerning
25 October 2014 14:28 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Beyond all (t)reason

  • Pierre de Vos
It is never a good sign when an organisation or individual completely overreacts to perceived criticism. As the simmering discontent of South Africa’s underclass boils over into open revolt and violence and as corrupt shoot-to-kill cops are increasingly deployed in places as far flung as Marikana, De Doorns and Sasolburg to protect the old and new elites from the wrath of the dispossessed, some politicians are increasingly resembling Lady Macbeth, driven by their guilt and shame to commit ever more heinous misdeeds. The hysterical and often undemocratic response of various ANC and SACP structures to the silly First National Bank (FNB) advertising campaign is a case in point.

In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, Lady Macbeth urges her husband to kill Duncan, the king, to allow Macbeth to satisfy his ambitions of becoming king. She overrides all of her husband’s objections by challenging his manhood and he relents and kills Duncan. Later lady Macbeth becomes racked with guilt and sleepwalks through the palace, haunted by the murder of the former king. In this trance she tries to wash off imaginary bloodstains from her hands, shouting: "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him."

The response of the ANC, the ANC Youth League and the SACP to the FNB campaign resembles the attempts of Lady Macbeth to clean imaginary bloodstains from her hands. “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?”

The FNB campaign includes videos of young South Africans apparently speaking their minds. In one of the videos a participant says: “Stop voting for the same government in hopes for change – instead, change your hopes to a government that has the same hopes as us.”

The ANC Youth League and SACP joined the ANC in slamming the campaign, with the league saying it was “deeply angered and disappointed” by the bank’s “treacherous” campaign. On Sunday, Youth League spokeswoman Khusela Sangoni-Khawe said FNB had failed in trying to “recreate an Arab Spring of some sort in South Africa” and said it “uses children to make unproven claims of a government rife with corruption. We call upon South Africans to close ranks against what is a treacherous attack on our country.”

ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said the ANC (which is never directly mentioned in any of the videos) was “appalled” by the campaign in which the ANC, its leadership and government were “under attack” the campaign was an “undisguised political statement that makes random and untested accusations against our government in the name of discourse. While we believe that people are entitled to their views, we don’t accept that young kids should be used as proxies to articulate political views espoused, as in the case of the FNB advertisement.”

"Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"

These vehement reactions to what appear to be rather mild criticisms of the government and platitudes about one’s right to vote for the party of one’s choice (widely accepted in any functioning democracy) are curious for several reasons.

First, whatever one might think of FNB and its advertising campaign (and I am not a fan of the campaign or of the lily-livered manner in which the bank caved in to political thugs), the manner in which several ANC and SACP spokespersons conflated the ANC with the state and with the country is worrying. The ANC is not the state. Neither is it the sole representative of the South African people. South Africa, in the words of the Freedom Charter, belongs to all who live in it – it does not belong to the ANC. Like any political party, the ANC deserves to be praised when it does something well and deserves to be criticised when it abandons the poor that it professes to love and serve.

Second, the statements that the FNB campaign is treacherous and tries to recreate the Arab Spring, are anti-democratic and – I am sorry to have to use such an emotive term – proto-fascist. There is nothing wrong with telling people that they should refrain from voting for the governing party. Voting for whomever one pleases is at the heart of political freedom in a democratic state. Every democratic election is based on a fair and free contestation between political parties in which we are all allowed to express our preferences. We are also all free try and convince others to vote for the ANC, to vote for the DA, to vote for the TP (Tender Party), for that matter. It is probably not a great business model for a bank to get involved in an ad campaign that might alienate the majority of voters, but if they do, there is nothing treacherous about it. If FNB had not pulled the adverts I might even have lauded them for putting their principles (which one may agree or disagree with) before naked profits.

The Arab Spring refers to various uprisings organised by oppressed populations in countries where citizens did not enjoy political rights and where democratic contestation and free and fair elections could not be held. To refer to an advertising campaign in which a teenager urges people in South Africa to vote for the party of their choice as an attempt to recreate an Arab Spring, suggests the ANC Youth league believes that South Africa is not a democracy, that its citizens are oppressed and do not enjoy political rights and that they will never be allowed to change the government by using their vote. Like Lady Macbeth wandering in a trance and trying to wash off imaginary bloodstains from her hands, the ANC Youth League is revealing rather more than it intended to about its own lack of democratic tendencies. Pity Jackson Mthembu will not display the same sense of outrage about this full-frontal attack on our democracy.

Whether one is a staunch ANC supporter or a supporter of the right-wing Freedom Front Plus, if one supports democracy one will not be appalled by the fact that an institution has dared to criticise a political party. Only proto-fascists would be appalled by the sentiments expressed in the campaign.

One might, of course, disagree with the sentiments expressed by the youngsters in the FNB-produced videos and the ANC has every right to express their disagreement. But claiming that the sentiments are treacherous or that it is not legitimate to criticise the party displays the kind of undemocratic intolerance that cannot be associated with a party who supports democracy. Personally I find that it is better to ignore attacks that are far-fetched or motivated by racism, hatred or a complete lack of information. That is what I do when I am criticised for something I have written. “Don’t feed the trolls,” I tell myself every time I read the unhinged invective of faceless loonies on my blog. If the criticism is serious, one either responds to it by pointing out why and how it is wrong, or one takes it on board and changes one’s behaviour. Just a thought: use it, don’t use it. One does not tell those who criticise that they are committing treason.

I was reluctant even to enter this discussion, not because I am fearful of repercussions, but because what I have written here is so obvious and because all this fuss about a bank's advertising campaign detracts attention from the far more important social and economic issues facing the country.

Maybe that is why the campaign has attracted such hysterical responses from the ANC and its partners. Like Lady Macbeth, whose paranoid dreams symbolise the fact that she is haunted by her guilt, the ANC reaction is perhaps a symptom of the fear and guilt that stalks the political class in South Africa. As Marikana, De Doorns and Sasolburg have shown, the poor, economically excluded and marginalised members of society have not benefited as handsomely from the end of Apartheid as the members of the old (mostly white) and emerging (mostly black) middle classes.

While those in the chattering classes squabble about silly adverts made to promote the commercial interests of a big bank and argue whether these ads exploit children, many of those same children are dropping out of school or receiving a third-rate education because of the cowardice of politicians who are too scared to take on a powerful union. While I write about the nature of democracy, members of social movement are harassed and tortured by the police. While Helen Zille spends her days on Twitter, blaming the poor for the lack of services in their communities in Cape Town, millions of South Africans go to bed hungry, wondering whether this wonderful democracy will ever guarantee them a full stomach. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
Pierre de vos

Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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