South Africa

Op-Ed: When political intolerance morphs into hatred

By Stephen Grootes 8 September 2015

In politics, language, diction and word choice matter. What elevates humans above animals is our ability to disagree using words, rather than force. Which is why it's so interesting, and important, that the vocabulary of our politicians appears to be moving towards violence. At the same time, incidents of political violence seem to be increasing, whether on a campus near you, or in the National Assembly itself. While the art of political tolerance looks to be fast disappearing, this worrying trend can still be reversed, if there's ever the political will to do so. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Monday afternoon the new secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, Njabulo Nzuza, did a round of interviews, to promote the league’s new leadership. On the Midday Report, he was asked if the league was now fully dependent on the ANC. After answering in the affirmative, he launched into a speech on how the league would “defend the ANC at all costs”. Then the temperature was raised a notch when he added “we will hit them hard”. The “them” was not specified but presumably Julius Malema’s ears were ringing.

The phrase “we will hit them hard” doesn’t disturb us anymore, it appears. Five years ago, there could well have been an outcry. But now, after “I will kill for Zuma” statements, personal insults directed at Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane and others, and a pretty dramatic shift in our political lexicon generally, such inflammatory words hardly rate a mention.

At the same time, it seems that wherever the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) tries to campaign on a campus, it will be met by South African Students’ Congress shock troops, who really operate on behalf of the ANC. Malema’s response, slightly predictably is “Fighters, attack”. And he is very upfront that he will continue to use that strategy, in other words, force will be used instead of words.

It’s easy to put the blame on Malema for this, and he certainly should take a large share of it. But there is plenty more to go around. He is right to say that his members have never disrupted an ANC event, but his events are being disrupted by the ANC. He will also be believed by many when he claims the police are biased against him and support the ANC. The DA has complained it has had the same problems organising on campuses in the past. And then there have been other incidents, some of them relatively serious. The Star once featured an image of a man in a blue DA shirt having it torn off him by people wearing yellow ANC shirts.

Of course, it must be remembered that if you go back far enough in our past, one of the main reasons we have any peace at all is because of the ANC’s tolerance. In the early and mid-90s, violent political conflict was almost confined exclusively to the fight between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and it was the ANC, and Jacob Zuma himself, who did the most to calm things down. (In one case, it’s been claimed that while counting votes in a part of rural KwaZulu-Natal a group of IFP vehicles arrived with full ballot boxes and supporters demanded that these be counted, and Pravin Gordhan told the Independent Electoral Commission to accept them.)

But that tolerance could now be waning. When ANC supporters are accused of this sort of thing, the response from Luthuli House is a sort of half-hearted condemnation, usually accompanied by a claim that there is no proof that the people involved actually belong to the ANC. In the Western Cape, Andile Lili has been photographed throwing faeces around and making comments that people should deal with criminals themselves. And yet he remains a member of the ANC, and has not been expelled.

Part of the reason for this must simply be that the ANC, or parts of it, fear the party is losing ground. In the Madiba era, and in most of the Mbeki era, it was easy to be tolerant: there was simply no one to be afraid of. As a result, opposition parties were hardly mentioned at ANC rallies and events. That changed in the years after Zuma became ANC leader, to the point where at the ANC’s big rally on the eve of last year’s election, Maimane was referred to as “The little Obama of Gauteng”, before he had even become DA leader.

And then of course, there is Malema. While he is surely difficult for any political opponent to deal with, he seems to be pure kryptonite to the ANC. He knows the party’s weak spots, he knows the sore points of its leaders, and he digs at them in a way that reveals a special gift. To some of those leaders, a physical disruption of Malema’s gatherings sometimes seems like a reasonable option.

In part, the way the different political organisations react to this violence is driven by their constituencies. EFF supporters demand a strong and perhaps violent response. People who voted for the party did so because they want radical change, and it is probably good politics for Malema to order “Fighters, attack”. As someone who claims to be the outsider, it is good for him when the forces of the old order attack him physically, and he fights back.

The DA has a different problem; it simply cannot engage in violent politics, as its primarily middle-class constituency wants a more considered and sober response. However, anyone who considers using force against the party also has to consider that there could be a high price: there will be images of peaceful people being muscled out by those who are not so peaceful. Which would have its own consequences.

The ANC’s big problem in all of new alignment is that it is squeezed from both sides, with both the DA and the EFF taking parts of its former constituency. And if it allows Malema to organise without any hindrance, it runs the risk of him becoming rather difficult to stop, or even contain.

It may seem inevitable then, that this culture of political intolerance will spread. But that is not necessarily the case. One of the quickest and easiest ways to ensure that everyone behaves is to simply police political gatherings properly. If every party believes its event will be be safe from disruption, and that it will not succeed in disrupting those of other parties, much of this would end quickly.

The other important strategy would be for leaders of all political organisations to simply tone down the rhetoric. If some people insist on being personal and insulting, let them, it doesn’t do the other parties any good to get down and dirty with them. A more dignified response would probably be far more effective anyway.

And then, of course, there is political leadership. Whenever an event is disrupted, the leadership of the party accused of doing the disruption must condemn it properly and unequivocally. And then there must be consequences – people like Lili should not be accommodated in a party that claims to have the ideals of the old ANC.

But while these simple moves can be implemented fairly quickly and effectively, the fact remains that dirty politics is almost as old as politics itself. The re-establishment of calm is almost entirely dependent on the actions of the ANC. Only its leaders have enough influence to ensure that there are consequences for people who engage in acts of political violence. The ANC of old would have probably dealt with the issue decisively. The ANC of 2015 knows too well how such nefarious actions can turn into powerful tools for the retention of power. For that reason, and that reason alone, it would be silly for the ANC to renounce violence – it’s just bad politics. DM

Photo: South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma (R) hugs ANC Youth League president Julius Malema (L) after a signing ceremony committing parties to the electoral code of conduct in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, South Africa, 11 March 2009. Political parties contesting the upcoming general elections signed the pledge to adhere to the code which prohibits violence, defamation and intimidation. South Africans go to the polls on 22 April. EPA/JON HRUSA.



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