South Africa

Writing the 2019 Election

The Young Guns and reruns of Little House on the Prairie

The Young Guns and reruns of Little House on the Prairie
EFF leader Julius Malema during day one of the 2019 State of the Nation Address (SONA) 2019 debate at the National Assembly on February 12, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Esa Alexander)

For the first time in the democratic era, the leading political parties have turned to young people, placed them on election lists, and staked the country’s future on them. This is a good thing, right? Well, not necessarily so. There is no hard and fast rule that youthfulness amounts to insightfulness, far-sightedness, tolerance, understanding, deference, humility and, well, wisdom.

The election lists are out. We are obsessed with lists. Psychotherapists may explain the obsession with list-making as something as straightforward as a reminder of things to do, or to provide some kind of reassurance, or to identify things that may be contaminated and that need to be cleansed or avoided.

It is, of course, not always appropriate to extrapolate these individual obsessions to societies. But there’s an argument to be made that there has been mass contamination at the intersection between politics and government.

While it is easy to point to politicians and well-placed public servants for their crimes and misdemeanours, it is worth bearing in mind that, like most societies in search of meaning, South Africans have manifested some maladaptive behaviours that make very many of us rather unpleasant people.

If we look around us, we see signs of violence, cruelty, lies and truly abhorrent behaviour which may be explained as a kind of psychological sequela; when the trauma of a brutal event long since passed produces anxieties and pathologies in a later generation. In other words, apartheid may be a generation behind us, but in many cases, it remains the cause of all our social and political problems.

The trauma of the apartheid era has had intergenerational effects on the current generation of young people – and adults who were born after the end of apartheid. While there is evidence of this sequela from Serbia to Argentina, the structural violence and brutality of the Khmer Rouge has produced echoes in Cambodia today. This is probably the best example of a type of psychological sequela. My limited study on Cambodian society was to understand the way that Khyâl attacks were part of psychological distress that stem from earlier trauma, and retrauma caused by remembrance. As fascinating a topic it may be, now is not the appropriate time to have this discussion. It is worth bearing in mind, in the coming weeks and months, that the EFF has modelled itself after rogues and despots on the left and right of a simple political spectrum, and its policies on land expropriation have parallels with Pol Pot’s Year Zero approach.

Let us get back to the election lists.

Youthful Pretenders and the Usual Suspects

It is, now, to the young people that we turn. For the first time in the democratic era, the leading political parties have turned to young people, placed them on their election lists, and staked the country’s future on them. This is a good thing, right? Well, not necessarily so. There is no hard and fast rule that youthfulness necessarily amounts to insightfulness, far-sightedness, tolerance, understanding, deference, humility and, well, wisdom. The thing about being young is that you have a very shallow memory bank. To help understand that, think of a one-year-old and what she may remember from her past.

Now imagine a 90-year-old who was alive during the First and Second World War, the Holocaust, genocide and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – and of course, Pol Pot’s terracide that was part of his quite brutal re-imagining of Cambodian society – apartheid, and the violence that pushed South Africa close to civil war in the 1990s. Now tie that to the abject failure of South African education over the past 25 years, and you have a generation of young people who may not have a real sense of the world over the past 100 years, and rely only on the rhetoric, the manipulation of emotions, mythical claims about eternal innocence and crude binaries of right and wrong spewed by populist leaders.

As written in this space last week, and most recently with injecting youth into their election list, the ANC seems to be emulating the EFF in some of its policies. While we can argue over whether it is good or bad – as I wrote last week, I think appeasement of the EFF may come to haunt the ANC, and spells danger for the country – it has not gone unnoticed that as soon as it became apparent that the EFF had slipped young people on to their election list, the ANC followed suit.

The political analyst Susan Booysen said the ANC realised the need for a generational mix when choosing parliamentarians. She said it was important that the party renewed itself, because most of its MPs were old and out of touch with issues. The ANC got the message that they ought to “start reinventing themselves” and “appeal to the youth and …. that it was “time for the young blood that will invigorate the party”, Booysen said.

This elevation of youth to formal politics may be seen as a direct outcome of the #FeesMustFall movement, but also of the youthful leadership of the EFF itself. It is also part of a global trend, where young people have become dissatisfied with the status quo and, from Tunisia to Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the USA and Podemos in Spain, change is being demanded by young people.

There is an important caveat to insert, here. In Spain, Owen Jones wrote in the Guardian, young people have inserted a more radical politics into society “without creating scapegoats”. In South Africa, the EFF, in particular, thrives on scapegoating – they blame all the country’s woes on capitalists, white people, Indians, etc – while ANC factions are simply better at naming their scapegoats. While we can be sure that young people in the EFF will sustain the irascible tone of their discourse, the ANC remains a curiosity.

Ageism of the Traditionalists

The Democratic Alliance have some active and engaging young leaders such as Gwen Ngwenya, Phumzile van Damme and Hlomelwa Bucwa, who are unafraid to take on political opponents in Parliament. The EFF is run by a bunch of thirty-somethings like Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu and Quintin Ndlozi. The ANC, on the other hand (and notwithstanding redoubtable characters like Collen Maine) are a party of the aged, and there is a poisonous streak of ageism that runs through the movement which is couched in the language of culture, tradition and respect for elders. While I don’t fully agree with the following generalisation, it certainly has a solid ring, and the ANC embodies this.

Our continent is not a monolith,” Atane Ofiaja, a Nigerian writer, explained, “but one thing our cultures have in common is their reverence for elders. That reverence is expressed in different ways, but it is always there…. I respect elders that are worthy of it. I’m not saying we should be disrespectful towards our elders. I just think reverence must be earned. Merely being around for a long time should not suffice.”

And so, that there will be an influx of youth in Parliament is cause for celebration – without forgetting that the DA are probably the leaders in putting forward outstanding young people. We should probably not expect much in the way of qualitative changes.

The EFF have a very clearly established pattern of behaviour – dismiss anything everyone else says, and if anyone disagrees, insult and/or make veiled threats of violence. The ANC have the Young Guns to call on when the EFF call on their fast guns, while the DA will continue to provide us reruns of Little House on the Prairie. DM

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