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Pravin Jamnadas Gordhan, a case study: When your name i...

South Africa

POPULIST DOG WHISTLES

Pravin Jamnadas Gordhan, a case study: When your name is weaponised on Twitter 

Illustrative image | source: Pravin Gordhan, South Africa's minister for public enterprises, (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Twitter’s dark side is noisy, full of polarisation, misrepresentation, name-calling and twisted reality. The platform is rife with racial hatred, intolerance and ‘othering’. For instance, while  Pravin Gordhan is a household name in South Africa, recently on Twitter, his critics have referred to him by his second name, Jamnadas – an attempt to label him as an outsider, a ‘foreigner’ in a country known for its xenophobia. 

As load shedding resumed in SA this year, calls grew to have Pravin Gordhan removed as the Minister for Public Enterprises. Some political groups and individuals on Twitter have opted for identifying Gordhan by using only his second name, Jamnadas. 

The tweets that include his second name tend to be anti-ANC, specifically anti-Cyril Ramaphosa, and generally show a feeling of Gordhan being unaccountable and incompetent. 

One Twitter user who referred to Gordhan as Daily Maverick journalist Sikonathi Mantshantsha’s “baas”, described him as “your homeboy from India Jamnadas”. A tweet by a different user read, “He defending his own brother Jamnadas… As Indians… They must go back home”. Gordhan, 70, was born in Durban, South Africa. (see one account here )

Another Twitter user referred to Gordhan as “Papa Jamnadas”, when responding to Daily Maverick journalist Ferial Haffajee about him. This same user called Gordhan the father of load shedding and the so-called SARS “rogue” unit. (see account here)

Some Twitter users, including Floyd Shivambu, EFF’s deputy leader, misspell his second name as “Jamnandas”. (see account here)

In other references, he is referred to as “Mr Jamnadas”. The use of Gordhan’s second name is not limited to Twitter users who support the EFF, but include opponents of the opposition party.

In 2018, EFF leader Julius Malema made charges against Gordhan that included Gordhan having a secret Canadian bank account. It was claimed that the bank account was in the name “R Jamandas Gordhan”, which is a misspelling of Gordhan’s second name and the incorrect first initial. 

Malema’s charges were disproved by fact checking done by News24. The bank account doesn’t exist and thus wasn’t linked to Gordhan. The EFF did not respond to queries from Daily Maverick about whether or not the charges led to, or will lead to, a court case.

Chris Roper, deputy CEO and content strategist at Code4Africa, said, “People have become increasingly educated around how to use misinformation to distort issues, and especially in how to use hot-button tropes and memes to inject crude deniability into debates like those around corruption and state capture.”

Roper pointed out that the use of Gordhan’s second name, “reduces him to an unthinking meme”, and can be used as a dog whistle. A dog whistle in this case refers to certain phrases or words that are used by a group to mean something other than simply the surface meaning that it has to the general population. Roper explained that in Gordhan’s second name’s case, it signals “support for the state capture bittereinders”, and “a racist attitude toward South Africans of Indian descent”.

“The Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) for Sub-Saharan Africa says that it is possible to discern an uptick in negative-sentiment mentions of specific individuals,” said Roper. He elaborated that hashtags such as #pravinmustgo and #pravinmustfall increased from 30 mentions on 12 January 2020 to 1,000+ on 14 January 2020. Of those mentions, 43% were from one Twitter account “which is indicative of some form of targeting”, according to Roper.

Arthur Goldstuck, an expert on internet and mobile technology trends in SA and who runs World Wide Worx, said: “The use of Gordhan’s second name harks back to an old strategy typically used by right-wingers to emphasise ethnic, or religious background in order to imply a hidden agenda, or dark motivation.” 

He pointed out that this strategy was also used on Barack Obama when his opponents focused on his middle name, Hussein, to highlight his Muslim connections. “The supposed far-left in South Africa employs similar rhetoric to the far-right and the EFF has been the standard-bearers for this rhetoric,” according to Goldstuck. 

The EFF’s Godrich Gardee had said Gordhan’s Equality Court case against EFF leader Julius Malema and its judgment was “actually about Mr Jamnadas and the country, and the African people, because he is there as the white monopoly capital security guard and we shall be dealing with that phenomenon soon”. 

“Many of the accounts tweeting about ’Jamnadas’ are authentic, with strong followings, partly representing the powerful appeal of the EFF on Twitter. As a result, one cannot dismiss the derogatory implications of such tweets as the work of bots,” said Goldstuck.

A look at a sampling of Twitter users who were tweeting and using the word “Jamnadas” (or “Jamnandas”), showed that the vast majority of the users were not likely to be bots, but some of the authentic users do have a significant number of bots that follow them.

Goldstuck observed that people were “readily capable of behaving far more disgracefully than bots”.

“It is likely that, in the post-Bell Pottinger social media era, the demagogues have wised up in terms of their tactics, if not their rhetoric, being less blatant.”

Professor Glenda Daniels, associate professor in Media Studies at Wits University and chair of the SA National Editors’ Forum’s Diversity and Ethics Committee, said singling out Gordhan’s second name is “a tactic to divide South Africans by playing race and ethnic politics – and of course to be involved in factional battles of the ANC itself”. 

“So far as I know, Gordhan identifies as a South African, and a black South African of course. The use of his Indian second name is a populist attempt to isolate him because they don’t like him. It is not helpful in a situation where South Africans are desperate for the country to succeed and not fall off the cliff politically and economically.”

Daniels pointed out that Indian South Africans cannot win if their names had an Indian origin because it means one can be “vilified”, or “put into an ethnic box”. Equally, if they had a white name, that can lead to being called “colonised”, and an African name would be “culturally appropriating”. 

According to her, “binary oppositions, with no nuance in thought”, are on the rise on social media. However, Daniels pointed out that a social media platform like Twitter only has a portion of South Africa’s population as its users and was thus not indicative of South African sentiment as a whole. World Wide Worx estimated that about 8-million South Africans used Twitter in 2017.

Daniels said: “I do wish that people would stop with their sickening and nauseating race attacks – where race becomes the master signifier of everything … We need to resignify to more important things. Otherwise, we remain victims forever.

“The media should play a progressive role and constructive role and expose racism of all kinds. This kind of ‘ethnicising’ of Gordhan should definitely be exposed for what it is – blatant ideological obfuscation and populism – a hide-away from the racists’ own deficiencies.”

Gordhan is the current minister of public enterprises and former finance minister.  He has been a part of South African politics since the 1970s where he became involved with, among others, the ANC and SA Communist Party (SACP). Gordhan is one of many South Africans who was detained in the 1980s for his political activities against apartheid.

Dr Marcelyn Oostendorp, a linguistics professor at Stellenbosch University who specialises in sociolinguistics, said there is a possibility of Jamnadas putting more of a focus on Gordhan’s Indian heritage because South Africans have become familiar with the name Pravin.

“There is also the imposition. This is not a name he goes by, that he chooses to be identified within the public sphere, so somebody is imposing this construction of identity on him,” said Oostendorp.

She mentioned that language is not only “a reflection of identity”, but also constitutes one’s identity. “Language is also used to position ourselves in relation to self and others.  All forms of categorising (including naming), can be used to other people.”

Haji Dawjee, author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a Brown Woman in a White South Africa and digital media specialist, expressed uncertainty about whether the anti-Indian sentiment came from “something more academic, like a firm belief in political ideologies that stem from nationalism and ironically, far-right strategies and manifestos which are built on these kinds of  ’othering’ systems”.

Dawjee said while anti-Indian sentiment has been focused on Gordhan of late, it has also affected others. She cited Ferial Haffajee and Karima Brown as journalists who have been targeted by this type of labelling. 

Regarding the use of Gordhan’s second name, Dawjee said: “If you focus on one’s name as the sole carrier of their identity then it can be easily deduced that Gordhan, based solely on his second name, is Indian. It’s also playground politics and mudslinging. Any person of colour knows that the easiest way to offend someone and show utter disregard and disrespect is to make fun of their name. White people have done this to us all our lives, to any person of colour, and now it seems, the EFF are doing it to the ’other’ black person, the Indian.

“I think the focus is seated in a place of anger and resentment because historically, the political climate has, to an extent, afforded Indian South Africans with a bit more power in some circumstances than they have black South Africans – although, this isn’t a universal rule and should not be accepted as such,” she said.

A reason for the focus on Gordhan being Indian could be “because within Indian communities, there exist many, many racists and to an extent, Gordhan has become the poster boy for this in the eyes of the EFF and a way to ‘right’ some ’wrongs’ ”. 

Globally, there seemed to be a trend of polarisation, mentioning as examples Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiment and India’s actions against Muslims because of Narendra Modi and Hindu nationalists. Dawjee posed the question: “Perhaps this is the EFF’s small version of something much bigger?”

With regards to Twitter as a platform, she stated that while it is “an excellent tool for engagement, research, information gathering”, it has also changed a lot.

“We forget that when there is so much available to users, we can then start to really cull out the things we don’t like and keep talking, and engaging and inflaming the things we do like. It is a polarising space by its very nature.”

“I, for example, can completely avoid engaging with anything that opposes any of my ideas regardless of how ignorant they are because I can keep perpetuating my beliefs by operating in a vacuum.”

If, for example, Dawjee was challenged on social media, “I will be supported by an army of likeminded people who will be ready to defend me. So it’s very much a space that is fertile ground for A against B”.

“Different views challenge stereotypes and develop insight, education and engagement. Of course, opposing views to our own and our exposure to it can also backfire, and make us more polarised in our beliefs, but not at as rapid a rate as it happens on Twitter,” she said.

Dawjee pointed out that the more popular users were given more reach thanks to Twitter’s design. This means one popular voice can create and amplify “polarisation of thought”.

On the topic of bots amplifying messages on Twitter, Dawjee warned: “We have to tread lightly on leaning too much on the pseudo-effect of the bot and thinking these online products aren’t really real – because we may become complacent in the face of very dangerous ideologies that are unfolding in real-time.”

Gordhan’s second name also appears in online news. Of the 6,000 news articles that mentioned Gordhan from 1 January 2018 to 1 January 2020, 32 articles found contained Jamnadas, or the misspelt versions Jamnandas and Jamandas, were used.  This is according to Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), which provided data gathered via an in-house tool, Dexter, and helped by Matthew Adendorff from OpenCitiesLab, regarding the use of Gordhan’s second name within the media. 

Within the 32 articles, 10 utterances were picked up as direct quotes. Six of the quotes came from Malema and one from Shivambu. All the quotes were talking about Gordhan in a negative manner – either accusatory or aggressive in tone.

Edward Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s son, is quoted twice mentioning Gordhan’s second name, where he criticised Ramaphosa for not taking enough action against Gordhan.

ANC Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Andile Lungisa is quoted once using only Gordhan’s second name as he criticises Gordhan and implies he is the “errand boy” of “settlers”. DM

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