We live in dangerous times. I have said this before and I say it again. The latest incident to provoke my angst is the political crisis around the Clicks advert and the responses to it. The incident is now old hat. The company launched an advertisement around hair with explicit racist overtones which provoked a public outcry. It apologised, but many were not about to leave the matter there. The EFF, long corralled by Covid-19 and awaiting an opportunity for political spectacle, grasped the moment and demanded that the company meet certain demands, including closing for five days as a financial penalty for their racialised advert. If the company refused, the party pledged to call out its members and shut down Clicks branches around the country.
The act was, of course, a blatant power grab by the EFF. It has no formal authority to act in the manner that it did. The act was essentially equivalent to a local gang muscling businesses to do as they suggest or be forcibly closed down. There was also no leadership from the political authorities on the matter. Government remained silent on this blatant violation of the law. And there were many others in civil society including journalists, activists, and other commentators who easily got distracted by the racism and ignored the threats of violence and the extra-legal character of the EFF’s response.
Of course, many of us who were critical of the EFF’s response were not suggesting that Clicks should not be held accountable. Indeed, many of us recommended firm action but demanded that this be undertaken within the framework of the law by institutions allocated with this responsibility. One such body would have been the Human Rights Commission which has the explicit constitutional authority to deal with this matter. Moreover, many of us were also concerned about the incitement and violent imagery that was evident in the communication of the EFF leaders. Almost all of them formally called for the protest by using the word “attack”. In this context, many of us were convinced that the implicit call to the ground forces was to trash the branches and harass the customers and staff of Clicks. So it was not surprising that within hours on the first day of the protest, a store was petrol bombed, a number of others were trashed, and several others were closed under the threat of violence.
As indicated earlier, there were quite a few journalists and political commentators who were distracted by the racism, ignored the violence, and implicitly supported the EFF’s action. Of course, they paid lip service to condemning violence and promptly qualified this by suggesting that it was understandable given the racism. The net effect of their message: that violence is okay because the political cause is a legitimate one. Is this truly a legitimate message in a democracy and in one of the most violent societies in the world?
A number of others, myself included, criticised the actions for their violence and their extra-legal character. Unsurprisingly, the EFF and its supporters responded in their now classical form; offensive and disrespectful engagement, the use of obnoxious foul language steeped in crude racism, and violent threats. They also responded with the now common strategy of the wholesale deployment of bots. The ANC factions associated with former President Jacob Zuma and the State Capture crowd also got in on the act. This was a moment for them to settle political scores with many whom they deemed responsible for exposing the corruption and incompetence of their political principal during his reign.
Yet even more concerning than the EFF’s response and behaviour was the nature of the engagement of its members and supporters, and those of a few other political formations. This cohort of activists pretend to speak for the majority of young people, yet their behaviour and ideas are diametrically opposed to those of the majority who are socially conscious yet law-abiding, desirous of economic and political change but within parameters established by our constitution.
In contrast, the deliberations of this small cohort of activists associated with the EFF and some other political formations betray an astonishing level of ignorance of South Africa’s political history, let alone its liberation traditions. It should come as no surprise that the language of many who engaged, ironically regurgitated the very theories which inspired racism and colonialism. They often spoke of Fanon and Biko, but their ideas and behaviour were more akin to those of Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, and Hendrik Verwoerd. Almost all romanticised war and violence. Given these sentiments, it is not surprising that many are so easily mobilised by nativist and fascist leaders who stoke emotional vulnerabilities and deploy them to violent actions. This combination of nativist ideas, crude racism and violence, essentially constitutes the building blocks for a new post-apartheid fascist political project in South Africa.
Every generation has this layer of extreme and intolerant activists, but the voice of this one is amplified by Twitter and other social media. The deep inequalities of our society, and the racial form that they assume, make it a fertile ground for this anger. The failures of our political class to not only transform society but their own individual complicity in corruption and incompetence, leads many of them to deflect from their own failures. And the incompetence of government and the police ensures that violent actions can be undertaken with impunity.
We remain silent in the face of all of this at our peril. Now more than ever we need to openly talk about how to confront and manage this cohort of racist and violent young activists.
In the subsequent engagements on social media, many of those who participated or supported the actions retorted that we must not police their anger. This frankly is nonsensical jargon that has become common in certain extreme and nativist political circles and needs to be called out. South Africa is a constitutional democracy and all anger is to be managed. This is what constitutional democracies are about. No individual, however, moved they may be, or however legitimate their cause, is entitled to destroy another’s property or assault other human beings. If this is done, the constitution mandates that such individuals be held accountable and subjected to penalties including being incarcerated. The fact that this has not happened is unacceptable. How can we accept a police force that will arrest people for buying cigarettes and yet look the other way when a pharmacy is petrol bombed? How can political leaders and members of parliament be allowed to use incendiary language such as “attack” to mobilise their constituency, and not be held accountable when this translates to violence and arson? These are serious violations of our constitution and the professed norms by which we are meant to be governed.
Here are the consequences of the failure of political leadership on this issue. President Cyril Ramaphosa has as his strategic goal the attraction of foreign investment to reinvigorate the economy. Yet he needs to ask himself which investor in their right mind would be willing to invest in a country where a minority party in Parliament can muscle a company and close its operations through violence and/or the threat of it without a single murmur from government? Even more importantly, the President is on record as wanting to address the violent character of our society, especially violence against women and children. How then can he remain silent when political violence is being openly perpetrated in the mobilisation of a cause? Do these actions not consolidate a culture of violence that manifests in other personal and private circumstances? Can we truly rid ourselves of the violence we are living through when we tolerate the violence of political leaders in the pursuit of their agendas?
The problem is not only the President and our political class. There is much appeasement of this small cohort of activists by many others in society. An earlier generation of activists which feels guilty at its own political failures continuously appeases this new activist cohort despite their crude racism and violence in the hope that these actions are merely reflections of the exuberance of youth and will somehow be outgrown. This patronising response takes away any agency and responsibility from these young individuals and consolidates a culture that legitimates nativist identities and political violence. There is also much appeasement of these individuals by many “progressive” academics and institutional leaders. Some share these views but are reluctant to voice it themselves. Others are intimidated from being heard on the issues, or might feel that they do not want to get embroiled in the muck of social media. And yet still others – a small cohort of anarchists – may even believe that it is the dawn of a new revolutionary moment in which to overthrow the established economic order.
Whatever the source of this appeasement, it will come to haunt us as it did the European generation of the 1920s and 1930s. The appeasement of nativist and racist ideas and the glorification of violence, brought fascist leaders to power, plunged the world into war, and led to the murder of millions. White South Africa had a similar trajectory that culminated in apartheid. We risk repeating our past. Note how these activists respond to Thuli Madonsela who was a lone shining light in the office of the Public Protector in the dark days not so long ago. In response to her criticism that calling out Clicks was legitimate but anarchy and violence was not, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi responded: Find the nearest hell Thuli… when you get there, you know the cerebral thing to do. We need no approval from your coconut logic. And he was the gentle one.
Here is another from someone else: Unguban khona igama lakho lasemzini makoti anamajengxeba? 😂 🤣 (What is the maiden name for brides with so many wounds)? Or another: Never trust the opinions of a black women on black issues who has invested her future with a white man. And yet another: Fokof wena sellout.
Their collective response symbolically reminds me of Pol Pot’s political children or those in the Chinese cultural revolution, who were manipulated by political entrepreneurs in their respective societies to kill or subjugate their parents in the misguided belief that this was their revolutionary responsibility.
We remain silent in the face of all of this at our peril. Now more than ever we need to openly talk about how to confront and manage this cohort of racist and violent young activists. There is a political myth in our society that people only learn from education and acculturation. These are important processes of learning and building collective norms by which society manages its interactions and relationships. But they alone will not suffice. These proactive forms of learning have to be accompanied by consequences – whether social or legal – for abhorrent behaviour. Without consequences for the violation of societal norms and constitutional rules, there is no incentive for the violent, or the corrupt and the powerful, to behave in the collective interests of all. It is because we lack the latter that South Africa remains such a violent society.
Herein lies the single biggest challenge of progressive thinkers, leaders and activists. For too long progressives have avoided confronting the challenge of security in a democratic society. We have left this matter to conservative thinkers and leaders within our midst. The net consequence has been that security is seen in overtly militaristic terms. Moreover, citizens tend to assume that progressives do not take their security seriously. But is there not legitimacy to the question of security in a democratic society? Are ordinary citizens not entitled to live a life free of arbitrary violence? Must progressive leaders not take this security of citizens seriously? Of course, when considering the security of citizens, police conduct must be constrained within constitutional parameters such as the demilitarisation of the police service, the necessity of proportional responses, and astute police management of crowd expectations. But none of this must detract from the necessity of protecting people from arbitrary violence and for there to be consequences for those who violate societal norms.
There is a necessity for us to speak about all of this, as much as there is a need to recognise that we can never build a more humane society on a sustainable basis in the midst of significant economic inequality. Inequality enables the very social and political polarisation on which fascist and nativist ideas ferment. It enables the politics of violence which we are currently living through. We duck all these issues at our peril, in this country and around the world. See what is happening in Bolsanaro’s Brazil, Modi’s India, and Trump’s America. This is our future – in a more potent form – unless we openly discuss and address these issues and stand up to this new generation of fascists and nativists within our midst. DM
Professor Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand and incoming Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He writes in his personal capacity.