South Africa

OP-ED

We need to talk urgently about our new generation of activists – a small cohort romanticising war and violence

EFF members protest outside a shut Clicks store in Mall Of Africa, Midrand, Johannesburg. The protest entered into its second day. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)
By Adam Habib
09 Sep 2020 54

If we remain silent against the rise of a new generation of racist and violent young activists, we do so at our peril. In the second week of September we witnessed the latest incidence of a power grab by the EFF. These are among a cohort who romanticise war and violence. They speak of Fanon and Biko, but their ideas are more akin to those of Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, and Hendrik Verwoerd. They  and their supporters do not speak on behalf of the majority of young people, and they are the building blocks for a new post-apartheid fascist political project in South Africa.

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.

Photo: President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (Wikimedia Commons)

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. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the nation on the progress of the national effort to contain the covid-19 pandemic at the Union Buildings, Preto​ria. 23/07/2020 Kopano Tlape GCIS

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.

Former Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela delivered a Marikana Memorial lecture on 14 August 2020. (File photo: Sapa)

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.

 

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All Comments 54

  • Thank you Professor Adam Habib, so refreshing to hear clear and rational critique on a situation which is becoming ever worse and without legal response and correction by Government. Everyone has a right to present a view, however, not the way that is being tacitly and selectively sanctioned by the elected, “guardians”, of the Country’s Constitution.

  • There is no righteousness (or romance) in war or violence. Ever. War and violence dehumanise us all and beget other forms of brutality. Ask the women and children. Thank you for the article.

  • Malema and his gang have only the trappings of power in their sights and are cynically manipulating people and events to their own end -the poor have no priority in their lives.
    A handful of people should not be able to harm the lives of the majority of South Africans who wish to make an honest living and progress in their lives.
    The full might of the law should be felt by their leadership and also those who acted outside the law.
    Where is the political will Ramaphosa?

  • It is essential that we pick up on Adam Habib’s warning regarding the EFF’s dangerous call-out for violent action against Clicks in their recent racist hair advertisement debacle. Why did the police not act promptly as these actions took place? How can this be accommodated in the constitutional democracy we pride ourselves on being? How can the social media be manipulated to utter abuse and hate speech against anyone questioning their actions? A National Petition must be started to condemn these actions for the very dangerous possibility facing us now, of a fascist movement wedded to violence taking off in our country through the EFF.

  • At last, the voice of reason! But, as the saying goes, entirely inaudible to irrational people. Yet again the uncritical media is eating out of Malema’s wannabe revolutionary hand, apparently grateful for a distraction from the monotony of corruption and pandemics… yawn.

  • Thank you Professor Habib for a superb analysis. The violence is abhorrent and the lack of action by the police and therefore the lack of consequences is deeply disturbing. Equally disturbing is the appeasement by large numbers of media and the misrepresentation of anarchy as protest, thus normalising illegal actions.

  • I am still trying to find someone who will explain to me exactly what was racist about the ad. Certainly, it used various ethnic hair types, in order to claim that their products have a solution for all, but, unless there was some part of it that I missed – and all I saw were the stills of the four groups – then there IS nothing racist about it. As Prof Madonsela said, there is certainly grounds for debate around the definition of “normal” hair, a term used in many shampoo brands, but which is certainly only applicable to people with Caucasian hair type. Obviously that should be addressed, but not by singling out ONE brand and ONE retailer. In fact, it is not a matter which calls for protest at all. It’s a matter of taking the objections to the major manufacturers and beauty houses, and insisting that they come up with alternative, less misleading descriptions. I do not see any blatant racial overtones in illustrating the scientific fact that different ethnic groups have different hair types, and consequently require different care regimes. What I DO see is an entire nation, led by the nose, once again, by a social media campaign aimed at creating the maximum amount of anger and the maximum amount of subsequent chaos. However, if anyone can explain to me why, excluding that classification of “normal” hair, there are substantial grounds for calling the ad racist, I will welcome your input.

    • Thank you Christine, I have already responded on a different article but I repeat. I have very fine, flat, dead straight hair, but I’m not racially upset by the bottom left photo; I permed my hair for 50 years, to give it body and some style, so it was dry and damaged and had to be conditioned with each wash. But I was not insulted by the dry and damaged picture. What on earth is all the fuss about?

      • Yes, the EFF have actually preyed on people by leading them to believe that “fine flat hair” meant black women’s hair would only be “fine and normal” if it was “flat” – ie straight. It’s not only a misinterpretation of the different hair care types, but the deliberate mangling of the captions. Absolutely conscienceless, and given the fact that the EFF’s leadership is perfectly well educated, and fluent in English, they knew they were feeding people a false narrative. Contemptible characters.

    • I don’t think the alleged racism of the advert is the reason for the drama, and once again we have all been played by the EFF. The VBS issue is getting hot and they need a distraction- something they can stoke and using racism as the unifying issue everyone forgets that they stole millions from the poorest of their own constituents.

    • Racism is the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioural traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another

      Racism is perceived as prejudice or discrimination directed against a specific group of people because they are of a different race or ethnicity. Accordingly when someone observes information from a perspective which does not share the same experience or current standpoint it is perceived to not be racist.

      Racism is defined from the view point of the recipient group which perceives the information to diminish the value of their Race over another. Accordingly it easy to see why the advert could be seen to be Racist and Offensive.

      This however should not detract from the intent of this excellent letter by Professor Habib, condeming this kind of call for aggressive and violent behaviour, which cannot be excused.

      • Just because a ‘group’, or rather a number of select individuals who purport to represent that group, subjectively perceive something as racist, does not necessarily mean that objectively it is racist. It is worth talking about the different perceptions yes – but automatically defining truth according to some people’s subjectivity is a dangerous path to follow.

      • Now Eric, my perception is this; EFF bots are trolling the internet constantly to find possible subject matter which will benefit the aims of their organization. It’s unfortunate for both Clicks and Tresemme that these racial predators happened upon the ad. They played on the emotions of black people, and the possible misinterpretation of the words “fine and flat” and “normal” (which are recognized hair types), because unfortunately, too many black people are obsessed with straightening their hair – which is potentially disastrous, not only for their hair, but for their general health. Those straighteners and relaxers are highly toxic. So, Tresemme has produced a range which is not only good for Caucasian hair types, but also for the African hair types. Research and science have shown that we DO have different hair types, and African curls are prone to dryness and damage. That is because, due to the curl in their hair, the oils produced naturally by the sebum glands in their scalps are not distributed evenly along the hair follicle. That means, that any hair product aimed at nurturing and protecting natural curls will have to contain extra moisturizing components, which the Tresemme range does. It’s exactly the same approach adopted by Mr Mashaba’s Black Like Me range. Only a racist, white supremacist could look at that picture of “fine, flat hair” and think it’s good hair, obviously because to them, anything white is good, no matter how horrible. Or, black people who are so unhappy with their natural hair, think that as long as it’s straight, or “flat”, it’s beautiful. I would love to see beauticians, hair care specialists, and dermatologists come forward and show the EFF campaign up for what it is. The cynical and deliberate misdirection of an entire nation to suit their own opportunistic ends.

        • Aha , EFF bots !
          Almost what I was thinking .
          Wish I was in one of those fancy CSI labs !
          Then backtrack the outbreak to its source !
          Like the CCP virus , almost .
          Just who ‘broke the news’ ?
          I will not have my human rights interfered with , not matter hue of skin or size .
          Threaten and get to close , you will be advised ‘do not come closer’ .
          Fingers in my face will warrant a warning !
          If I feel my life is being threatened , I will take the necessary action to protect my self .
          Those threatening me will stop.
          To me , as with others , it is just another diversionary tactic .
          I expect Clicks to press criminal charges against those guilty of incitement to riot and the rioters , many on CCTC !

  • Yes these are valid and timely concerns. However, with respect, what seems to be missing from this article (as from all other online media I can find) is reference to the fact that at present South Africa is not a constitutional democracy. Until the state of disaster is declared ended, we do not have some very important constitutional rights, such as the right to gather, the right to free speech and the right to privacy (which includes the right to refuse medical intervention). There does not seem to be any public process in regard to formulating lockdown regulations, not is the democratically elected president technically in charge. As we approach the deadline for extending the state of disaster, yet again, there is a roaring silence in mass media about the fact that we are now living under a shockingly similar state of emergency as for the last ten years or so of apartheid. That state of emergency was justified in terms of so-called ‘swart gevaar’ or ‘black danger.’ Amid concerns that our access to quality news and discussion is being limited economically (not least by the after effects of the lockdown), we should also be concerned that for some reason no one is discussing the elephant in the room: scientists (like Prof Salim Karim quoted in the BBC online news) are thrilled that our death rate is so low and yet we still do not have our democracy back.

  • Well said. And the thuggery is still continuing unabated. Cuyler hospital in Uitenhage was threatened this afternoon, EFF members threatened to burn the hospital down. There is a small Clicks there. How did they even get to enter the hospital, when not even visitors are allowed to visit patients? I didn’t see any police presence in the videos either.

  • One would think that the need for lawfulness as part of the social contract would be a given in an enlightened society like 1994 was meant to usher in here. This is a timely warning.

  • Perhaps in cases of blatant inaction by the police, DM could append names of commanding officers of the respective areas in an effort to shame them?

  • Professor Habib, thank you for this warning about the fascism implicit in the reaction of the EFF to an admittedly racist and stupid advertisement. The EFF have been side-lined and muzzled during lockdown, and leapt on this appalling little advert with barely-concealed glee. The viciousness of their rhetoric and behaviour is beyond belief.

  • A brave and lucid article by Professor Habib.Your courage is commendable and in contrast to some in the media as well as the”non” response from government and its security agencies.
    As you say ,there are designated channels to deal with the outrage caused by Clicks advert , and these do not include a group of self appointed custodians of public morality who threaten and intimidate ordinary citizens who work and shop at Clicks. And the vitriol directed at !Thule Madonsela is quite astounding

  • What will we do when we lose our Adam Habib’s? Who then will speak up? And for those attacking the media…well, Daily Maverick has rightly given Habib a platform. So did at least one of our TV stations this morning. But we need more voices – brave voices.

  • Maybe Ismail Lagardien will read this article. But even if he should, it’s doubtful that his jaundiced eye will observe that his perpetuation of an ill-conceived and apparently requisite need for retribution is in any way of service to this country. Professor Habib, I am enthralled with your insights. You live for what is right and what is requisite for today – and rightly so. Attempting to right the wrongs of the past with more retributive wrongs in the present only robs all of society with the opportunity for a better life.

  • Your article is concise Adam and I have great respect for you, but talking about these rascist thugs is too late. For more than 10 years Malema has whipped up hatred and intolerance with not even a slapped wrist by law enforcement, the SAHRC or the courts.
    The devisive policy is straight from the playbook of the Nazis and the Maoists and their avowed aim is to overthrow democracy with populist rants and actions.
    There is no respect for the rule of law or the established columns of civil society. The bungling ruling party has brought the country’s economy to the edge of the abyss assisted by the pandemic. Malema and his Clockwork Orange cohorts smell the scent of the power vacuum.

  • The lack of response from the president, condemning these acts of blatant aggression is utterly shocking! It’s as if the government through their tacit silence, condones these illegal, violent acts by a gang of lawless thugs! A well written article Prof Habib. We need more intellectuals to make their voices heard so that our comatose government will stand up and take note before we pass the point of no return!

  • ‘Ordinary’ and thinking citizens have been cowered by sections of our media including editors, journalists, columnists, commentators and cartoonists – unfortunately, also this publication – who themselves have been cowered into accepting ‘the party line’ castellated around projection, scapegoating, flagellation and condoning. But truly at fault is academia which pedals critical race theory as if it were the Holy Grail and not simply one theory among many.

  • What an amazing article. Well done Professor Habib. I hope you will continue with your concern for your motherland even after getting into your new venture.
    What I am amazed is the “complacency”of our incumbent President to “shuffle” his cabinet and get rid of unpaying passengers

  • Difficult to understand why the EFF is not sued for the damage caused. This kind of outrageous conduct by Malema after all caused the demise (liquidation) of the ANCYL.

  • But where is the forum for such discussion? It ought to be parliament but look how MPs discuss- it’s like watching a Bear fight without rules. Holding Politicians accountable Ought to be the task of the electorate but how when they don’t even go our their own rules. Anarchy’s best proponents are political entities.

  • Great article, but …. “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?” Easy – the ANC and especially CR is far too weak to take any action whatsoever. They may just lose power and that is what it’s all about – eating at the trough.

  • Thanks, Adam, for your longstanding commitment to the rule of law in South Africa.

    The EFF’s most recent foray into the abyss of thuggery is, as you indicate, more than disturbing.

    It is also reminiscent of the thuggery, and the alarming response by Max Price et al at, at UCT 1015-17.

  • Thank you Adam for clear and cogent comment.
    Will the Minister of Police please tell us: whether charges of public violence have been laid against those responsible for these actions, and if not, why not?

  • The similarities between George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and what’s happening in RSA are so many that one wonders if the ANC has not perhaps adopted it as its strategic handbook. This not said facetiously. Read it and weep.

  • This incisive article reminds me of my early (nay…middle age !) days when I attended civic rallies to challenge the apartheid regime …and amongst the various speakers would be Dulla Omar…who always espoused the need for ‘confrontation’ (more like identifying an issue accurately) and came across as being ‘clear-sighted’ in his analysis for the strategy to be adopted. While most other speakers enjoyed “revving up” the audience ! In the sports domain, the now retired judge Jo Ebrahim played a similar role. Thank you Adam !

  • Thank you Prof Habib for being the voice of reason. It is indeed alarming at the way our democracy is threatened by Fascist thugs who attack, intimidate . and provoke violence The disruption in Parliament at any excuse and blatant intimidation. Now the “hair ad” but is it really about hair, afterall we all have different hair, types and style . I believe just another excuse for intimidation looting and violence. I feel alarmed as this continues to escalate without more outrage and in fact police action. Reminders of 1930’s Germany and the horrors thhat followed.