South Africa


Dear ANC, riding monsters for political gain will cost you dearly

Dear ANC, riding monsters for political gain will cost you dearly
(Photo: EPA-EFE / Yeshiel Panchia)

You really, really should learn from the GOP.

First published in DM168

The year was 1928 and something unprecedented had happened in the US: for the first time ever a Catholic was the presidential candidate for a major party. A Democrat from New York, Al Smith had managed to win the party nomination even as many of his own were openly against him. His opponent, Herbert Hoover, was a successful commerce secretary in the Roaring Twenties era. Smith the Catholic didn’t stand much chance, but the GOP leaders also made sure their hold on power was not interrupted. Their slash and burn campaign in the South, the Democrats’ stronghold since even before the Reconstruction was over, enlisted the help of the Ku Klux Klan to stop the country’s “takeover by the Pope”. The party that brought Abraham Lincoln to power on an anti-slavery platform went 180 degrees on his legacy. Al Smith suffered a landslide defeat.

Fast-forward to 1964, and the “moderate” wing of the GOP suffered another blow when the pugilistic right-wing senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, became their standard-bearer. He lost badly to Lyndon Johnson, but his vision of the Republican Party, which sounded very much like the party was a natural home for the white people in the US, managed to stick. And after President Johnson signed the slew of historic laws that helped bring the black minority into the political mainstream, Richard Nixon devised his 1968 election strategy to incorporate the enraged Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) and ensure the control of the South by the GOP, a goal that was cemented by the ascent to power of one Ronald Reagan in 1980. His successor, George HW Bush, employed Reagan’s adviser Lee Atwater as campaign chief in the 1988 elections.

This is how Atwater explained the GOP’s tactics through the decades:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N****r, n****r, n****r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n****r’ – that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N****r, n****r’.”

Things only went down from there.

Over the years, one thing was crystal clear: the Republican Party was always going to do whatever was necessary to win. Winning was more important than policies. Their stated ideology was never going to be an obstacle, and it suffered badly. A fiscally prudent party adored the man who presided over the biggest government deficit in history: Reagan. An inward-looking party under Bush Jr started the Second Iraq War, whose ripples will damage the world for a century. And the same Bush Jr went to speak at the segregationist Bob Jones University during the 2000 South Carolina primary, desperate to win the white vote and stop John McCain’s insurgency.

But if the party leaders thought that they could play with fire and forever be unburnt, they were soon to get a reality check. The racist dog whistles, the anti-elitism (including open campaigning against science and education in general) caught up with them in 2008, when McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate. She was not a dog whistle, no sir… she was a bullhorn. And millions heard her loud and clear.

Looking back, it was obvious that the GOP was in trouble. Their response to the 2008 crisis, which was on their watch, was not to give an inch to Barack Obama. The Tea Party was concocted in order to stop Obamacare. Side-players like Donald Trump stoked the conspiracy fires. Not unlike in 1928 when they fought against Al Smith, the GOP went really, really low.

So low, that it looks like this time it will struggle to recover.

Fast-forward to today: the party of Lincoln is taken over by Donald Trump and the assorted extremists, QAnon conspiracy crazies and a bunch of the most incompetent officials ever to enter the White House, whose major point of pride was separating immigrant children from their parents, regardless of how young they were. The party platform consists of one major point: support of whatever Trump declares, as he rode a truck through everything they stood for before.

The GOP’s need to win at all costs has finally brought the party to its knees. They thought that they, for personal gain, could ride this know-nothing monster of racism and incompetence until Jesus comes. And now, that very same monster has turned around and conquered them.

So, why this extra-long intro? Because the ANC leaders of today also need to understand that winning at all costs is going to ruin the party, and South Africa, in the long term. The ANC in Gauteng’s proposed Gauteng Township Economic Development Draft Bill that would ban foreigner-owned shops in certain townships is a classic example of a cynical move just in time for next year’s elections.

Is the bill a bad idea? Of course it is. Pierre de Vos ends his strong column on the subject by saying: 

“It is not possible to separate any worthy aim of the bill (if any), [from] its potentially catastrophic effect.”

The political reality is that the ANC in Gauteng feels vulnerable to the new challenge in the province by the former Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, whose rhetoric includes swipes at “foreign criminals”. Somebody had a great idea that a bill that would out-Mashaba Mashaba would be a politically advantageous move. But here’s the cynical part – everyone knows that such a bill will not pass the constitutional test. So, the ANC in Gauteng gets to say that they themselves would want to stop the foreign-owned shops but without having to actually do it.

My advice to the ANC in Gauteng: Try playing to the best in the people of your country, not to the worst – as you are doing by choosing this horrible pandemic to encourage the worst in us and against one of the most vulnerable communities in South Africa right now: immigrants struggling to survive in a troubled country during the most horrifying of times.

The ANC should also learn from the GOP. They are playing with a xenophobic monster that they will not be able to control. Soon enough, it will come back to get them. It will not be a pretty picture – for the ANC and for South Africa. DM


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