The recent utterances by Helen Zille describing the migratory patterns of victims of the educational meltdown in Eastern Cape and the widespread condemnation and anger at her use of the words “educational refugees” are curious and quite intriguing to say the least. This episode reveals a deeper, more mysterious underlying reality than technical explanations about political contestation, racial prejudice or even language disparities. A little hindsight may help us understand what we are dealing with here.
The use of words in the communication of ideas is a skill which those who possess it are able to reach godlike heights of influence in their chosen fields. None more so than politicians whose oratory skill can motivate and inspire, literally move mountains through the agency of those who hear their words. Politicians work with words and their words come under close scrutiny because these are the tools through which they create realities, our realities. This is perhaps why Zille’s detractors have launched such an attack on her utterances because she, of all those who wield the sword of the tongue in the South African political battlefield, is by far the most gifted and skilled. Pound for pound, she is the undisputed champion of the political podium. Her relative political achievements are testimony to that fact and few would objectively dispute this.
If indeed she is that good at speaking her mind, why then did she speak words that have triggered such a backlash of angry condemnation? Did she deliberately aim to insult and alienate such a significant portion of the population? Is she so out of touch with the constituency she has vowed to woo for her political party that she is not even aware of her own latent prejudices? These are some of the questions that arise as we attempt to make sense of the drama that has unfolded after her words hit the Twitter.
I am reminded of a similar situation not too long ago of one, Jimmy Manyi, current cabinet spokesman, then director general of the department of labour, who also uttered some words which angered a considerable number of people. He too, a man of influence and punditry said “…there is an oversupply of coloureds in the Western Cape…” for which he, like Zille, received an avalanche of condemnation, even from yours truly, for his racial insensitivity. Ironically the statements also involved Western Cape.
Questions such as, “How insensitive can he be to suggest that coloured people can be classified as a commodity of which there can be an ‘oversupply’?” “How can he suggest that people who live in a particular part of this country, their own country, should be moved like cattle?” Some nodded in vehement agreement when the minister in the presidency, Trevor Manual said in a scathing open letter “Manyi is a racist of the worst kind …”. Any attempt to explain himself or his intentions after he spoke those words were silenced with extreme prejudice because we had all decided this was a racist out to undermine the gains of our “rainbow nation”. Even when he acknowledged that he may have erred in using the language of economics by implying that humans are a resource that can be deployed in the production process of any output. That in the national endeavour to produce a more equitable distribution of opportunities among various racial groups, perhaps the resource – a concentration of coloured folks in Western Cape – could be deployed in other parts of the country. Some may say he was suggesting coloured people must become economic refugees in the rest of the country as opportunities were being saturated in Western Cape.
Similarly, Helen Zille has attempted to explain that her use of the word “refugee” in this case was not meant to be “purgorative” nor prejudicial to black people who have moved to Western Cape to seek better educational opportunities. She has been at pains to show how her provincial administration has accommodated particularly black pupils in Western Cape. She even evoked her struggle credentials, meagre as they may be, to show her racial parity. The more she lists her achievements the more she sounds patronising and condescending, reinforcing any notion of her “racism” among those who have chosen to believe this. This is the language of the mind. Like a man struggling in quicksand, she sinks deeper into public disdain as she tries to explain herself. Questions like, “How can she call citizens of this country refugees?” abound, followed by the conclusion that she is a racist of the worst kind for having spoken in this fashion. This is the language of the heart.
Given their public profile, their history and the set of values through which both individuals have ascended to prominence, I would venture to say that neither would want to be associated with any form of racism under any circumstance. Moreover, in a different country at a different time, both their utterances would hardly raise an eyebrow. So how could their intentions and meanings be so deeply misunderstood?
In trying to answer this question one is tempted to engage in a technical discussion about the merits of each side’s political rhetoric or enter into lexical analysis. The language of the mind. I will leave that to the more learned among us. However, it would seem the projection of vitriol on both individuals, speaks of an anger that is almost disproportionate to the perceived crime. An anger that is about more than the politics or the language it seeks to address. It is anger about the missed opportunity of acknowledging the human experience rather than the manipulation of numbers and scientific outcomes. It is about more than rights, laws and constitutions. It is about more than black and white, right or wrong, here or there. It is about the validation of human presence. It is about the language of the heart. The frustration is about the loss in translation between the languages of the mind and of the heart. Something akin to the frustration, pain and betrayal, a neglected lover would feel.
I want to suggest the displeasure is not really against Helen Zille nor was it against Jimmy Manyi in their individual capacities. The anger is against a system both are perceived to represent. A system that was born of the language of the heart, but now speaks the foreign language of the mind. It is symptomatic of a historical and unresolved inflammation of the collective human spirit which the present system is not adequately addressing. It is symptomatic of an irritation with the general impotence of authority, such that all vocal symbols of authority in this system, however well intentioned and articulated and regardless of which “side” they may hail from, will solicit the wrath of the “unheard” masses.
This is the voice of a citizenry confused by the inconsistencies between the lofty democratic values eloquently preached by leaders and the constant deterioration of the quality of life. DM
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The Hindenburg had a smoking room.