Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 20 June 2013

Is ridicule the best strategy?

We must confront the racism in the statement issued by the Minister of Education, even as we recognise that this is a diversionary tactic, even as we seek to address the topic she is so desperately trying to evade. By SISONKE MSIMANG.

The most useful response to the education minister’s attack on Equal Education should be for citizens to ask why, almost 20 years after the end of apartheid, a group of South Africans who are asking their government to indicate what a decent school should look like deserve the scorn of one of its ministers. What is so scary about asking how many walls, how many toilets, what type of roofs poor children deserve?

Less than two months ago the office of the Minister of Basic Education had to remind a group of sexist Sadtu members (they held up a giant symbol of the Minister’s panties in protest against her leadership) of the values enshrined in our Constitution.

Yesterday, the same minister whose office claimed the moral high-ground by suggesting that “while South Africans enjoy the freedom to protest, they must exercise this freedom within the confinements of the law and uphold the values of our Constitution,” issued a statement that sought to delegitimise the efforts of a group of young South Africans, on the (somewhat fictionalised) basis of their race.

The minister has taken the desperate and unfortunate step of suggesting that Equal Education – an education NGO – is “a group of white adults organising black children with half-truths”.

The minister’s statement questions the “sudden interest” of Equal Education “against the privileges they have enjoyed,” (please ignore the incorrect grammar contained in the minister’s statement, the point she seems to be making if you read the full text, is that people who are privileged – i.e. white – have developed a “new” interest in poor black kids, an interest that they should not legitimately have, presumably because they are white and whites who are interested in the situation of black people are patronising and/or have some sort of imperialist agenda).

That the statement is racist does not bear saying – this is as obvious as it is unacceptable. What it does do, however, is to raise a number of very important questions about what the minister is so afraid of.

In most contact sports, when someone decides to play the person and not the ball, they are either desperate, or a cheat, or both. A desperate player is one whose game plan has not worked and who finds him- or herself having to resort to brute force – tripping, punching or jabbing the opponent – in the hope that the referee will be looking the other way.

Sometimes, when a player plays the person, rather than the ball, it is because they know that the match has been fixed. They operate with the full knowledge that the referee will overlook their transgressions because the outcome of the match is predetermined. The offending player can act with absolute impunity because he/she knows that there will be no consequences.

We will see in this instance whether we are dealing with a desperate player (a minister at her wits end and desperate to save her job) or whether we are dealing with a player who knows that the game has been fixed; one who understands that regardless of what happens she will never be held accountable by her team or by the manager of her “football club”.

Regardless of what the underlying issue is, it will be important that we recognise that the statement of the minister is a slight against those of us who work in the non-government sector playing the vital role of working alongside government, providing technical assistance, monitoring service delivery and raising questions of accountability and governance.

It will be important to remember that this is a moment in which we South Africans – of all races, South Africans who pay taxes and therefore pay for the letterhead on which the statement was issued, South Africans whose children go to schools that must be governed by the norms and standards we are asking the Department of Education to develop, South Africans who care about the future of this country – must all raise our voices.

In recent years there have been increasing outbursts by some within the ruling party and government who seek to question the patriotism of people who ask hard questions and criticise insufficient action. The number, volume, ferocity and formality of these attacks have increased. Worse yet, they have often included institutional, policy and legal manoeuvres designed to close the space for dissent and to make it harder to ask questions.

The institutional debris and wreckage lie all around us – the Scorpions, the Hawks and the NPA, the Traditional Courts Bill, the Protection of State Information legislation, to name just a few. Yet it is important that the onslaught of these assaults on democracy – which often come in the form of crass and personal or group attacks – do not exhaust us. It is also critical that we not be so distracted by the attacks that we stop asking the questions that need to be asked.

We are all familiar with the famous poem by Martin Niemoller, who wrote that chilling advisory for all activists: “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

It is important to speak out against racism, both for instrumentalist reasons of solidarity and for principled reasons of solidarity. In other words, we stand up not only because we would want others to stand up for us, but because, it is right to do so. And of course, we must fight back when people who hold positions of power seek to abuse some among us because we have to recognise this as part of a sustained strategy against all of us.

It was Gandhi who said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then,” – and I say this with glee just as Gandhi must have – “you win.”

Equal Education’s appeals for reasonable responses from the minister have been ignored. Equal Education happens to have a white man as director, who is now being ridiculed for being white. It also happens to have a black woman chairperson who is also being ridiculed – I presume for being the “fake” boss of a white man. The fight is beginning. If Gandhi was right, then the next step will be for Equal Education (and all those who stand on the side of genuine accountability) to win.

The truth is that by playing the person and not the ball, the minister is trying to change the subject. While it is crucial that we confront the racist nature of the diversion tactic, we must also address the topic the minister is so desperately trying to evade.

Many South Africans recognise that the crisis in education is a litmus test for the sustainability of our democracy and for the ability of this government to deliver on its promises of freedom. The most useful response to the minister’s attack on Equal Education should be for every child in high school across this country to join a reading circle and each reading circle should read the Equal Education affidavit, which details the many opportunities that the minister has had to develop a set of regulations for public comment, which outline minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure.

And then, alongside their parents, each of these children should write to the president and ask why, almost 20 years after the end of apartheid, a group of South African citizens who are asking their government to indicate what a school paid for with public money should look like, how many walls, how many toilets, what type of roof it should have, why these people deserve the scorn of one of his ministers.

The rest of us busybodies who call in to radio shows, who blog and tweet and volunteer, those of us who show how much we love this country in small ways each day, we should ask that question too.

We should not allow ourselves to be dissuaded or distracted or persuaded to change the subject, by people who are intent on playing the person rather than the ball. DM


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