With malice aforethought
17 December 2017 16:12 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Poor-bashing is the new slut-shaming: Zuma, Sisulu & the lazy nation

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

Because South Africans are quick to dismiss President Jacob Zuma as someone who speaks without thinking, because despite his status he has become something of a buffoon, his comments over the weekend about South Africans being ‘lazy,’ were taken at face value. Unmediated by spin-doctors and government officials, many of us have come to see Zuma as an unguided missile, a loose cannon. Yet Zuma might actually be reflecting a new ideological bent, a narrative that seeks to blame the poor for the government’s failures.

I don't know of a country that gives free houses to young people. Free housing in a few years will be something of the past. (Young people) have lost nothing (to Apartheid). If it is not clear - none of you (young people) are ever going to get a house free from me while I live.

- Lindiwe Sisulu

If I am wrong, come and tell me which country did as we did. Once we were free we said our major focus is to address the plight of the poor. In no country in the world have you seen government giving people houses free of charge because they are poor.

- President Zuma

Policy and administrative reforms will raise at least R12 billion in 2015/16, R15 billion in 2016/17 and R17 billion in 2017/18… This ceiling means that expenditure will continue to grow and the real value of our social spending will be maintained.

- MTEF Statement

As I have written before (see Zuma: the smartest guy in the room), those who underestimate Jacob Zuma do so at their own peril. Of course Zuma is prone to gaffes, and yes, he is increasingly uncomfortable in front of the media. But his statements about poor people waiting for handouts, and his particular reference to housing, followed closely by Lindiwe Sisulu’s contemptuous statements underscoring this attitude, are unlikely to be coincidental. Read in conjunction with the abovementioned MTEF statement, it is hard not to suppress the creepy feeling that we are watching a new ideology in the making, one that will drive social spending down, and will seek to blame the poor for their poverty.

The state will need to alter its fiscal plans dramatically. The reasons for this are myriad: chronic mismanagement of departmental budgets, a weakening rand, cronyism between big capital and the ruling party (evidenced most shockingly in the coziness that were crucial ingredients in the lead up to the Marikana massacre) loss of market confidence, and so on.

It will be important to remember each of these factors when the state begins to slash the benefits of the poor. Pretending that people under forty should be denied access to free housing because they “are lazy,” or because they “lost nothing [to Apartheid],” is insulting, self-serving and dangerous.

The purpose of these statements is to begin to develop a narrative that suggests that the state is innocent and the citizens are guilty. The intention is to introduce the time-tested strategy of blaming the poor in order to condone bad economic policy and administrative indiscipline. Until now, it was unthinkable that the ANC – which understands all too well the structural underpinnings of Apartheid and the ways in which they make themselves felt today – would speak in this manner about poverty in general and about poor people in particular.

Cabinet is clearly worried about having to make tough decisions that will affect the ANC’s core constituency at a time when its popularity is clearly on the wane. Instead of introducing cost-cutting measures and blaming over-zealous credit ratings agencies, our leader and his henchmen are blaming the poor for their poverty and suggesting that the cuts to which they will soon be subjected are the result of laziness and lack of drive.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As we all know, the legacy of Apartheid is an inherited one: a recent SAHRC and UNICEF report on intergenerational poverty amongst children makes precisely this point. A child living in a poor household has a significantly reduced chance of reaching Grade 7 (36% less) than a child from a high-income family.

It seems that the ANC’s relationship with the poor – much like its alliance with workers – is fracturing. The ANC can scarcely afford to alienate both organised labour as well as those who are unemployed and to some degree or another, dependent on the state for basic survival. Yet this is precisely what the new statements signal. They are of course not isolated comments. Nomvula Mokonyane’s infamous ‘dirty votes’ rant was another example of the contempt the ruling party is beginning to demonstrate to the troublesome poor – those who dare to complain and protest and ask questions.

The party is on a collision course that has been in the making for some time now. The fact that it is likely to crash into its largest and most faithful constituency should worry us all. And yet there is something almost inevitable about the place in which we now find ourselves. The public anger against Marikana and the outcry against Nkandla can easily be dismissed as middle-class outrage. Party apparatchiks argue that these people – ‘clever blacks,’ and ‘CIA agents’ - are not connected to communities and have no real constituencies. This name-calling has masked some hurt feelings about the black middle class. The ANC can take some credit for helping to create black diamonds, and yet they seem to be turning against it.

Poor people who are organised are less easy to challenge than the clever blacks and whiny whites. This is why the ANC has so been badly shaken by the service delivery protests. Despite intimations amongst the senior leadership of the ANC that a third force has stoked resentments, the truth is that the protests by poor communities actions have been conceived and driven by poor people themselves. The ANC’s base seems unsure of whether it will remain loyal. In light of the emergence of the EFF as a potentially viable space for poor people’s articulations of political ambition, the ANC has not taken kindly to being bitten by those it feeds.

It is early days, but it will be crucial to watch the language of poor-blaming (the class-based equivalent of slut-shaming) to see whether it hardens in the coming months. We will not know until next year how deep the cuts will be and how much the poor will have to bear. Already, however, the signs are not good. A wounded and increasingly cash-poor state, an angry and cash-poor population, and a governing party that is beginning to craft a narrative that suggests that it is not responsible for post-Apartheid poverty? Sounds like the recipe for an exciting and important pushback from citizens. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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