Opinionista Bongani Mbindwane 22 July 2015

Destroying a black body – a South African heritage

While many South African Blacks seem to believe 1994 wiped the slate clean and there is no need for coercive action to protect the most exploited racial group in the world, affirmative action is not about demanding that someone without talent be given a position but about asking the powerful to notice the unnoticed. Freedom has to be demanded and demanded daily, irrespective of what is written on paper by the elite.

Equality may take as long to achieve in South Africa as it is taking in other nations with similar racial demographics. The United States still has an inequality crisis, with Blacks suffering most. So do the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Sudan. etc. If Blacks dare to speak of this situation, their morals are called into question. From the economy to the legal system, when a wronged Black person speaks of injustice he is labelled corrupt or accused of disrespecting the courts.

The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution did end slavery in 1865 but it did not grant Blacks equal rights. Since then various amendments and pieces of legislation have sought to unshackle the African citizens of the United States from physical and mental slavery, from voting rights to housing rights. Presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson issued executive orders enacting affirmative action, which included the US’s version of Black Economic Empowerment alongside employment security. Yet the country has produced only two black billionaires and President Barack Obama was only the fifth black senator. As of 2014, there had been about two thousand US senator but only nine Blacks had served.

This is educational for South African Blacks who seem to believe that 1994 wiped the slate clean and that there is no need for coercive action to protect the most exploited racial group in the world. Many Blacks turn their noses up at affirmative action just as the US Supreme Court’s only Black judge, Clarence Thomas, does – forgetting that he was able to get himself noticed because of those who have demanded affirmation of the oppressed. See, that is the point: affirmative action is not about demanding that someone without talent be given a position but simply asking the powerful to notice the unnoticed.

Blacks in South Africa were not granted all of the freedoms a human being should enjoy in 1994. There are sunsets before sunrises and some nights are longer. Should Blacks in South Africa be complaisant, positions of power will evade them.

In a rather revealing interview with the BBC, leader of the official opposition in Parliament Mmusi Maimane said his story shows what is possible in South Africa – a man from a township born to working class parents can obtain a higher education and succeed in business through hard work. Maimane wanted youths to emulate him and forget about the African National Congress’s policies. Dedication is all that is necessary in order to achieve, he believed.

But why if it is so easy and dependent on individual virtue is it that in US today we have I Can’t Breathe protests and the Black Lives Matter movement? Why are there only two Black billionaires in the US, Oprah Winfrey and basketball legend Michael Jordan? Why does the US only have one Black woman – Janice Howroyd – who owns a business with a net asset value of one billion dollars? Why was it only two weeks ago that we celebrated Misty Copeland’s becoming the first Black principal dancer at the American Ballet Society? Will the Maimane thesis be that Blacks are lazy underachievers who lack his grit?

Maimane wants each Black person to emulate him, this means my children must also meet White benefactors as he did, who must take them in and offer them ideological and physical help in finishing school and enrolling in university.. It means I, as their father, should not be in a position to offer this assistance. Maimane told the BBC’s HardTalk: “Black economic empowerment is corrupt.” While Blacks are used to insults – and indeed foreigners are used to hearing Blacks being insulted – that still made me cringe.

Just how many Black business people has Maimane met? Why would he say that they are corrupt? As usual, his charge was not against the business sector in general but specifically black empowerment enterprises. This declaration has been echoed by Maimane’s predecessor Helen Zille, who branded proposed public tenders scoring for small and medium enterprises “legalised corruption”. This “legalised corruption” is a situation in which female- and Black-owned small businesses will have a fair chance to compete.

While Maimane and Zille see Black and female business emancipation as corrupt, Blacks remain behind in the economy, with more than 90% of South Africa Incorporated still held by only 10% of the population.

On August 3 1857 black hero Frederick Douglas delivered a “West India Emancipation” speech in Canandaigua, New York. Dr Douglass titled his speech “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress”. The speech remains one of the most important for Black struggles and has motivated liberation movements across the world. Dr Douglass remains relevant, and particularly to Black South Africans. In the speech, he spoke of power, saying;

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Dr Douglass is no more but now and again his words are revived to free the Black mind from mental slavery, from not knowing that it is still enslaved, as brilliant thinker and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son, in his new book. He could just as easily be describing South Africa as America when he tells his 14-year-old son, Samori:

Here is what I would like for you to know. In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.

“?‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies.”

Pages later, Coates continues:

You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

As MPs inspect President Jacob Zuma’s home security improvements on Wednesday I realise that few have stopped to consider how many of these investigations have taken place and how the occupants of the Zuma homestead must be feeling about the intrusion on their privacy. In a fair world people would pause for reflection irrespective of how damned the subject is. Decent people do not perpetuate injustice while trying to investigate possible injustice.

South Africans are prone to vigilantism, it happens in lofty arenas and in squalor. While the world was aghast at South Africa’s judiciary’s revelations at a press conference of what politicians had done and said, South Africans (the minority) cheered. How it came about that judges entered the political fray to publicly respond to politicians is still a puzzle. Politicians politick, they will always do so, across the world. Even the respected US judicial system has endured politicians saying “we must abolish the courts” after some same-sex ruling or other. Never do you see justices running to the microphones to address the public over politics.

Likewise, the Nkandla investigations by multiple organs of state and the government has seen some rather vigilante actions, from the public protector’s report to the decision by the ANC in Parliament to have politicians politick over a matter that has been thoroughly exhausted.

When our constitutional framework was set out, it made it very clear that ONLY the Constitutional Court may make findings on constitutional breaches by the president or the National Assembly. This was designed to prevent vigilantism and constitutional crises. To find a president or the national assembly guilty of constitutional breaches is such a grave matter that it could likely dissolve the government elected by the people. Given such a risk, it was appropriate not to have one individual within the state decide on whether breaches had taken place.

But even with these clear constitutional provisions, the public protector’s vigilantism in making constitutional findings on the president is hailed and cheered all around although it is an illegal act. It is cheered and immediately followed by Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke – whose Court certified the Constitution in 1996 – saying he personally wishes for constitutional amendments to limit presidential powers. This is a clearly political statement from an unelected powerful judge who is admired by many judges below him. It follows that matters before courts could now be prone to this kind of political thought by judges where they pertain to executive power. Judges are supposed to administer laws that are made by the people through their elected representatives. A statement such as that made by Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke will erode confidence in our courts for the longest time. Of course, the right Black expressed these unconstitutional thoughts; as such no issue will be made of it.

This week does not only see the unprecedented inspection of a project by MPs, it is also the birth week of Frantz Fanon who would have turned 90. It is apropos to recall his famous work Black Skin, White Masks, in which he wrote:

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Fanon was teaching about “confirmation bias”, extremely prevalent in politics and public service and more so in South Africa due to the toxic social history. A confirmation bias involves favoring information that confirms previously existing beliefs or biases. For example, on the Nkandla matter, all reports including those received with fanfare by the minority in this country, all say that there was no political corruption on the part of any politician including Zuma, but this is not being accepted by all of those who had pre-judged the matter based on preconceived ideas about Zuma and by extension the ANC.

How the Adhoc Committee thought in its wisdom that such a visit would enlighten the country in a balanced manner is beyond comprehension.

When the BBC’s HardTalk put it to Maimane that no report ever found corruption on the part of Zuma over Nkandla, all he could do was drink some water as he choked on the truth.

The location inspection by MPs further delays Zuma’s final assessment of all matters and reports and his report to Parliament and the public protector. To date, no one can say conclusively, without doubt, that Zuma has made a final decision on whether there should be some compensation to the public works department or not. Yes, there has been politicking on the matter but nothing conclusive pending all public processes.

The bias that Blacks, steal, are corrupt, breed like bunnies, are dirty, lazy, stupid and backwards remains. Confirmation bias affects how people gather information and influences how they interpret and recall it. This is the reason people refuse to hear that only R50m (excluding professional fees) was spent on Zuma’s home, with the rest of the money being spent on the government land next door, including relocating neighbours in harm’s way to make up the R200m total. But a foreign journalist reads it without bias.

Confirmation bias will stop the thinking process from throwing up the question: If this was one man’s indulgence, why did unrelated neighbours benefit so handsomely from a relocation programme.

At a public service administration level, more damage is done as the message to politicians is that they should interfere with how spending is managed, ask questions and get involved in the day-to-day management in defiance of the prohibitions contained in the Public Finances Management Act.

As personal virtue, vigilantism and confirmation bias eat at the soul of this generation, social media builds them up to be heroes they are not. The youth in South Africa must either listen to people who will lead them to march with slogans such as “I Can’t Breathe” 50 years from now or march today to say: “We Can’t Breathe”.

As some amongst us tell us to hate black empowerment, hate employment equity, perpetuate unfair treatment in law, and retain stereotypes of Blacks as savages, I look at the US and wish its oppressed minority had woken up in the ‘60s to the realisation that freedom is demanded and demanded daily irrespective of what is written on paper by the elite.

Wednesday’s location inspection in Nkandla is not a day of justice in action but of mob justice and vigilantism in action – this time with the ANC caucus in tow as the victimisation of Zuma 2.0 unfolds.

Borrowing from the great Ta-Nehisi Coates: It must not be In South Africa, a continuing tradition to destroy the black body — it must not be a heritage to do so. DM

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