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Black on Black Disrespect: Why the opposition’s race to the left is good for the ANC

Elisha Kunene is a trainee human rights lawyer, working primarily in mining, customary law and land affairs. He spends his free time podcasting about the Constitutional Court of South Africa, being devastated by Arsenal results and arguing about Bernie Sanders. Elisha writes in his personal capacity, and against his better judgment. He accepts hate-mail on at @Eli_Kunene.

When South African parliamentarians debated whether or not to impeach President Jacob Zuma, it was exciting in the way that an episode of Jersey Shore is exciting; humans like drama. On the political level, no surprising or particularly interesting developments happened.

The motion was always going to fail; the ANC majority had made its continuing support for Jacob Zuma abundantly clear.

However, this is a municipal election year and the nation’s two biggest opposition parties are determined to make their Constitutional Court case victory lap last as long as possible. Why do we watch the reality TV show currently known as Parliament? I think the idea is that it is meant to be a catalyst for democratic debate and discussion.

When opposition MPs predictably left the venue in a fit of rage shouting that the ANC MPs who remained were “traitors”, one of the departing MPs shouted “niyathakatha”. At that stage it felt less like a democratic debate and more like a rap battle. I watch a lot more battle rap than most people, so I think this is my first “expert opinion” piece. The opposition needs to consider switching up its technique.

I’ll focus on the EFF because they are more interesting. The day after the debate, those who had been unimpressed by the proceedings faced the wrath of the EFF’s strong online presence – a battalion spearheaded by figures such as Dali Mpofu, Julius Malema, Sentletse Diakanyo, and of course national spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. One of the latest victims was kwaito star Zwai Bala, who tweeted that Julius Malema “disrespectfully addressing Ms Mbete by her first name can never be correct by African standards. Irresponsible of a leader”.

This was all Ndlozi needed. He began by arguing that “most, if not all, cultures seek to accord respect by prefacing your name, not essential to Africa”. Sneaky wording. The fact that something is not unique to African culture does not mean it is not essential to African culture.

But even if Bala chose a bad example, if Ndlozi’s subsequent accusation is that this is an “essentialisation” of African culture, then surely all prescriptions rooted in African culture are essentialising statements; and if that is a bad thing then there is no African culture because African culture is just whatever an African decides is true for him personally.

Most Africans disagree. I think most Africans also disagree with Ndlozi’s subsequent claims that it is somehow unAfrican to treat someone as if you respect them because of their age and position. The idea that an expectation of respectful engagement is “ageist” because respect must be earned sounds less like any account of African culture I have ever known than it does like the uppity white liberalism of the DA.

Ageism masquerading as African culture!

I would love to see Mbuyiseni raise that argument in a more traditional setting. It has never worked in arguments with my father. The EFF uses the words “don’t force your African culture on me”, but what they actually mean is “don’t force African culture on me, period”. This goes beyond prefacing names. The demeanour of the EFF is deliberately radical and unapologetic, but they cannot pretend to be a feminist rejecting respectability politics for self-actualisation. They are a political party engaged in a democratic competition to win the hearts of black South Africans. The fact that they refuse to pander to culture is not valour, it is prideful poor strategy.

Later that day, President Jacob Zuma addressed the National House of Traditional Leaders and told them that African problems should be solved in an African way, rather than through the courts. Just days after apologising for violating the Constitution he lamented the idea that “law looks at one side only, they don’t look at any other thing”. The “one side” he is talking about is “cold facts”. Lol.

What he is doing is clear, and it is the reason he has survived scandal after scandal without his popularity dipping. While the likes of Mbuyiseni Ndlozi lecture about constitutional supremacy, Zuma regroups in his traditional base, switches to isiZulu and tells the men and women who elected him that he remains deeply a member of their community. It doesn’t matter if the ANC is a gang of thieves, as long as they are our gang of thieves. While parliamentarians attempt to outperform each other in daily shouting matches, Zuma remains the calm at the centre of the storm – the image of respect and dignity. Outside of Twitter, Parliament being a spectacle does not give South Africans the sense that we are in a state of emergency, it just makes it easier for the ANC to paint the EFF as undignified and obnoxious bullies. Troublemakers. The irony is remarkable.

There is a deep visceral appeal to hearing Zuma say in his own tongue, “I was not raised by politicians, therefore I will not stoop to their level of disrespectful and undignified behaviour.” He says this every opportunity he gets, and it is persuasive because it is the same personable character which made him so popular to begin with.

I have always been baffled by the entitlement with which opposition parties in South Africa demand that we respect and trust them when we have never known them. I just can’t imagine a single one of the parents in the township community I grew up in being impressed by the swashbuckling guerrilla element of the 30-year-olds running the opposition today. I imagine it is even more alienating in rural communities. Aiming for the black urban youth is fine, but our parents will still be voters for 20 more years, and we are largely conservative Africans too. Calling everyone who disagrees with you an ANC zombie is the same condescending nonsense that made us hate the DA in the first place. The National spokesman of the EFF should know better.

South Africa needs a competitive opposition, and the EFF has to be an alternative in a more meaningful way than the Democratic Alliance has managed. The party is, on its day, an intellectual powerhouse and ideologically represents a great check to the kleptocratic elements of the current regime.

The EFF is least effective when it begins to believe its own hype and talks down to the same people it is courting. Government elections are not a Twitter poll; one needs a currency greater than snobbery to succeed. The South African electorate is not a court of law. If the EFF truly believes there is “no better standard than the Constitution”, they had better have a plan to pull a “Bush v Gore” and litigate their way into power. Otherwise, with all due respect, we need more.

So, is Black on Black Disrespect in fact a thing? Yes, it is. Like black on black crime, black on black disrespect will often be used as a red herring, but that doesn’t mean it counts for nothing. It is not tone-policing if tone speaks to character – and your character is precisely what is on trial. DM


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