In a recent panel discussion at the prestigious Oxford Union, Jon Favreau, President Barack Obama’s former speechwriter, was asked what he made of then Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s comment that Obama was, as President, intentionally trying to destroy the United States of America.
In a statement which was exploited by both Republicans and Democrats, Rubio had told an audience at a televised presidential debate that, contrary to the popular opposition narrative that President Obama has no clue what he’s doing in the Oval Office, he in fact knows exactly what he’s doing. That is, according to Rubio, a deliberate and intentional attempt by the President to destroy the United States of America.
Favreau termed Rubio’s comment “insane”, and I think we can all agree with that assessment and the dismissal thereof.
While we may fundamentally disagree with the policies and ideology of an incumbent President or public representative, it is somewhat ludicrous to claim that someone would run for office to intentionally destroy the country they form part of.
Nevertheless, a then serious contender for the White House made such an assertion on national television – with the utmost conviction – as part of his election campaign.
The question we must ask ourselves is – why? Why claim the absurd with personal attacks when a campaign ought to focus on what you as a candidate or political party can offer the public and the country.
I propose two separate but interrelated reasons for such an attempt, and argue the point that the governing party in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), apply equivalent tactics to the South African political discourse – to their own benefit – and to the detriment of our ever-evolving democracy.
The first reason is what I term fear-mongering, which is both intentional and calculated. While Marco Rubio and other Republican candidates attempt to convince the electorate that President Obama is “destroying the country”, what they are effectively trying to convey is that this is done with the blessing and approval of the Democratic Party. It is a deliberate attempt to create fear among the electorate that the next Democratic Party presidential candidate, no matter who it is, will do the same. And so to save the country from impending doom, you ought to elect a Republican. (The craziest one, perhaps?)
It is the ability to create an objective fear in the mind of the electorate that your opponent is a rogue felon who has but one objective: to bring about harm and instability to the country and the majority of citizens.
In the South African context, the ANC have perpetually created enemies, and labelled them as such, creating this false sense of fear in the mind of the electorate.
For example, according to the ANC, the official opposition – the Democratic Alliance – can be summed up as follows: A white party hell-bent on bringing back apartheid and white minority rule, in order to protect white interests and white capital at the expense of the rest of South Africans.
It is this sort of opportunistic, detached and irrational ad hominem campaigning that we have become accustomed to by the ruling ANC.
The seemingly obvious and rational response to such a depiction is how Favreau responded to Rubio’s comments on President Obama: Insane, opportunistic and not worthy of any attention or serious consideration.
Yet, remarkably, this narrative takes root in communities and circles in South Africa. Quite simply, the ANC thrives on far-fetched hypothesis and the vilification of opponents. And does so with great success.
First it was the media, who run an anti-government agenda and need to be strictly regulated.
Then it was capital or “white monopoly capital”, which is the sole reason for inequality and the plight of the poor in South Africa.
Then it was “US spies” who are in South Africa to undermine African rule and to effect “regime change”.
And who could forget the “third force” that was apparently at work to destabilise our universities during the recent student uprisings across university campuses.
The message from the ruling party to the electorate is simple: fear opposition parties, fear the media, fear business, fear the international community, and look to the ANC to save you and liberate you from those fears.
The second and interconnected reason for such absurd and preposterous campaigning is the art of diversion. That is, attracting undue attention to someone else to avoid any scrutiny of your own. The smokescreen effect. The avoidance of positions, policies and governance track record in favour of diverting attention to the opponent.
When asked why Marco Rubio would make such an outlandish statement, Favreau remarked that such a tactic helps to avoid talking about actual positions, policies, and – for the ANC – governance successes and failures.
Indeed, Marco Rubio held some deeply unpopular views, such as being anti-abortion even in cases of rape and incest. This would no doubt hurt him in a general election, so in order to shy away from being interrogated on these views, he engaged in fear-mongering and abstract, untrue narratives about his opponents. The archetypal act of diversion.
This sounds remarkably familiar.
Undoubtedly, the ANC has a lot they would prefer not to talk about in the public domain. This sort of diversion acts as a convenient red herring to avoid engaging on what really matters: their positions, policies and governance track record.
One is the launch of the DA’s jobs billboard in Johannesburg in January this year. The billboard was a “jobs ticker”, and sought to highlight the ever-increasing unemployment crisis in South Africa, and how it is being exacerbated by an ANC which has no real economic policy or job creation plan.
Unemployment, which is now at its highest rate since 2009, is a critical issue and this ought to have been a catalyst for a national debate on economic policy. Yet in true ANC fashion, the billboard was dismissed as “racist” by ANC national spokesperson, Zizi Kodwa. This was done without any basis, and without any alternative. Just simply, racist. Subsequent to this, it was later physically destroyed. Insane, at its best.
This was followed a few weeks later by a national debate between Zizi Kodwa and DA National Spokesperson, Phumzile van Damme. The debate was themed around economic policies, and the creation of jobs. Unfortunately, on the ANC’s clock, the debate degenerated into a highly charged race debate, with unfounded insults being thrown around left, right and centre.
Then came the AGOA debacle, whereby the ANC placed in jeopardy a highly beneficial trade agreement between the US and South Africa, by re-enacting some decades-old geopolitical polarisation justified by a sense of struggle loyalty.
R25-billion in annual exports to America in some of SA’s biggest export industries, and tens of thousands of jobs, were put at risk as the ANC talked up a so-called “regime change” and an attempt by the US to destabilise the country.
Then there’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). The debate in South Africa is not about whether BEE is necessary and required. Rather, it’s about the form and design it ought to take. The DA’s B-BBEE policy – which is broad based – seeks to empower many more South Africans, and has several elements including job creation and social redress. The ANC’s crony capital version of BEE serves to re-enrich the already empowered black elite, and works for those who are connected to the ANC, and against the economically disempowered.
Instead of having rigorous debate on the issue itself, any attempt to engage this issue is met with absurd claims that the DA is racist and is opposed to BEE. A claim as illogical as it is untrue. Yet, that untrue narrative persists, and the debate is a nonstarter.
Significantly, the delegitimising of any real and meaningful engagement on the battle of ideas and issues serves the current ANC government and its interests.
For example, heading into a highly contested Local Government Election, why as the ANC would you engage in serious debate around service delivery for instance, when nine of the 10 best run municipalities are DA-governed and 10 of the 10 worst run municipalities are ANC-governed?
Similarly, why would you as the ANC engage in a debate on our country’s jobs crisis when since 2009 under Jacob Zuma, almost 2-million more South Africans have joined the ranks of the unemployed and unemployment is at its highest in seven years? This while DA-run governments continue to create jobs and deliver the lowest unemployment in the country.
On the ANC’s watch, we have spiralled downward into what I call the politics of paltriness: propaganda style campaigning devoid of any content or meaningful engagement. And just like Marco Rubio, if you campaign on fearmongering and diversion, it allows you to avoid the actual issues on which an election is squarely based.
In South Africa, the struggle continues to achieve mature, informed and issue-based political engagement and debate. Without this, true democracy is being lost right under our noses.
My challenge to voters is to attempt to wade through the insanity which some political statements are drenched in, and engage with the real issues that affect each and every South African. It is only then that we will become the vibrant and dynamic democracy our Constitution envisages. DM
Mmusi Maimane MP is the Leader of the Democratic Alliance.
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