Defend Truth


Activism is a double-edged sword to be wielded with care


Glen Heneck is a Cape Town businessman and occasional social commentator. He holds law degrees from UCT and Cambridge and was an avid Charterist until the mid 1990s.

There are many causes to adopt in Cape Town – one of the most unequal cities on earth – but angry activism can sometimes work against the very aims it tries to achieve. Fiery rhetoric might need to be toned down if it means getting those in power to pay heed.

Cape Town’s housing activists are among the finest people in the country. And the most frightening. They deserve to be honoured more, but perhaps listened to less.

Organisations like Ndifuna Ukwazi and Thandanani play an invaluable role in society. Their activism involves both supporting the disadvantaged in the quest for a better life and holding the privileged and the powerful to account. Done correctly, these are both singular virtues from which all of us benefit – but there is a built-in problem.

The people involved are, like the rest of us, fallible human beings. They have prejudices, blind spots, ambitions, and are no less prone than any other group to feelings of love and hate, triumph and disappointment, loyalty and loathing. In other words, they’re perfectly normal in their make-up. However, the nature of their collective project sets them apart from others. The type of work they do predisposes them to being (a) inclined towards crusading zeal and righteous resentment, and (b) makes them highly influential.

This is a generalisation, of course, but it seems quite obvious that people who voluntarily immerse themselves in (low-paid or pro amico) advocacy/charity work are motivated, at least in part, by a sense of moral outrage. It’s plainly not money that drives them, or status (in the common bourgeois sense), so what other possibilities are there?

It happens that I had a decade-long stint in this realm myself, in anti-apartheid organisations through the 1980s. I didn’t do much self-examination at the time, but thinking about it now, I was sustained by four urges.

  • The First was (or felt like) pure idealism: Apartheid was awful and I was doing my bit to get rid of it.
  • Second was compassion: I saw people suffering and I wanted that to stop.
  • Third, solidarity: The same feelings of community and common purpose that most people get from backing their favourite sports’ teams.
  • Fourth, a yearning for meaning; for an antidote to the anomie and boredom that are hallmarks of modern bourgeois life.

Those are all perfectly respectable motivations, and it seems fair to assume that they are shared by most latter-day activists. Where the problem arises though is when those urges turn rogue.

As healthy ambition can easily turn into greed, so can enthusiasm turn, unobserved, into overzealousness. We’re compulsive creatures, and while supporting the underdog can provide some level of satisfaction, it’s no real match, in the medium to long term, for hating the overlord. Being kind to the poor is worthy – being angry with the rich is addictive. The former plays well in our conscience; the latter’s like a hit of cocaine.

Even so, you might ask, what’s the big deal? So what if a few individuals get more out of gratuitously bashing the strong than they do out of helping the weak?

Well, there are two likely victims in this scenario. One is the truth, which you either care about or don’t. And the other is our collective sense of well-being.

Consider a recent, widely shared radio interview in which the Cape Town municipality was pilloried for “herding” the city’s homeless into “concentration camps”. There’s a valid point to be made about fairness and decency and human rights, but by invoking the spectre of Nazism or fascism, utterances like these feed two kinds of toxins into the body politic. They stir anger on the one side of the class divide and guilt and shame on the other. The net effect is that the marginalised are encouraged to revolt, and the moneyed are discouraged from investing. Both of which carry significant downside risks – not to mention the negative impact on communal morale in general.

There will be cases, mind you, where this kind of assault is objectively justified, more or less fully. And there will be those, in the ranks of the relevant actions, whose fondness for some or other utopian ideal will cause them to sneer at the very basis of my challenge. Some activists in Reclaim the City, for example, might say “stuff your white, privileged feelings and your warped, selfish maths – we’re talking two thousand people here, whose lives are being turned into hell. Hashtag: DeathToCapitalism”.

My answer to that is the crux of this piece. It’s a simple idea that nothing is simple. Right/wrong binaries work well in children’s stories and American movies, but they are very seldom valid in real-life political contests. Contradictions and tensions are a feature of all latter-day human societies, not just capitalist ones, and it follows that high-level decision-making is invariably difficult, complicated and fraught. And especially so in emergency situations, large-scale conurbations, and deeply divided communities.

My dream is that one or two prominent activists will see the point of a new kind of engagement; perhaps moved by this dizzying, terrifying, all-up-for-grabs historical moment. Moved not to quiescence, or even courtesy, but simply to expressing themselves, in public, in a slightly more circumspect and generous-spirited way.

To continue espousing their (essentially noble) cause but to (a) avoid hyperbolic and incendiary language and (b) to look for a less jaundiced reading of what the “others” are up to.

This is not to say that the “enemy” should be given a free ride, or spared from robust criticism. Rather, it’s to urge that it not be blithely assumed that those involved are motivated only by contempt, callousness or malice.

That’s not likely to be accurate. Or fair. Or helpful.

#NothingBlackOrWhite. DM


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