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Insurrection and racism in the US: A disgrace and a warning

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Lwando Xaso is an attorney, writer and speaker . She is the founder of Including Society. She is also the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’. Follow her at @includingsociety.

As a constitutional lawyer I had long abandoned the idea of America as a leader of the free world, but I cannot deny the real estate that America occupies in our imagination thanks to its imperialism. So many people still believe the US is a constitutional pioneer, and because of that, what happens there is consequential the world over.

In the winter of 1993, on 25 June, Afrikaner right-wingers, including the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), stormed the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park where negotiations were under way to reconstititute South Africa from a oppressive apartheid regime to a constitutional democracy. 

Perhaps the term “right-wingers” is too euphemistic. The AWB and its ilk are hate groups, not political parties. They are terrorist organisations and on 25 June 1993 they not only terrorised our leaders in Kempton Park but terrorised the nation. We were under a year away from our first democratic election, when a black man would assume the highest office. These invaders thought themselves so powerful as to overwhelm the tide of freedom sweeping the country. Their hubris woke them up that morning and told them they could stop the inevitable. 

I was nine years old when this happened. Most of us who were children in the 1990s were frightened by the visuals of the AWB. Eugène Terre’Blanche and his followers were what our nightmares were made of – Afrikaner men on horses donning what looked like swastikas. To know that their disdain of the existence of people who looked like myself was at the core of their mobilisation was a source of my insecurity and vulnerability. 

The World Trade Centre Invasion 1993 by Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) Kempton Park, Gauteng. (Photo: Facebook/Wikipedia)

In my innocent outlook on politics at the time there were good guys and bad guys. In as much as I was rooting for the good guys, it really felt like the bad guys would win because they cared nothing for propriety, rules, morality, decency or life. While the good guys wanted to lead by example, the bad guys were proving to be scrappy, violent and immoral. So when they stormed the World Trade Centre, where the entire leadership upon whose shoulders the future of our country hinged had gathered, I was certain they would prevail. 

The hate group crashed a huge armoured vehicle through the glass windows of the centre, allowing supporters, carrying firearms and chanting “AWB”, to invade the premises. Police tried to prevent the invasion but were ineffective. With Chris Hani having been assassinated just months before, in cold blood by members of the same hate group, my young, impressionable mind was convinced we would not make it out of 1993 alive. 

But here we are. 

When I saw that armoured vehicle, the white men in khaki and the symbols of hate storm the headquarters of our country’s future I realised just what the impending new South Africa was straining against to manifest itself. The odds against democracy seemed improbable. 

The news reported that the “protesters” were effectively left in control of the building while the delegates to the multiparty negotiation took cover by hiding in meeting rooms. The protesters painted slogans on the walls, urinated over furniture and harassed delegates. Damage was estimated at more than R700,000. 

First of all, these were not protesters – they were terrorists and criminals. Second, while this may have seemed like a bunch of high school students vandalising their school because their matric dance was cancelled, this was actually the AWB threatening the future administration of a soon-to-be-free South Africa. On the heels of the bloody assassination of Chris Hani, it was hard to believe their intent was just to harass delegates. 

This was a real and deadly threat. 

It is further reported that negotiations with the police were held in which it was agreed that no members would be arrested that day. Their departure was peaceful compared to the entrance”. And so began the impunity that would be foundational to the new South Africa. 

The events of 23 June 1993 proved to be nothing but the kicks of a dying horse that was facing its own irrelevance in a world that rejected its doctrine of hate. The horse may have stopped kicking but it did not die. It may seem today that these forces that were offended by the very idea of a new South Africa magically reformed into moderates who have bought into the South African project. 

These terrorists may not carry swastikas, wear khaki or white hoods or ride horses, but please believe they live among us, aggrieved by our Constitution. Some of these people are our colleagues, our local bankers and grocers. They still harbour resentment that cannot, due to infeasibility, culminate into an insurrection.

In 2012, I visited the US Supreme Court and Capitol Hill. There were velvet ropes and demarcations which told me “you can look but do not touch”. Unlike our Constitutional Court, access to the US Supreme Court is far more restricted. Washington DC, in my eyes, took itself too seriously and I felt it could do more to speak to ordinary people. Despite the inaccessibility, there was a dignity and pride that seemed inviolable. 

That was until Wednesday. 

President-elect Joe Biden rejected any euphemisms by calling what happened an insurrection. It is an insurrection that fermented in my mind during the Newt Gingrich and Clinton wars of the 1990s. 

I am making my way through Barack Obama’s book A Promised Land, in which he casts the net wider than the 1990s. According to him, the genesis of what happened on Wednesday is wider than just a product of the Clinton years. He says it starts with “LBJ’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964… through Vietnam, riots, feminism, and Nixon’s southern strategy, through busing, Roe v Wade, urban crime, and white flight: through affirmative action, the Moral Majority, union busting, and Robert Bork, through assault weapons bans and the rise of Newt Gingrich, gay rights and the Clinton impeachment – America’s voters and their representatives became more and more polarised.”

Added to this laundry list of what has divided America is Obama’s presidency itself. It was in that very chamber on Capitol Hill on 9 September 2009, during a joint address to Congress by President Obama which was nationally televised, that Congressman Joe Wilson shouted “You lie”. An unprecedented outburst. Unbecoming of a mature democracy. An outburst that could only be targeted to a black president. 

Here in South Africa I have watched in shame as our parliamentarians have physically brawled and fought each other in Parliament, a space to me that is supposed to exemplify dignified discourse. I have watched our politicians use language that betrays our founding values. I have watched thugs masquerading as servants of the people while they plunder and violate every line of the Preamble of our Constitution.

In the US it was not too long ago that Congressman Ted Yoho called Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch” while walking up the steps of the Capitol. No, Yoho may not have urinated on the Capitol Hill steps, but he might as well have. The politicians who exploit division and steal from our country may not have urinated on the chambers of Parliament or the Constitutional Court, but the examples they set tell us we can. Those who do not speak out, across party lines, against this behaviour also tell us, with their silence, that this is the era of thuggery. The people are nothing but a mirror of their leaders. 

Capitol Hill was violated by its own members and its president before Wednesday’s mob. Democracies around the world have been weakened by the very people elected to office to promote and protect their constitutions. The threat to South Africa today may not be men on horses storming into the halls of government. The threat is our very leaders who have chipped away at the pillars of our Constitution. Leaders who exploit division and encourage polarisation. 

This impunity says to us, the people, that we too can act with impunity. It tells us that the government is not to be respected. When our government failed to abide by a court decision it started our freefall to lawlessness. 

America’s crisis dates back to its founding. The self-proclaimed torch bearer of democracy is built upon an archaic constitution whose drafters did not represent the diversity of America today. The people who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday see the rights enshrined in the Constitution as their exclusive birthright because that’s exactly what was intended when it was ratified in 1788 – a time when black people were not defined as fully human.

This legacy not only lingers today but is the very framework of America. 

Black people could not storm the Capitol, not only out of respect but because these institutions do not feel like theirs to raid. We lack the audacity of a people who deem it their right to go where they please with no restriction. Black people are but guests who can look but not touch or risk upending their lives. 

As a constitutional lawyer, I had long abandoned the idea of America as a leader of the free world but I cannot deny the real estate that America occupies in our imagination thanks to its imperialism. So many people still believe America is a constitutional pioneer and because of that, what happens in America is consequential the world over. 

As a constitutional lawyer, the escalated threats against democracy here at home and abroad send shivers down my spine. Wednesday’s mob was clearly unprepared and to some extent looked like amateurs and comical, but next time we may see a more organised and prepared militia. 

What then? 

I would like to say to our leaders that I hope this incident shows you why the rule of law is critical to the survival of any country. I hope it shows you why polarisation is a danger not only to the country but to you too. The rule of law which you violate with impunity will one day fail to protect you as your subjects storm your chambers. I hope Wednesday shows you that the problem starts with you. DM/MC

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  • Sean KALISKI says:

    An eloquent insightful article. Today’s awfulness started hundreds of years ago. Read Adam Gopnik in the latest New Yorker in which he points out that white supremacists and conspiracy theorists have always been in the US. Not long ago, Jim Crow laws, the KKK and John Birch Society were part of mainstream America. Similarly Apartheid did not begin in 1948 and end in 1994..

  • Rodney Weidemann says:

    “Democracies around the world have been weakened by the very people elected to office to promote and protect their constitutions.”

    And this is why the People need to think very hard and carefully about who they choose to vote for: Don’t forget, Herr Schickelgruber, who led Germany into absolute ruin between 1933 and 1945, was ALSO democratically elected!…

    On a separate note, I have no doubt that had the people invading the capitol building been black BLM supporters, the number of people killed by gunshots in the incident would’ve been far, far higher than just one…

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A searing and insightful expose of the challenges facing any true democracy…including the Modhian one being birthed in India. Another example of those ‘pretend democracies’ in which power-drunk leaders infect (like a virus) large sections of the populace with variations of mythical ‘greatness’ ! Also… beware of ‘laws’ cleverly but ‘legally’ enacted to disempower some segments of a society. Some of the responses to Branko’s take on the matter acutely reflect the kind of euphemistic ‘I (or my movement) know best’ attitudes that assail many communities and identities. Thanks for a crips and clear revelatory take on an important issue.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    The ‘hate groups’ referred to in the US, were given the ‘green light’ to pursue their viciousness by Bill Barr when as AG in response to a question about them, described and regarded them as nothing serious ! Even now…the FBI is asking the public to help them ‘identify’ people amongst those who stormed the Capitol ! Seriously ….what have they been doing ? Sleeping under a rock ? What has happened to the ‘greatest’ security apparatus in the world ? Maybe the president’s gigolo son-in-law was too busy farming out that responsibilty to their accolytes in Isreal, an extension of USA imperialism ! It is no wonder there would be people ready to murder Rabin and likewise before him Gandhi in India.

  • District Six says:

    Brilliant and unnerving and profound. Then there’s this: “We lack the audacity of a people who deem it their right to go where they please with no restriction.” Nailed it. Recently, with the new restrictions we were sent off the beach by SAPS. We reminded ourselves that the last time that happened it wasn’t because of a viral pandemic but because apartheid laws deemed us the wrong colour to be there – even if we went to support our Archbishop to dip his feet into the ocean. And the difference is there were baying dogs used and quirts and tear-gas to drive us away from a designated white beach. You are so right. White folks just don’t know what it feels like to be barred from a place with violence.

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