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Kohler Barnard’s Zille moment: The absurdity of comparing SA’s Olympic medal count with that of the Netherlands


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Set aside the map of the world, which makes South Africa and the Netherlands ‘equal’, and consider the abundance and proliferation of forms of capital accumulated by the latter over the past 400 years. Then place that next to South Africa’s barely 30 years of democracy, with all its flaws.

Much as one tries to accept and promote free speech as part of democracy, it is difficult to keep a lid on the most wilfully expedient and their pitiful attempts at intellectual occlusion. We tend to look to EFF leader Julius Malema to say tortured things out of context or make claims that are intellectually superficial, which do no more than whip up the emotions of his followers. The DA’s Dianne Kohler Barnard is not above such lowbrow manipulation. Just for the record, the ANC’s Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has given us a few gems.

Anyway, Kohler Barnard sent out a tweet at 10.04am on 9 August in response to a tweet, by one Hans-Erik Iken, which celebrated the medal haul of the Netherlands at the Tokyo Olympics: “Not bad for a tiny country with about 17 million people in it…”

In a mild case of bile rising, Kohler Barnard tweeted: “And we brought home how many?” The subtext being that a country of close to 60 million people (South Africa) ought to have achieved much more at the Olympics and brought back a few more medals. 

Whether or not you agree with them, understand them (which can be impossibly difficult), or you have generally signed up to their intellect and ideas, most rhetoricians (from Cicero to Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida) have made statements that startle and inspire. Politicians, especially those who simply seek attention by asking rhetorical questions, and especially those who ask questions but don’t hang around for answers, should be held accountable and require greater scrutiny than thinkers like Barthes or Cicero. That is probably why we focus on the oration of Malema; because he is as masterful an orator as he is a manipulator of populist sentiments. 

I am not drawing ideological parallels between Malema and Kohler Barnard. I do, however, think Malema weaponises all that is generally true about the history of injustice in South Africa and throws down carefully couched threats against non-Africans. Kohler Barnard, in Zille-esque fashion, “desituates” her claims and observations (removing them from all the contexts that shape states of affairs). And so my response to Kohler Barnard’s tweet was this: “You’re smart, think about history and deep wells of social, cultural, symbolic and economic forms of capital built up over more than 400 years – not all of which were benign.”

To anyone sceptical or amused by Twitter as a source of news and information, I would refer to the way that the platform entered the political arena when it was used by Donald Trump to political ends, and by South Africans as a firestarter.

Forms of capital 

Since (at least) the publication of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community about two decades ago, there has been a glut of literature on social capital. It was about two decades ago, while I was at the World Bank, that I co-drafted a paper on social capital for Jo Ritzen, a Dutch Labour Party politician who became a vice-president at the bank. That was one of those moments when you make a contribution to a draft and follow the request of your instructor – and hope your name is never mentioned. Alas, he gave me credit on the front page. I returned to academia and put all that behind me.

Anyway, those of us trained in and associated with the Critical Tradition in the social sciences (yes, Helen, including Critical Race Theory), have typically drawn on the work and ideas of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (I should admit my bias immediately). Bourdieu expanded the concept of capital way beyond the elementary conception, which includes forms of capital that stress material exchanges, including immaterial and non-economic and (specifically) cultural and symbolic capital. 

Bourdieu explained the way that different types of capital can be acquired, exchanged and converted into other forms to the extent that its structure and distribution reproduce the structure of the social world – including those structures, mechanisms and tendencies that we cannot detect with our senses. Once you understand this process, according to Bourdieu (I have also drawn on the ideas of the late Roy Bhaskar), understanding the multiple forms of capital necessarily assists with a more sophisticated understanding of the structure and function of the world around us. 

Briefly, types of capital are almost always and in various ways derived from economic capital. In this way, cultural and social capital are fundamentally rooted in economic capital, but we have to be careful to not be too economistic about things. The key is to understand the ways that social, cultural and even symbolic capital retain their power precisely because of their structural relationship to economic capital. So, enough of the academic jibber-jabber.

Kohler Barnard’s Zille moment

My twitter response to Kohler Barnard is rooted in the idea that it is okay to compare all countries, as cartographic entities, but people are living there. In most cases the people in those countries are amassed within the borders of countries (or expelled) with or without their permission. If, however, you delve beyond the cartographic entities (the way things are) and consider the history and evolution of society (how we got to where and how we are), an infinitely better, more comprehensive picture emerges. 

In other words, the Netherlands and South Africa are countries (on a map of the world) that enjoy internal and external sovereignty. But not all of them came to be as powerful or as weak as they are – on the surface. The Constitution of the Netherlands dates back to 1814, with important changes in about 1983. South Africa’s democracy, as enshrined in the Constitution, came into force in 1996. 

The Netherlands was a force in the world for much of the period between 1585 and 1740. It was an outstanding power in world trade and shipping which effectively revolutionised the global economic order. It is possible to make the argument that the power and dominance of the Netherlands provided the impetus for European colonial expansion. For instance, Antwerp would supersede what were great economic hubs (like Lisbon, Venice and Genoa), and went on to markets on all continents of the world. Dutch power between 1585 and 1740 was unprecedented in the history of global economic development.

Now, push aside the map of the world – which makes South Africa, the US, Israel, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia all “equal” – and consider the abundance and proliferation of forms of capital accumulated by the Netherlands over the past 400 years. Then place that next to South Africa’s barely 30 years of democracy, with all its flaws…

None of this absolves any of us from the corruption, ethical lapses, cronyism, prebendalism and violence in South Africa. What it certainly does not do, and I have to stress this, is explain away the privillege the European settler colonialists enjoyed in the country between 1585 and 1740. DM


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  • Johan says:

    There is an article at BBC that compares the performance of countries at the olympics in other ways. Wonder how SA and Nedl would compare on those tables: “Olympic medals: An alternative table – with US 15th”.

  • Zane Erasmus Erasmus says:

    I’m not sure what is more senseless. The stupid tweet, or this response.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    So you give Malema thumbs up for “weaponising all that is generally true about the history of injustice in South Africa and throwing down carefully couched threats against non-Africans”. Yes. Well that’s how Fascists operate. They pick out a resentment that is “generally true”, weaponise it with firery rhetoric and offer easy solutions by threatening scapegoats with violence. .

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    Desperate for a platform to show off his “Critical Thinking” expertise, Lagardien writes a tortuous piece based on a Twitter reply, using the most stilted prose possible. He fails to answer the question directly or to address the root cause of South Africa’s poor showing at almost everything since 1994 namely idealistic but incompetent government that allowed corrupt groups to steal the resources that could, and should, have elevated our performance to world class levels. His only reference to the Dutch is as outstanding and there is no hint at the misery and exploitation that left Ceylon, Mauritius and the Cape as prizes to be handed over to subsequent colonial powers. Sorry sir, but you dropped the baton this time!

  • Hans Wendt says:

    Whew. Poor Ismail has really gone “woke ” on his love affair with Zille. Now Dianne get a full blown pretentious diatribe about a tweet. And why not compare? These corrupt and incompetent clowns running the country and looking after our sports have a lot to answer for.
    If only Zille and Dianne were in charge………Hee, hee. Image Ismail’s reaction then.

    • Jo Van says:

      This dribble is an attempt at sounding clever but it loses the plot and falls back on the victim card. This is certainly the weakest effort I have read by you. Why can our Springboks compete in spite of all the irrelevant excuses you listed? They are the world champions and they have recently beat the best players from the UK. How good do you think they would be if they thought like you?

  • Arnold Krüger says:

    South Africa was also outperformed by Uganda, Kenya, Ecuador, Croatia, Serbia …….. none of whom has an “abundance and proliferation” of capital. South Africa has (had) enough capital. But it is slowly being eroded by the parasitic ruling elite and their non-meritocratic ways.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    I’m not sure why DM publishes your drivel, Ismail. You don’t get paid for it, do you? Who gives any credibility to anything any of the DA/ EFF etc says? You clearly do, but I wish you would pick something relevant to write about. There’s no shortage of state-aided stuff-ups to pick on. Ask Styli for a list. You are a PhD, but most doctors don’t get caught being cleva!

  • Hermann Funk says:

    I don’t know why the DM doesn’t tell this writer to see a psychologist who might be able to assist him to change from senseless twaddle to something a bit more intelligent.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Please, please, please Daily Maveric! Please do not publish idiotic (compared to News of The World) stuff by Ismail Lagardien.

  • Roger Sheppard says:

    So..what’s the point Lagard-ien! Keep it simple – sing country!
    And, the DA says: Non-racialism! The DA says: Economic Justice! The DA says: The Rule of Law! The DA says: Create a capable state! The DA says: Right to own land! The DA says: Proper Education for all! The DA notes: cadre deployment is judged illegal! …inter very much alia~! Better watch what I say here, or will end up in the Old Bailey.

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    Capital? No operating budget. I read once that the greatest predictor of Olympic success of a country is Olympic budget.

  • John Cartwright says:

    Ismail Lagardien’s essays in the DM are excellent examples of how to explore the implications of ‘academic jibber-jabber’ for a better understanding of social and economic relations, often tinged with a kind of irony that almost admits that this is a thankless task but that he should press on nevertheless. Sterkte, Ismail – remember PW’s raised finger and his probably apocryphal comment: ‘It runs off my back like a duck’s water’.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Gee thanks Lagardien – I learned a new word. Prebendalism. “Prebendalism refers to political systems in which elected officials and government workers feel they have a right to a share of government revenues, and they use them to benefit supporters, co-religionists and members of their ethnic group.”

    In the olden days we used to call this corruption and nepotism.

  • Ryan Harris says:

    Daily Maverick – please stop publishing this utter drivel. Lagardien’s writing comes across as a man desperate to prove how smart he is, while at the same time failing to make any sense, due to his convoluted writing style.

    His writing is pretentious and barely comprehendible. This writing is truly not worthy of being placed on this platform.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    Iv been reading the comments. How can we have discussions when people feel so ok with being disrespectful of anothers opinion ? Agree or not, and yes I do have opinions about Ismails commentary, but if we want to move forward we will need to show respect for attitudes that differ. I find nothing of value in reading someones ongoing complaining diatribe. Its quite boring.

    Lets buck up. Me included

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    Ismail when I read your article the thing that came to mind is that sometimes we forget to include the contextual aspect of a persons comment or behaviour and that seems so important when trying to understand what someone means. Language is contextual and relative. Its easy to assume but takes kindness, generosity and a bigger enquring mind to want to understand. My intuition is, at the risk of being politically incorrect, that it was a tweet based on the tweeters understanding, not understanding and maybe a provocative probe.

    It seems that your readers took umbridge to your assumptions?

    It would be interesting to get your response ?

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