The Democratic Alliance (DA) completed its national congress last weekend, and re-elected John Steenhuisen as leader. This was unsurprising. Delegates were never going to elect a black person to head the alliance.
As a just-in-case, the Freedom Front Plus has formed a type of safety netting around the DA in anticipation of a collapse. For now, however, the DA remains a steady and conservative alliance apparently resistant to change.
Depending on where you sit on the conventional political spectrum, resistance to change is either considered necessary for the sake of stability and continuity, or it conceals a resistance to more radical and necessary social change and transformation. Analysts have already started deliberating these issues.
What has been curious, though terribly predictable, has been the responses to the language that was used by Steenhuisen, and the symbolism that was on display at the national congress.
Most curious, a mite duplicitous, has been criticism and offence taken at Steenhuisen’s toyi-toyi, and the cries of “Viva” that echoed in the atmosphere. Set aside the spectacle of Steenhuisen’s dancing (I’m not the greatest dancer, though not nearly as bad as Elaine Benes). The idea that the DA, or a white male who is not associated with the liberation movement, someone like say, Carl Niehaus (no laughing at the back), cannot toyi-toyi or shout “Viva” is rather silly, duplicitous and (as always) ahistorical. Now there is something new…
I apologise for sounding pedantic, but nobody owns the toyi-toyi, and associating the “Viva” cry with South Africa’s broad liberation movement ignores at least two things. First, it is derivative (that means it’s not original, Floyd).
Second, to associate it with the left is just rubbish. It’s certainly true that the cry of “Viva” conjures up images of leftist revolutions and revolutionaries, but fascists have also used the cry. For instance, when Benito Mussolini appeared on Rome’s Piazza Colonna in 1924, at least 100,000 people greeted him with delirious enthusiasm and the cry, “Viva d’ Un a Noi” (Three cheers for one of us). Mussolini replied, “Viva il Re! Viva L’ Italia! Viva il Fascismo!”
So, the responses to the language, symbolism — and that dreadful term, “the optics” — have been tiresome, and terribly puerile. It’s as if the entire country has been sipping on the cloying and sugary syrup of “superior logic”.
It is, of course, consistent and to be expected from a society that generally places style above substance. Install gold-plated plumbing and ignore the unreliable supply of water; drive a car worth millions of rand, while the roads are crumbling; dress down in worker clothing (because you can return to your comfortable lifestyle at the end of the day), while you make out like bandits … nevermind.
Finishing in fourth place is not good enough
The obsession with symbolism and language is not always misplaced. It can be insightful and revelatory. In the case of the most recent DA conference, Steenhuisen has set up defeating the ANC and EFF as its prime target, and not poverty, unemployment, unequal access to healthcare, education, sanitation, lack of community safety, crime. This says a lot more about the liberal party. They are, at least, consistent: the DA and its predecessor have always campaigned for effective opposition … but there is a greater comedic aspect of the DA’s focus on the ANC-EFF.
There’s a tendency in football — I am thinking about the English Premier League — to focus on beating your fiercest rival and finishing above them, or getting into fourth place in the league at the end of the season in order to qualify for the lucrative European Champions League.
The main objective for, say, Tottenham Hotspur is to beat Arsenal, or for Manchester United to beat Liverpool. Neither cares about winning the league — sort of. This is the problem with the DA. They want to beat the ANC and EFF.
It is what happens if you are liberal, and imagine that “the market” will fix things, that beating the ANC-EFF would somehow (mysteriously or through some “invisible hand”) turn South Africa into a progressive, prosperous, stable, cohesive society with high levels of trust among the population, and that electing the DA is an end in itself.
Once again (for those at the back), that is like confusing ambition with achievement. Fourth place is not good enough.
Words, meaning and use
I am by no means suggesting that words don’t carry enormous meaning, and the placement of words in sentences can be a vile and insidious form of gaslighting and manipulation.
Consider Julius Malema’s constant references, in a single passage, to “whites” and “genocide”. The songs “Kill the Boer” or “Mshini Wam” are also embedded in the minds of most South Africans, humming the melodies or cheekily changing single offensive words does not take away the way the songs are used to provoke, ridicule and encourage violence. Forget the melodies, music is not always a creative, pleasant endeavour.
The Giovinezza anthem (the anthem of the interwar Italian fascists) became one of Mussolini’s most important vehicles of fascist pride (and violence); he recast music as an instrument for fear, and not as a creative exercise. I guess all I am saying is that there really should be no easy answers to complicated issues that are multicausal in origin, and that may conceal injustices.
As it goes, if you close your eyes, politicians often sound the same. I provided an example of this previously with the interchangeable use (by the old Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging and the Economic Freedom Fighters) of words like “our people” “the land” and “foreign enemies” — when the top and tail or the context are stripped.
We have, in general, become anaesthetised, and very often accept what politicians, or anyone for that matter, say; we take them at their word, and rarely consider things that are omitted or the way words are paired in sentences and/or context.
Consider the following: We need to defend our people, our land and our future, and not be divided by malicious people who want to destroy us. This seems like a fairly strong political statement. The problem is that that statement may be attributed to any politician who uses identity or nationalism, or emotive (and important) issues like land or poverty as vehicles for their politics and propaganda.
So, we should probably let the DA wander off to wherever it is they’re heading with Steenhuisen as leader. We ought to know better than to focus on Steenhuisen’s lack of dancing skills, and reach easy conclusions that obscure or simply avoid more difficult and important issues for the sake of cheap thrills.
The toyi-toyi and cries of “Viva” are not the exclusive property of only the broad liberation movement, such as it is. To imagine that it is silly, and a case, surely, of having run out of ideas.
There are more important things at stake. DM