Like ice water on a sleepy face

2014-06-23 10:00

The statue of Louis Botha outside the main entrance to South Africa’s Parliament is an imposing one. The man sits regally atop a horse, surveying all that is before him. The inscription on the plinth proudly reads: “Farmer. Warrior. Statesman.”

It is a galling image that celebrates a man who saw blacks as subhuman and contributed to the development of apartheid. While many would like to celebrate only his unquestioned military genius and political acumen, Botha’s great legacy was his attempt to forge unity among the white races and formally oppress those who did not share his skin colour.

It was on his watch as the Union of South Africa’s first prime minister that the 1913 Natives Land Act was passed and first implemented. This heartless piece of law rendered millions of blacks landless and caused untold social devastation.

Since 1994, many have questioned how one of apartheid’s chief architects continues to stand guard over one of democracy’s prime institutions.

In the early days, no one dared raise the question of removing the statue lest they offend Nelson Mandela’s strong nation-building project.

But in his dramatic first utterances in Parliament, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema raised the issue of the statue being a symbol of an “elite pact” between the ANC and the beneficiaries of our apartheid past.

“Louis Botha is not our hero and he cannot be a hero of a democratic South Africa. He is a colonial warmonger who fought for the exclusion of black and indigenous people from running their own country and affairs,” he said.

Malema also ruffled feathers when he charged that whites’ reluctance to learn other African languages was proof of their superiority complex.

“All black people continue to learn the languages of white minorities as part of our attempt to reach out to them and create friendship, but with very little attempt from their side to at least learn one of our African languages – because they have a wrong mentality that we must suck up to them?...?If you have a white friend as a black person and he or she doesn’t know your language or is not taking the initiative to learn your language, that person is no friend at all,” he said.

It was vintage Malema. He and his band of MPs said and did a lot more this week that captured front-page headlines, dominated bulletins and had social media abuzz.

This week gave us a foretaste of a five-year parliamentary session that will be like no other.

There are many who were irked by the EFF’s conduct this week. From wearing overalls, to not rising for Zuma, to walking out of the House, the EFF’s conduct was deemed by many to be a step too far.

While the EFF runs the risk of alienating the public by opting for form over substance, it is the view of this lowly newspaperman that the party’s entry into parliamentary politics is just the medicine South Africa needs. The seamless transition from the apartheid past to the democratic present was too good to be true. It created complacency among the formerly privileged, whose good life became even better.

Unencumbered by the guilt of being beneficiaries of an evil system, white South Africans carried on with life as normal and did not feel the need to assist in redress.

They took advantage of the opportunities democracy created and made full use of the head-start they had on the newly levelled playing fields.

The tough conversation about correcting the wrongs of the past was given cosmetic treatment. If truth be told, one of the really good stories of the past 20 years is the fantastic story of guiltless white comfort.

The ANC can be forgiven for not confronting issues head on. The party had a larger responsibility of averting civil war, constructing a new republic and forging a united nation.

In doing so, it could not be brash and reckless in its language and decisions. With the DA pulling it to the right, the ANC lacked a strong voice to the left to prick the pro-poor part of its conscience.

SA Communist Party leaders were roped in by the Mandela and Thabo Mbeki administrations and enjoyed the spoils of office. Other former liberation movements failed to adapt to the democratic environment. Instead of thriving, they found freedom to be asphyxiating.

Into this breach has stepped the EFF. With its brash style, sometimes extreme language and outlandish ideas, the party is set to make South African politics an uncomfortable space. The questions the EFF is asking about the post-1994 dispensation are tough but necessary.

The language is rough but it might just be the ice water the nation needs to wake itself. Its conduct is often uncouth, but that might be what we need to keep us alert.

A caution, though: there is a risk that the party may overdo the theatre and irritate the hell out of the public. It will need to balance the theatrics with hard work.

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