Reckless racism

2011-06-21 00:00

IN the past few years, the slow rise of the politics of racial hostility has been given fuel by a militant public discourse, especially by Afrikaner lobby groups over affirmative action and by the ANC Youth League over unenclosed toilets in the Western Cape and the DA's use of images of black faces.

The local government elections and now the conference of the ANC Youth League over the week-end have led to discussions about race in our politics, in the press and on social networks. In the run-up to the conference, both Cosatu and the South African Communist party warned about the emergence of a crude politics of demagoguery tainted with racist and other divisive tendencies. Some in the ANC have also blamed the Youth League for alienating minorities during elections.

First, we have to try to understand whether there is indeed a reckless racism by the Youth League and other organisations. Observers should be careful not to pass judgment on this on the basis of reckless statements made during political speeches. We have to satisfy ourselves that, indeed, these tendencies represent the groundswell of views in these organisations. It seems to me that there are a few cases that may be a real cause for concern in this regard, but there do not seem to be institutional views as they do not appear in official documents.

Part of the problem is that under Julius Malema, and unlike the other constituent bodies of the ANC, the Youth League has become more openly militant both inside the ANC and in society in general, especially over economic policy. Malema has been able to re-energise young people back into mainstream youth politics, especially those deemed to be excluded from society due to unemployment and poverty. In the process, he has inevitably alienated some and angered others.

But more problematic for us is the obsession that we have developed with Malema the person. In the process, we have failed to relate what we feel and think about him to the more important question of whether the Youth League as a constituency has become negatively militant. Of course, until the Midrand conference, we would easily point to shenanigans that happened in Mangaung for evidence that the league has become a breeding ground for lunacy, anarchy and disrespect.

This cult of personality around Malema helps to simplify complex matters of politics and society. This has got to a point where Malema's views are taken as sure-to-be policies of the governing party and, therefore, the government. For this reason, we are easily wrapped up in emotional battles about the direction of our country and many have become embroiled in either demonising Malema or working towards his downfall.

Also of concern in the public discourse is the growing militancy of the white conservative and liberal lobbies that have used the legal system to fight their battles. Whether the actions of the Afrikaner lobby groups over a perceived onslaught on their culture and nationality by Malema's singing of dubul' ibhunu also help fuel racism, depends on whether the actions are driven by genuine fears or a political agenda to stop radical land reform. Lobby groups associated with the white liberal constituency have also mobilised around press freedom and constitutionalism in a manner that gave ammunition for some to fuel the push to protect majority rule from subversive actions of minorities. These lobbyists need to be cleverer in their activities by ensuring a racial balance in their voices, so that they do not sound like apartheid sympathisers who refuse to be defeated.

Of course, the hope should be placed in institutions and policies as only they indicate what has been decided. The fear that the concerning positions will become policy should be tempered by the fact that we are a democracy. The struggle was fought for an inclusive society, one based on non-racism and justice. This political heritage will take much more coordinated, intelligent moves and mass-supported efforts to undo. Public debate is just that, it is not pronouncement of final laws.

As it emerges from a peaceful conference, the Youth League has a special responsibility owing to its size among youth groups and its association with the governing party to champion a radical agenda for economic freedom and change in general in a manner that preserves the legacy of non-racialism that the mass democratic movement epitomised during the struggle. It has to realise that reckless militancy may win it short-term gains, but a pursuit for united, inclusive and equally prosperous society will gain it longer-term goals. The agenda for economic emancipation is a correct one, but how it is pursued must not rip our hard-fought nationhood apart.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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