Guest Column

South Africa turns in on itself as a recalibration looms

2015-01-20 16:04

Louise Ferraro

In late 2013, Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon of Francois Hollande, the least popular leader of the Fifth Republic, on its cover with a speech bubble reading: "Are you ready to laugh for another year?"

The artist was also the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, gunned down with his staff 12 and half months later. There were the facts, 12 dead and counting. And there was the effect, some of it easily foretold and unfolding even before the Kouachi brothers' three-day siege ended.

The French would take to the streets spontaneously. Some 11 000 poured into the Place de la Republique that same night. And Hollande, the president ridiculed for inaction, would find his reflexes and act decisively. His approval ratings jumped from as low as 13%, according to some surveys, to as high as 25%.

But if this correspondent could have been a fly on the wall anywhere, it would not have been at the Elysee or even the headquarters of the special forces launching a manhunt for the attackers. It would have been wherever the news found former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to observe the moment in which he took in the magnitude of the event and the very next when he realised that it may help him return to power.

Soon he was interviewed outside the gates of the Elysee, after a meeting with Hollande, looking drawn and presidential, calling for unity against an onslaught on civilisation but cautioning against misplaced hostility towards France's moderate Muslims.

On 11 January, Sarkozy snuck into the first row of sitting leaders fronting the solidarity march that took almost a quarter of inner Paris's residents from Republique to the Place de la Nation. Few missed the manoeuvre, many mocked it.

The following day, he tweeted: "There is no freedom without the guarantee of security. We need to give the security forces the legal means to do their work." If Sarkozy was backing Prime Minister Manuel Valls's plans to strengthen anti-terror laws, he was also reminding the electorate of his reputation as a security hawk.

Raised on history and politics, the French have long memories. By the time Hollande defeated Sarkozy in 2012, they were heartily fed-up with the hyper-kinetic, centre-right but culturally gauche politician who came to power promising a "rupture" with a mindset he considered the outdated legacy of the May 1968 student revolt against the establishment.

He was sullied by the corruption scandals that subsequently engulfed his UMP and regained control of the divided party in November with difficulty. And his track record on media freedom is problematic. In 2010, as the Bettencourt scandal over illegal party financing broke, the secret services were accused of spying on an investigative reporter from Le Monde. Four years earlier, the editor of Paris Match was fired after it printed a picture of Sarkozy's then wife Cecilia with her lover.

Nobody will forget the negatives but it is safe bet that soon there will be whispers that on the former interior minister's watch - the incumbent oversees the police - the security forces would not have stopped their surveillance of the assailants, a mistake readily admitted by Valls.

Sarkozy was reviled by the intellectual left - among which the dead journalists counted - for many reasons, including proposals to introduce DNA testing of the families of immigrants to prove their visa applications were genuine. But in the aftermath of the country's 9/11 and at a time when a neo-nationalist, anti-Islamic mood is stirring from Amsterdam to Athens, this may be recast as vigilance not xenophobia.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote last week week that fascism always bore proof of a failure of the left, adding that the rise of radical Islam was "exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries".

In a 2011 interview reprinted by Liberation last week, Charbonnier argued that placing responsibility on so-called moderate Muslims to counter radicalism was nonsense. They were secular citizens of Muslim culture, and to call them anything else was as absurd as calling his atheist self a moderate Catholic.

While we ponder those conflicting views, let's consider that in recent history the failures of France's socialists, now led by Hollande, have correlated with the rise of its far-right National Front. In 2002, then FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly knocked out socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential elections, in part because the respected left-wing intellectual was considered weak on law and order issues.

Ultimately the poll delivered a landslide victory to the UMP's Jacques Chirac as alarmed voters turned out en masse to ward off a nationalist win in the second round.

Le Pen has since retired and his successor and daughter Marine has sought to sanitize the party. In elections for the French senate last year, she led it to a shock landmark of securing its first seats in the upper chamber. In the aftermath of the attacks, commentators have suggested that come the next presidential elections in 2017, Sarkozy could be seen not only as the strong leader a traumatised nation needs but as the bulwark to the FN's advance, which Hollande has looked helpless to stem.

Drifting apart

What relevance does this have to a local reader? Little, if one believed the muted, confused response of South African politicians and commentators to the events.

The presidency declined to comment. Not all, but some journalists battled with the idea that free speech could extend to blasphemy. Those intellectuals who deplore the level of public art littering Sea Point and Signal Hill, never looked up from whatever was preoccupying them.

The same class protested against the Protection of State Information Bill and defended Brett Murray's painting, the Spear of the Nation, before Charlie Hebdo drew a philandering Hollande in the same unbuttoned pose last year. It is puerile detail, probably missed by the presidency too, but useful for perspective.  

Political analyst and academic Richard Calland commented that it was clear that while Europe was shifting away from the conscious multiculturalism that marked the past 50 years as German anti-Islam movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) and Nigel Farage's UK Independent Party gained support on anti-immigrant sentiment, the South African government has firmly "turned inward on itself".

In less than a month's time, when President Jacob Zuma delivers the State of the Nation address, expect him to reiterate that the South African economy is not an island and blame lagging growth in large part on Europe's halting recovery from the 2008 crash. Do not wait for an echo of Thabo Mbeki, more than a decade ago, denouncing the rise of Austrian right-winger Joerg Haider.

In the meanwhile, newspaper readers have asked why the murder of cartoonists in a distant capital dominated front pages when the killing of reporters had become grimly commonplace, and Boko Haram was killing hundreds of Africans a day.

But relativism is never genius and news sense has never been the same as morality. Fanatical gunmen massacring journalists in their offices just off the Boulevard Richard Lenoir is unprecedented, hence it merits headlines. And the French and Nigerian carnage have an obvious factor in common. Boko Haram, the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly killed for the cause of radical Islam. The ineffectual Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan may have to make way for a stronger leader.

South Africa cannot ignore the jihad in the north. It faces calls to deploy troops in Nigeria and will figure out, with Kenya in mind, that fighting fundamentalists beyond your borders carries the risk of retaliation at home.

Yet the events of the last ten days might see Africa and Europe drift further apart. European governments are likely to tighten their immigration policies on a continent seen as exporting Islamic fundamentalists on forged passports. And like Hollande, a re-elected Sarkozy may well show less interest in Africa as domestic concerns override any past policy of maintaining influence in former colonies.

South Africa will feel ripples of a recalibration whether it is too insular to care about its meaning or not. To read the news from Paris as a foreign-language novel of ideas, is to miss yet confirm a wider narrative of fear, expediency and something unthinking that smells like a failure of liberalism.  

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