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An Open Letter to Gwede Mantashe

30 January 2014, 11:58

Rent-a-black, Mr Mantashe? What an ugly little phrase.

So Mamphela Ramphele has gone and joined up with the DA. It remains to be seen whether this was a good idea or not; certainly the way it was done didn’t seem to be very well thought out. From the outside, it looks like a decision that Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele made over tea one afternoon, rather than one they talked through with their respective parties. I suspect that their respective spin doctors are going to be working rather hard over the next few days.

Had you thought things through, your best response to this interesting new development would have been silence. You could have sat back and laughed as the happy new allies desperately struggled to legitimise such an autocratic action in a party so keen on being democratic that they stuck the word into their name. But you didn’t sit back, did you? You came out swinging. Rent-a-black?

It is not just an ugly little phrase. It is a dangerous one. You are dancing on the edge of a slippery slope, Mr Mantashe. Phrases like that have consequences. They are sledgehammers, built only to destroy. Uncle Tom. K****rboetie. N****r-lover. Coconut. House n****r. Rent-a-black. Ugly. So ugly I can’t even write some of them out in full.

Here’s the thing, though, Mr Mantashe. You’ve wasted it. You were too quick to use it. There are any number of black members of the DA who would have been rocked by the phrase; people with model C school accents and memberships of the local country club. But Dr Ramphele?

 She is, as I’m sure you are secretly aware, nobody’s rent-a-black. Her struggle credentials are as sound as anyone’s. Her life serves as an example to all young South Africans of what you can achieve under adversity if you set your mind to it. And more telling than any of those things, she is doing what she is doing right now not out of the desire to pal up to whitey, but because your own party has become a byword for corruption and self-interest.

You have, I fear, caused no damage to the good Dr Ramphele. What you have done is set yourself up as the arbiters of blackness. You decide who is black enough. Is living in Sandton black enough? Do you have to join the ANC to be a proper black?  What about weaves? Homosexuality? Interracial relationships? Education? Our illustrious president has even pronounced on the relative blackness of pet ownership. Are you going to write the ANC rules of blackness down anywhere? Or will people only be made aware of them when they break them?

What Dr Ramphele is doing, Mr Mantashe, is using the political freedom that both she and you once fought for. Do you remember that? Do you remember risking banning, imprisonment, even death so that black people would be free? Free to vote. Free to go where they wanted to in their own country. Free to love who they wanted to. And free, Mr Mantashe, to join any damn party they felt like joining. Not just yours.

Take your ugly little phrase back, Mr Mantashe. You and I both know your party is going to win anyway, and throwing words like that around only breeds hate and division. Take it back, but don’t throw it away. Even ugly little phrases have their uses.

Instead of using it to condemn people for expressing their political freedom, keep it in your back pocket, just in case. Ugly phrases, Mr Mantashe, are perfectly appropriate for ugly things. In the unlikely event that a high-ranking member of your party sells his influence for a discount on a luxury vehicle, you can haul out your phrase. If a leader of your party forms such a close relationship with a wealthy, and generous, family of overseas businessmen that they feel entitled to use our military airbases as their own private playgrounds, without any personal consequences, haul out your phrase. If a R500 000 annual bribe is arranged for one of your highest office-bearers in order to secure arms-deal contracts, haul out your phrase. Rent-a-black. Ugly words for ugly things, Mr Mantashe.

You have my sympathy. You must find yourself in a very tricky situation. There is nothing harder than defending the indefensible. Nkandla must be keeping you awake at night. I bet you didn’t think, back in the early 2000’s, as you stood in front of the rowdy, cheering masses of the NUM with your fist in the air, that you would one day find yourself pretending that a swimming pool bought with taxpayers money for a private individual was a hi-tech firefighting device. How humiliating. It must make you want to lash out. Hell, I would want to. It must suck to watch your hard-earned credibility being chipped away like that.

Maybe, Mr Mantashe, it is time to do just that. Lash out. But pick a slightly more appropriate target. Pick those who are undermining our nation, not those who are still struggling to build it. Lash out, Mr Mantashe, at those rent-a-blacks. We’re all getting a little tired of them.

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