The ‘joke’ is on you and your cheerleaders, Mr President

2013-10-27 10:01

I could be wrong on this but I doubt it: black South Africans hold the record for fighting so long for freedom and frittering its gains so soon.

That is the stark truth as it must be told. For me the most painful aspect of this reversal is its “ideational” nature.

By that I mean – as the term suggests – defeat at the level of ideas. If this was just about ideas qua ideas then my lament would be easily dismissible as purely a matter of academic interest – in the literal sense of this being just a matter of scholarly study, nothing more.

Explanations of the reversal vary. Some argue that there is very little the ANC could have done to resist the forces of globalisation or the bling culture that has corrupted our very soul.

Others argue that the right leadership would have done much to curb the corruption, and that we certainly did not need the arms deal. This is the old structure/agency divide in political and social theory.

But whether we believe that society is shaped by larger structural forces or by the actions of social actors, or by a combination of both, we all recognise that society is something greater than our mere physical existence as biological bodies acting in space.

As they act in space, human beings carry certain ideas in their heads. Those ideas provide the values upon which the social world is constructed over time.

That is why we need political and social theorists when we want to understand society, and doctors and scientists when we want to heal our physical bodies.

For a long time, black thinkers and writers led the ideational front on the values of human freedom. To put it bluntly, the society in which we now live is founded on ideas generated by various black thinkers over the past two centuries.

These thinkers developed various political philosophies that one way or another congealed in our Constitution.

They taught us not to hate, and to be more inclusive. They did this in the face of one of the most hateful ideologies ever constructed by mankind – racism.

Nonracialism ultimately claimed the ideational victory, although Pan-Africanism and black consciousness ideals are inescapable in a country still characterised by self-hate and self-doubt.

As Jacob Zuma was saying “we must stop thinking like Africans”, I found myself asking the question: “Who must we think like then, Mr President? The Europeans, perhaps?” I spend a lot of my time exposing my undergraduate students to African intellectual thought.

What should I now tell these gullible, young minds, if this is what the president himself believes? Well, thank you for supporting the cause, Mr President.

The saddest thing about Zuma’s remarks is that a roomful of people, many of them supposed leaders of this nation, found it funny. There have been many moments in which the bankruptcy of our political culture has been shown to be what it is under the ANC leadership over the past 20 years but that night in Joburg must take the cake.

The irony is that people who are ever so ready to shout others down when they disagree with them could not bring themselves to call him out. If that is not an indication of how far down the consciousness stakes we have come, then I don’t know what is.

But the joke is on you, comrades. It is when you are the joke, and you go along with the laughter, that you must know that you have lost all consciousness.

The problem with explaining away gaffes like this is that you end up making the situation worse. Some people say that we should not blow this out of proportion because the president was just “joking”.

Well, how funny is it if you are a Malawian to have your country made the butt of a baleful joke like that by a head of state of another African nation? I wonder.

And what interpretation will be made of the president’s remarks not just by Malawians but by the African Union. This could well be the most damaging diplomatic blunder since the onset of democracy.

It will take some doing to restore our image among fellow Africans but I doubt it will be under this presidency. Don’t be surprised if Kgalema Motlanthe or Thabo Mbeki is ferreted out to do the damage control.

By the way, if you think joking about other people in this fashion is funny, then you should be prepared to live with the racist jokes white people make about black people.

If I was a white racist, I would be having a field day with the scandals coming out of government on a daily basis. If it is not about someone who has not been hired improperly, it is someone who has stolen money.

As a white racist, I would mine the material as if there was no tomorrow – until someone took me to the Equality Court. And there I would ask the judge if this country had lost all sense of humour, in which case the judge might also find the whole thing funny, and dismiss the case as a joke.

If you were one of the president’s cheerleaders on that day and you don’t think a joke about Malawians is as serious as a joke about black people, that only shows how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot.

A frightening thought crossed my mind as the president continued with his remarks. He would pause for a while as if he suspected that something was wrong with what he was saying.

And then he would continue, as if he could not pull himself back.

»?Mangcu is an associate professor at the University of Cape Town and is the author of Biko: A Biography

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