Dislike of Zuma still no excuse for racism

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Here’s a major understatement: President Jacob Zuma’s terms in office have been messy.

They are characterised by faux pas after faux pas, each more dizzying than the last. We are in trouble, and this week the sudden removal of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister has caused justifiable indignation and concern.

It is critical that we, the public, use our collective voice to make our concerns about the Zuma administration heard, especially as it appears to be getting worse. We simply cannot continue this way.

But it is also of utmost importance that we guard against accepting racism in the name of condemning and criticising Zuma and his leadership.

Throughout his tenure as president, every imaginable racist trope has been used under the banner of “criticism” and/or “satire”. To be black and antiracist under the current administration has involved the work of both critiquing the administration and many of Zuma’s critics, who reveal their prejudices in the process of making their points.

In many ways, a lot of the kind of criticism, certainly where middle class voices is concerned, has become predictable in both its subtle and overt racism. This continues to go largely unchallenged, taking the form of sweeping statements about black people and “these people”.

Depictions of the president and/or Cabinet ministers as Neanderthals and various kinds of primates, clowns and “savage natives” have been frequent.

The president’s lack of education, which he has never lied to the public about, continues to be brought up in the classist manner in which South Africa speaks of uneducated people: that those who do not enjoy the immense privilege of going to school are automatically stupid. We can’t keep being complicit in that kind of behaviour.

It is important that this administration and all other public officials be held accountable. We must do more in this regard. However, it is entirely possible to critique a very problematic and, frankly, worrying administration, particularly Zuma’s role in it, without resorting to racism and classism.

It is possible to critique the current government without couching the basis of its failings in its blackness and/or ethnicity.

We must refuse to accept that racism is “just part of” criticising the ANC government. Making that choice has nothing to do with the party or the colour of the party in power, and everything to do with what values we claim to stand for.

Dislike and disapproval of Zuma is absolutely no excuse for subtle or overt racism.

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