Trump's shitholes and the semantics of politics

US President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci, AP, File)
US President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci, AP, File)

President Donald Trump is at it again, this time causing a global storm by referring to Haiti and African countries as “shithole countries” that do not produce desirable immigrants for the United States (US).

America’s self-proclaimed “stable genius” has broken the diplomatic etiquette by calling it as it is. Poor African countries are usually politely referred to as “developing nations”.

Some of those countries have eventually made it from being classified as developing nations to a more prestigious class of the “emerging markets”. This is because of their fairly decent mixed economies and a just-better-than-worst measure of economic growth.

If a country handles its economy fairly well by putting in place a few austerity measures to show that the leaders understand that inflation is not a soccer team then that country gets bumped up to the emerging market category.

Those countries are often, however, functionally corrupt and have a social backlog that causes occasional social unrest and so forth.

Trump is not known for his politeness. He is rude and at times naively honest, as he has shown with his recent remark.

Some years back before he could even dream of running the US, African countries and some of their South American counterparts were referred to as “third world countries”, while advanced countries such and the US and other western European nations were referred to as “first world countries”, or normal countries for that matter.

The term “third world” smacked of a superiority complex and imperialism. The use of the phrase was discontinued because it became generally accepted among development scholars that colonialism and slavery enriched western countries at the expense of those countries on Trump’s shithole list.

Academics became more and more polite and desisted from using historically unpalatable classifications such as “third world”.

A great deal of improvement has happened at semantic level with a shift from using disparaging terms to refer to post-colonial nations, while the actual problem of their poor state of development largely remains the same.

By referring to those countries in the manner he did, Trump only blathered out what most people see but find rude to say.

Even among African nations there are those who consider others to be more inferior. Remember what President Jacob Zuma said about Malawi back in 2013? Responding to people’s refusal to pay for the use of Gauteng highways, Zuma said:  “We can't think like Africans in Africa, generally. We are in Johannesburg. This is Johannesburg. It is not some national road in Malawi.” Zuma was actually saying that South Africa is not a shithole country like Malawi.

The problem with being polite is that you have to work hard at your use of language because the whole idea is to find a way to avoid the elephant in the room. Inventing meaningless phrases to refer to poverty and hopelessness is a disservice to those who live under poverty and sheer destitution.

African countries really get worked up when referred to in a negative manner, even if the classifications are not always far from the truth. In my favourite politics satire TV show Yes Minister, the minister (Sir Humphrey) is warned not to refer to an African country as a “Tin Pot Little African Country” (TPLAC) because the country has oil and its leaders will be upset by the use of such a term. The minister is rather urged to use the polite term “less developed country” (LCD).

In all this, I don’t think we should have sleepless nights because of Trump’s statement. He is a moron, as his secretary of state Rex Tillerson has rightfully concluded. This time his stupidity has offended African countries. The African Union (AU) is demanding an apology.

I wonder when last did an African leader meaningfully apologise to the people after wrongdoing.

It’s a shithole world of hypocrisy and political posturing by morons and super morons. 

Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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