Like the Tea Party, with Blacker Tea

Julius Malema addressing supporters in Johannesburg (Jon Hrusa / EPA)

Yesterday was potentially a very important day for South Africa. Julius Malema, leader of the ANC Youth League – established decades ago by the then-powerless African National Congress (ANC) party to promote a new generation of leadership in the fight for freedom and equality – was convicted in court of using hate speech by publicly singing the song “Dubhula Ibhunu”, which translates to “Shoot the Boer.” Boer, as you may know, is the Afrikaans word for farmer, but the word also more generally refers to all white people of Afrikaner descent.

The streets of Johannesburg were on fire – sometimes literally – during the trial. ANC Youth League supporters, mostly young men with little formal education and no jobs, were protesting what they see as racist and unfair treatment of Juju – the nickname often associated with Malema. Ironic.

The ANC Youth League rather reminds me of the Tea Party, though with much blacker tea. While the Tea Party is overwhelmingly white and conservative, the ANCYL is predominantly black and more…revolutionary. There are even dalliances with the South African Communist Party (which we could, perhaps, call the Rooibos Tea Party) when it comes to things like nationalization of natural resource industries, etc.

Both the White Tea Party and the Black Tea Party have been manipulated by leaders to mistrust government. Both have animosity toward power holders of other races – the Tea Party towards the black president, the ANCYL towards the white baas. Both have radical, misinformed views about what their respective constitutions are or should be.

The reason the Malema verdict is potentially so important is that it could represent another watershed moment for the ANC and for the future of South Africa. President Jacob Zuma – as unlikely a democratically elected president as you’ll ever see without butterfly ballots or hanging chads – relied on Malema to secure the youth vote in the last election. Now, he must distance himself from the toxic Malema to avoid the backlash and fallout from and among powerful whites and the black middle class, as well as others in government or industry that can make life difficult.

But both men are frighteningly powerful. Zuma made alliances long ago with wealthy business owners and has effectively used his Zulu identity to rally supporters. He has some very Clintonesque abilities. Malema also has friends in high places, and is wealthy himself. Despite his flashy lifestyle, he has appealed to the poorest shanty dwellers, especially the unemployed men who believe he will help them find jobs. In actuality, many of these guys are just looking for something to yell and scream about.

When Mandela and other ANC leaders were in prison or in exile, they deliberately decided that tribal identities (Mandela is Xhosa, Zuma is Zulu, for example) should be excluded from ANC politics. As should animosity towards whites (for political and economic reasons, as well as to promote national healing and unity). Now, both have entered the scene, and neither augur well for the future of South Africa.

Zuma was forced to offer an olive branch to Malema today, but basically told him to shape up or ship out. If Malema chooses to shun the ANC, or if he is pushed out, he will likely take his army of ANCYL supporters with him. They don’t understand why the ANC, the party of revolution, won’t let them sing a song from the revolution – “Shoot the Boer.” It could turn into an epic battle that fractures the governing ANC.

That fracture could be bad. Or, it could be good. The bad would be a crippled government, continued chaos in the streets, mounting violence against whites (and Zimbabweans and Malawians, accused of taking jobs away from South Africans) and a general regression of the developing democracy. On the other hand, the ANC has never really faced a legitimate challenge from another political party. The Democratic Alliance (DA) or Congress of the People (COPE) could see an opening, especially if long-time ANC voters ally themselves with one of the two opposition parties. Something like that could be a shot in the arm for a democracy fighting cancer(s) from within.

It will be interesting to watch this all play out. Most whites we speak with can’t stand Malema, and for more reasons than just his “Shoot the Boer” rhetoric. Many blacks who open up to us about it see Malema as a hypocrite – a rich man who pretends to care about the poor for political gain. Both groups see him as a threat to the future of their country. But, unless he is neutralized or a more charismatic leader steps forward to represent the young and unemployed, there could be a real battle brewing.

The comparisons to American politics are too easy and too plentiful, but the outcomes seem so much more palpable here. So many more lives ostensibly hang in the balance. The example of post-colonial democracy South Africa has shown the continent and the world is in danger of – if not collapse – taking a major hit.

In America, the Tea Party has shoved political discourse further to the right. In South Africa, the ANCYL is trying to push it further to the left. Neither bodes well for compromise. Neither bodes well for progress. Neither bodes well for the people.

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The Country is Young

Living in South Africa, it is impossible to ignore the many and great growing pains the country is going through following the transition to democracy in 1994. Following the elections of that year, Nelson Mandela took control of a country in which the minority, white population had the majority of wealth and power, and managed to guide the new “Rainbow Nation” towards its glorious (re)entry onto the world stage. Once the “Mandela glue” weakened and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) realized that fighting the government was much different than actually being the government, new challenges and difficulties emerged.

While we are admittedly not the most qualified to interpret, least of all judge, the growth of the democracy, we can, perhaps, offer our thoughts. We are trying to gain perspective on all of this by reading books and speaking with a wide range of South Africans, including veterans of the struggle. One of the observations made by Alec Russell (among others) in his book, Bring Me My Machine Gun, is that the new, post-apartheid political system has not yet been able to separate politics from policy, party from government.

A couple of related items dominating the news here are the case of the country’s Public Protector (a national watchdog, similar to an inspector general) and her investigation into police corruption, and of a South African newspaper’s investigation into potentially questionable business deals done by the leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema.

In the first case, the Public Protector has actually required protection herself and had gone into hiding because members of the police, the ANC and others were so upset that she would expose the corruption. She should have turned a blind eye, even though the separation of powers inherent in a democracy gives her freedom and authority — and, most would argue, the imperative — to be a government watchdog, to expose corruption and deliver justice.

In the second case, Malema and his supporters are outraged at such “attacks” by the media, when it seems a perfectly legitimate question to ask the self-described “champion of the poor” how he affords his cars, clothes and property. At a recent press conference called by the ANC Youth League, Malema was strangely absent. When reporters asked his representatives where he was, the men on stage responded by asking why the media kept attacking Malema. Simple question. Not so simple answer.

This Sunday, I read a powerful column by veteran anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele in the City Press newspaper, the same paper taking the lead on the Malema issue. She condemns what she calls a “culture of impunity”  and does so through the context of what it means to live in a democracy:

We stand at a very dangerous place as a young democracy. Public discourse over the past few months has raised serious questions about our shared view of right and wrong as citizens of a constitutional democracy.

There is a growing tendency to use loaded metaphors to label those we disagree with – counter-revolutionaries, tea girls, coconuts, black snakes and so on. 

Why is it becoming so difficult to debate the merits of our arguments in a country that protects free speech?

I would like to suggest the root cause of our intolerance for dissenting voices is our lack of understanding and, in some cases, unwillingness to accept the basic tenets of our constitutional democracy. 

After citing examples from provinces around the country, she delivers a call to action to all South Africans, but especially black South Africans:

A culture of impunity is creeping into our society with frightening speed. Solidarity with fellow black people cannot be an excuse for condoning corrupt practices.

Black people are the majority in South Africa and should take ownership of this democracy, including responsibility for social justice for those poorer than us.

She concludes with the following:

The blurring of the boundaries between persons in public life and the organisations they represent, as well as that between personal interests and shared common resources, is a danger to the health of our democracy.

Citizens need to be vigilant and not fear speaking out. 

After all, fear is what kept South Africa under the yoke of apartheid for so long. Our future expects better from us.

Thinking about all of this, I am reminded of a great song by Welsh-born-but-long-time-Chicago musician, Jon Langford, called “The Country is Young.” The track is, I think, very clearly about the United States and its age and experience in the world, relatively speaking. But when we are talking about a South African democracy that’s just barely old enough to drive, the lyrics seem all that much more applicable here.

The country is young
Just crawled to its feet
Takes a step and collapses
All in a heap

Resist the temptation
To slap the child down
Try to remember its age
Realize the potential
Deflect all the rage

Not too big on the sharin’
The gentle or the carin’

The country is young
The country is young

Here’s hoping South Africa can realize its great potential with a minimum of rage.