Saturday, 18 June 2016

Of Clubbing Springboks and Other Unspeakable Crimes

What does the assassination of UK MP Jo Cox have to do with South Africa and our government’s increasing paranoia about protest?

The suspect in Jo Cox case, Thomas Mair, has links to the far-right Springbok Club, an organization that sports the old South Africa flag on its Facebook page and which equates the era of colonialism and racist rule in Africa to “civilization”.

No doubt murdering an MP in broad daylight fits their definition of “civilized”.

Such is the horror of bigotry: attitudes despising the “other” lead to distain for the value of “other” life. Ms Cox stood for the UK’s inclusion in Europe; that made her subhuman in the mindset of the extreme bigot.

Back to South Africa today, the apparently “new” South Africa with a different flag.

Over the last year, there have been about 14,000 service delivery protests, 20% of them violent. There has also been a growing tide of student protest: #RhodesMustFull, #FeesMustFall and, lately, rape culture.

Last year, the response of universities was attempting to contain protest, while agreeing with the goals – at least partially. The effect was to deflect protest to government where it belonged, at least with the fees issue. The result was dramatic: the protest movement forced a change from government that 20 years of polite conversation had failed to achieve.

So where are we now?

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande published a paranoid diatribe on Daily Maverick (14 June 2016), claiming that student protesters are a tiny privileged minority out to create mayhem and who belong in jail.

I strongly oppose the kind of protest that doesn’t value life and that destroys infrastructure. But that does not mean there is no valid protest and that all protest should be criminalized, which is where we are headed. There is a line between militant protest and unacceptably violent protest and a rights-oriented society has to be very careful to place that line accurately. We also need to be very careful about using “lawful” as too strong a stick to prevent inconvenient protest. In the UK in 2008, Greenpeace activists who were accused of unlawfully damaging a coal power station were exonerated because the outcome of their protests had a higher public good than the damage they caused.

When we reach a situation where bigots and supposed progressives are speaking with the same voice, we have to be very, very worried that we have not placed that line correctly, that we are edging towards police-state conditions and that the underlying causes of the protest have become too uncomfortable to address.

On bigotry, what does Comrade Blade have to offer? Consider this:

It is a narrative of anger, of ears sealed against rational debate, eyes shut tight against reality, including the nature of the real challenges facing us as a country as we change for the better. It is a narrative initiated during the 1999 election by another minority party, one which had absorbed most of the Broederbond-fuelled members of apartheid’s ruling National Party, and much of its ideology. A narrative under the simple catch phrase, “Fight Back.”

This, of course, refers to the DA and its predecessor, the DP, which merged with the National party to form the DA. What he fails to mention is that the Nats demerged and their leadership decamped to the ANC.

It is with this background that I return to the dangers of cozying up to bigotry.

In South Africa, the legacy of racism has an obfuscatory effect. When the ANC aligns itself with bigots, the old divisions of race make that less apparent than it should be. That both old-school bigots and the ANC only see criminality in protest makes them odd bedfellows. For this reason, this is a rather fractious alliance, one that must be punctured by the odd Penny Sparrow incident to bring things back to normal – the ANC is the party of opposition to bigotry.

Then an inconvenient protest breaks out – the bigots and the ANC line up – oops, someone has to post a racist comment on social media to bring things back to normal.

What is increasingly being laid bare is that the ANC is not itself immune to bigotry, even if it has the option of beating a comfortable retreat to moral outrage about racism. The danger that this presents is that the ANC can march deep into bigot territory and cover its retreat with the race flag – with the actual damage to rights the government has inflicted lost in the resulting righteous anger over racism.

Take the question of rape culture. Here at The University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR), after anti-rape protests broke out, the ANC Women’s League sent a delegation to express concern. Where were they 10 years ago during the Zuma rape trial when they supported him to the hilt despite his atrocious attitudes to women that emerged in court?

Given that rape is supposed to be a serious crime and we have evidence that it is not being handled adequately, are we attempting to remedy that? Possibly – but not as intensively as the government, with the connivance of universities, is attempting to criminalize protest. While naming someone as rapist is attacked as a contravention of the right to due process, Comrade Blade says that protesters deserve only one thing: jail. No hint there of a requirement of due process.

One of the more obnoxious manifestations of rape culture at UCKAR is a venerable tradition known as “seal clubbing”: a contest among senior students to have sex with as many innocent first years as possible. That this practice has such a repulsive name would be enough, you would think, to make it a target for eradication. But no: the university’s response is to warn new students of the practice, rather than target the problem at source. Has anyone said that anyone promoting this “tradition” belongs in jail? No?

Meanwhile, bigots applaud the university administration, in concert with the ANC government, for standing up to “unlawful” protests.

So here’s the real divide: those who truly want an inclusive, progressive society and those who have common cause with bigots. Let us stop pretending otherwise; if not the Springbok Club may find themselves in the awkward position of welcoming the ANC into its ranks.

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