I frequently hear family members and friends refer to politics as a mess and to politicians from across the board as morons, opportunists and pathological liars. I would ask them what we are to do about it and the answer is generally that we must keep ourselves out of it because no self-respecting person would dedicate themselves to the devious work of the loathed political fraudsters. For the political classes to be held in low esteem is unsurprising. When reading news and watching the SONA address, their assessment does not seem far-fetched. We may consider ourselves to be above the current political turmoil, but we must not fool ourselves in thinking that it does not profoundly affect us all.
2016 saw a resurgence in populism and nationalism around the globe and I can see the attraction in blanketing millions of voters as fascists or just raising my shoulders, changing the TV channel and saying “I do not need this kind of negativity in my life.” That is however a dangerous path down which to go. In fact, I argue that apathy and poorly targeted outrage has cleared the road for populism and authoritarianism. Liberal democracy is in retreat. It is far from dead, but it is more vulnerable than we even thought possible two years ago.
Zuma’s South Africa
Our political scene in South Africa is in many aspects unique. One of our strengths is in my opinion the absence of a traditional “left and right.” That does not mean that we are immune to populism and authoritarianism. We cannot throw rocks at foreign leaders while Jacob Zuma is residing in our house of glass. South Africans have a good deal to learn from what has happened with Brexit and with Trump (many more to follow). The saying goes: “A clever man learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” (If my usage of “man” in this sentence has you “triggered,” I want to urge you to pay extra attention to the “Growing Up” section below.)
There has been a strong progressive resurgence in recent years among South African Millennials, particularly at universities. It is commonly attributed to a new generation of South Africans who in light of prevailing poverty and violence have rejected the moderation of the post-apartheid status quo. While the rhetoric coming from these movements have occasionally caused me some distress, their emergence can come as no surprise. It is in fact vital for the stability of the country that the disenfranchised and desperate members of society express their discontent and have their voices heard. Encouraging was also to see the level of discourse surrounding these issues. Students with whom I have spoken were informed and often had highly nuanced arguments about our democracy and society. I have learned much by listening to their arguments and reading their opinion pieces, even though in many cases I remain at odds with their positions.
White South Africans and their knee-jerk rejection of the “blame it on apartheid” card were often left red-faced when it became clear that race is not the main issue here. I believe some of them even felt left out, because for the first time since 1994, they could not capitalise off their self-imposed victimhood. This to me was incredibly encouraging. That is not to say that racial inequality is no longer a defining issue of our time. But for now, it is comforting to know that however messy and imperfect Democracy is, at least in South Africa, we are moving towards accountability. The legacy of apartheid is still very much with us, but it is rejected as a scapegoat for incompetence, corruption and further self-enrichment by the ruling class. Some South Africans decided to speak-up and consequently, the wheels of democracy are slowly turning.
Troubling however, was seeing these movements hijacked. Various radical groups have risen under the progressive banner at European and particularly American universities in recent years. Self-anointed South African progressives are blindly mimicking these foreign students in their approach to fight for everything from gender equality to reproductive rights. They are failing to translate the American and European rhetoric into South African solutions and have instead managed to alienate anyone who hold any view that does not wholly conform to their own narrative. The extent to which this has consolidated and galvanized support for the far right remains difficult to pin down. What I do know is that the rigid buzzwords, non-sequiturs, unyielding opinions and brutal demonization of dissent (often further disproportionalised by the media) have made it laughably easy for enemies of liberal values to justify their opposition to laws and regulations that would uproot inequality.
A Fees Must Fall gathering intended to discuss demands and strategy at Stellenbosch University towards the end of 2016 has left a bitter taste in the mouth of a black student with whom I discussed the viability of free education the following day. He was told at the time by the female chairperson that black women are generally underrepresented at discussions and that they will consequently be given most of the speaking opportunities. Another attendee of the same meeting told me that he wanted to propose demands for specific expansions in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) bursary programme as the first step towards free education. Yet the conversation often turned to cis heteronormativity and rape culture.
I do not believe either of these men to be racist, sexist or consciously bigoted in any way. Yet it is not inconceivable that they might have been chastised for patriarchy and intolerance if they were to ask for the scope of the meeting to be narrowed down to the task at hand. Consequently, I was told that no consensus was reached on strategy or demands and free education for all remains a pipe dream. (I must confess; countless experiences of time wasting, meandering and abuse at such discussions have prompted me to withdraw. Nobody willingly subjects themselves to “that kind of negativity,” right?)
In my experience, effective leaders have always strived to “be the adult in the room.” Leaders are meant to go the extra mile in a debate, listen and give their opponents the benefit of the doubt. Effective leaders set measurable and realistic goals and then set out to achieve them. In short – real change will only happen when we are no longer distracted by trendy noise and outrage. We need to focus. We need action.
To date, life has taught me that there is no such thing as an evil person. Some are stubborn, some are misinformed and some have been driven to bitterness. Attacking the character of another person over an argument is typically a sign of weakness and insecurity in one’s own belief. Personal attacks and demonization has little hope of securing actual change.
Buzzwords, ideological talking points and the desire to “educate” have alienated and divided society to a point in which debates are no longer about testing one’s own views (aka “checking” oneself.) Debates are now an opportunity to call names and throw around dumbed-down, pre-packaged rhetoric instead. The ability to deal with scrutiny and offensiveness is the basis on which all lasting progress is built. We will need to change the way in which we engage.
So, to those raising the flag of liberalism and progressivism, who appear to view themselves as morally and intellectually superior: prove it! It is time to get off the high horse, lay down the outrage and start carving out the middle ground that will be required to realise those ideals of Liberal Democracy that we believe to be right. Refusing to do so is what got Trump elected, what may very well destroy the EU and what will impede the united opposition required for the kind of democracy that we need to eradicate poverty and inequality at home.
And if the wave of populism and divisiveness does not subside, and the handful of protesters fail to turn rhetoric into meaningful action, will the rest of us have the courage to participate in our democracy? Or will we change the channel and fool ourselves into thinking that our self-awarded righteousness makes us any better than those loathed politicians?