By Aidan Prinsloo
Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande had said the Nkandla furore was the result of “white people’s lies”. Many were quick to point out how he was scapegoating white South Africans for his president’s own shortcomings, and some noted that Thuli Madonsela is hardly pale.
But I think we have missed out something crucial about Nzimande’s statement. Although what he says appears to be a direct attack on white South Africans, it actually reveals some very belittling attitudes that Nzimande has towards black South Africans. Consider that the main proponent of the public attention on Nkandla is the public protector, Madonsela. Consider also that all of the news providers reporting on Nkandla employ black editors and writers, many of who penned the main articles on Nkandla.
If we are to believe Nzimande, then we have to believe that each and every one of these people is somehow an “agent” for a collective, Illuminati-like body of “white people”. Ignore, for a second, if you will, the implications about white South Africans, and just focus on how Nzimande’s statement reflects on his beliefs about black people.
How is it that sincere public servants and reporters could get themselves labelled as “agents” (even implicitly, as in the case of Nzimande’s comments)? It seems that the main thing is that they would have to take an unorthodox standpoint in politics. Madonsela’s “mistake” was that she implicated some of the country’s top leadership in her damning report.
Now, one might argue, that the EFF is doing much the same. Leaders such as Julius Malema are highly critical of the ANC, the government and the presidency. And yet, Nzimande wouldn’t dare call the EFF “agents”. He knows all too well that they represent the discontented poor of the country. Instead, the ANC’s tactic has been to try to appeal to the poor black demographic in South Africa.
But with Madonsela and the news providers, Nzimande is being faced with a new type of black person (“new” that is, for South Africa), one who is somehow distanced (in Nzimande’s mind) from the black people who fought the struggle. Here is a black civil society that writes newspapers, is critical of the government and (perhaps even) walks the dog on Saturday afternoons in the park!
Here is a group of people who do not fit the old demographic groups the ANC is used to working with. What makes civil society so scary is that it tends to not be loyal to anyone. Civil society tends to loudly, publically criticise those in power. (Incidentally, it is the loud, public commentary that makes civil society an integral part of any functional democracy). For the ANC top-brass, the loyalty of the black civil society can no longer be guaranteed: these people will do what they please. And so, Nzimande has fled to the nearest thing in his outdated dictionary — to equate these people with agents for a white regime.
His message is clear: If you don’t act like a demographic we can predict, then you must have somehow lost your “blackness” or “Africanness” — we can only attribute your freedom to criticise as you please to other, “white” people. In Nzimande’s mind, if you’re not in the ANC’s pocket, you’re not black, and you don’t actually make your own decisions.
And this is the scariest thing implied by Nzimande’s “white people’s lies” statement. Of course, Nzimande realises that Madonsela wrote the report and that black journalists are reporting on Nkandla. But he cannot believe that they are doing so out of their own free will. He cannot grant his opponents the simple right to be black and to disagree with him. His only recourse is to rob them of their free will and claim that they are somehow the slaves of some vague, evil power. And this reveals that he doesn’t respect black people enough to allow for the fact that they will not act as he wishes.
Aidan Prinsloo is obtaining his master’s degree in philosophy at Rhodes University. He lives and works in Grahamstown.