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An open letter to Verashni Pillay

From Neil Pretorius

Dear Verashni,

As an avid Mail & Guardian reader, and as one who has on many an occasion appreciated the wit of some of your past opinion pieces, I feel somewhat dismayed at having to write this open letter to you. You state that Lindiwe Mazibuko is not the role model that South Africa needs, and that your heart “sank” when you saw her describe herself as a role model for the youth in this country. My heart sank when I read the reasoning behind your argument, an argument that is littered with all manner of facile and misguided assumptions.

What I glean from your argument is that you feel that Mazibuko is not an ideal role model for South African youth because she does not have the “right” struggle credentials, in the sense that she perhaps did not suffer under apartheid ‘long enough’, that her (relatively) early emancipation from the harsh realities of township life has served to create a disconnect between her and many of her peers [Editor’s note: Please note that this was not argued or mentioned in the original article]. Related to this, you also bemoan the fact that she, and indeed the Democratic Alliance as a whole, has failed to sufficiently acknowledge the injustices of the past. Thus, at the base level, it is argued that because Mazibuko did not cut her political teeth on teargas canisters and police batons, and is the token black face of a largely white party, her capacity as the DA parliamentary leader and a role model is either misguided at best or irrelevant at worst. This is the kind of reasoning that essentially informs the view held by Julius Malema – that Mazibuko is little more than a “tea girl” and a mouthpiece for the Madam (ironic, given the ANC’s intolerance of internal dissent).

I strongly disagree with these sentiments and assumptions. If we need to get pedantic then, yes, Mazibuko could perhaps be called obnoxious for declaring herself a role model. However, casting her as a misguided and/or irrelevant puppet controlled by an irrelevant party, as well as a tacit apartheid denialist is in itself misguided and facile in the worst degree. One need only cast one’s mind back to the Mbeki years to see how race-obsessed politicking can toxify the political space in this country. Allow me to provide an excerpt from one of former president Thabo Mbeki’s then weekly ‘Letters from the President’:

“Our opponents will oppose us, presenting their case with the greatest eloquence and erudition … These opponents remain our opponents, however much they now pretend to be interested in the integrity and revolutionary purity of our movement and government, and the welfare of the masses of our people. Their task is to use all means at their disposal to oppose and defeat us. As long as we remain liberation fighters, so long will we refuse to be told by others, including these historic opponents and others, what we should think or do.” – Letter from the President, October 10 2003

Mbeki made the above statement at a time when he was increasingly besieged on all sides by social movements and opposition parties for his administration’s controversial stance regarding the HIV/Aids epidemic. The widespread criticism and ridicule he had to endure at the time may help explain the undeniably dramatic and aggressive tone of his letter, yet it does not justify it. That is an issue I will not be dealing with here, however. What his sentiments do though, is reveal a particularly troublesome weltanschauung that seems to be firmly entrenched in the minds of many that sit in our current government. These “opponents” that Mbeki refers to are not only the Western scientists and pharmaceutical companies but whites in general. This blunt “us versus them” rhetoric is not conducive to social harmony and nation-building. Simply put, in the long run, which seems to be the best way forward: constantly harping on about “historic opponents”, or embracing said “opponents” (à la the DASO poster)? I’m putting a rather blunt slant on the issue, but at some point or another one needs to ‘move on’. Yes, as a white South African who has never had to pound the pavement for anything, I realise that this might sound disrespectful to many of the previously disadvantaged out there. Yet carrying grudges will also get us nowhere. Thus, I take issue with the fact that criticism is heaped on Mazibuko (and the DA) for supposedly having internalised some form of apartheid denialism. To say nothing about apartheid is not to say that apartheid is nothing.

The need to constantly maintain a line in the sand will not bring us as South Africans closer together. So yes, criticising Mazibuko and her party for pursuing a “post-race” political discourse is misguided. In fact it is this “post-race” focus that affords her and the DA political relevance. The ‘whiteness debate’ has formed an increasing part of the contemporary socio-political narrative in this country, and an acknowledgement of past injustices and an increasing wealth gap between whites and blacks in this country is a pertinent issue. As much as we shouldn’t internalise the denialism that you speak of, we should also take care not to internalise continued hostility and distrust.

The fact that one of the central issues in the ‘whiteness debate’ is that of shame is also problematic. Unlike guilt, shame cannot truly be absolved by way of confession. One feels shame when one is not living in accordance with what broader society expects of one. Thus, seeing as how whites have been designated as “historic opponents” essentially implies that they must carry a historic shame. This shame stymies their chances of absolution, silences their political voice, and greatly erodes the prospect of their being afforded any kind of political goodwill. Again, this kind of scenario is not conducive to peaceful and effective nation-building. Under such circumstances it would be “improper” of whites to voice their concerns in the public space (and indeed, to even expect to find an audience for said concerns). It is this kind of thinking that engenders the notion that whites voice political issues not for the greater good, but rather because they are an inherently sinister cabal that seek nothing more than to have their proverbial bread buttered on both sides. Their agenda is a white agenda, and thus a wrong agenda that should not be entertained, hence them being labelled ‘agents’ and ‘spies’ with the ultimate endgame of undermining the government.

It is this kind of fallacious reasoning that will rob Mazibuko, and indeed us as a nation, of our potential, not the desire, to move past the “us versus them” paradigm. For prolonged periods during the Mbeki years, GDP continued to grow at an average annual rate of about 2.7%, exports diversified and increased, inflation was kept around the 10% mark, and a large black middle class was created. Still, the former president’s tendency to get caught up in racialised political rhetoric has served to drive an ever deeper wedge between the people of South Africa.

So Verashni, in the face of these issues, I feel that you cannot reasonably criticise Mazibuko and the DA for not bringing up the “race issue” at every turn. Being a well-educated, well-spoken politician and parliamentary leader for a party not besmirched by oilgates, travelgates, and dodgy arms deals very much makes her a role model for South Africans.

Neil Pretorius holds an honours degree in international relations from the University of Pretoria. He is currently studying towards a degree in journalism and takes some philosophy courses on the side. He was born in 1983.

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