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South Africans’ sneering antipathy to Trump is misplaced

The sneering antipathy and moral condescension of seemingly the entire South Africa towards Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for the United States presidency, makes me chuckle. We are, after all, the nation that elected Jacob Zuma – a man who is as morally dubious and certainly far less competent than Trump – to our own highest office.

Not once. Twice.

Since then there has been a litany of failures, the most recent of them Zuma being credibly accused of abusing his presidential powers, as well as being found by the Constitutional Court to have betrayed his oath of office. Yet most African National Congress supporters will likely again in the August local government elections vote for the organisation that put this political disaster into presidential orbit.

In contrast, the Trump phenomenon – as well as the equally unexpected support among Democratic Party supporters for Bernie Sanders – is rooted in national political disillusionment and disaffection with establishment elites. It’s a genuine search for alternatives and at least it is pretty much certain that if the majority of American voters do experience the neural short-circuit necessary for Trump to be elected in November, they will learn from the experience and won’t repeat the mistake four years later.

Trump, however, is more accurately compared not with Zuma, but with Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema. For the ANC, the Republican and Democratic parties are viewed as elites that control webs of nepotism and cronyism, and both Trump and Malema are outsiders who want to topple the existing order.

They also share personality traits. Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton this week called Trump a “bully” and a “loose cannon”. Malema has often been similarly described across the South African political spectrum, including by disillusioned former comrades.

Both men are abrasive and rude. Both resort readily to racist and sexist insults.

Mexican immigrants to the US are drug smugglers, killers and rapists, according to Trump. And Fox News’s Megyn Kelly challenged Trump on this during one of the debates: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs’, ‘dogs’, ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals’.” Trump simply laughed it off, calling Kelly a “bimbo”.

So Clinton will be braced for a torrid time. A recent Trump tweet sets the tone: “If Hillary can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

But when it comes to abusing opponents, Malema has the edge. Former Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille was “a white madam” and the party’s former leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, her “tea lady”. Echoing the parlance of the Rwanda genocide, Zille and her supporters were “cockroaches” that had at all costs to be kept from winning power.

Both Malema and Trump are driven by ambition, rather than motivated by ideology. That is why they struggle to operate within the confines of a collective, where individual interests often have to be sacrificed to the greater good.

Consequently, Malema turned the ANC Youth League into his personal fiefdom and did enormous reputational and organisational damage to the party itself. The EFF, too, has had to operate in the shadow of Malema’s ego.

Trump so alienated the Republican hierarchy that the #NeverTrump hashtag became emblematic of an anti-Trump obsession that shaped the strategy of all the other challengers for the nomination. It also means that despite winning the nomination, Trump approaches the election with swathes of Republican voters at this stage swearing blind that they will not vote for him, not even in preference to the loathed Clinton.

And therein lies a critical difference between that long-established democracy and our young one.

Although the Republican Party will regroup and coalesce, sort of, behind Trump’s presidential bid, it did everything possible to thwart it. Not simply because Trump is a party outsider, but because many genuinely believe that he is a dangerous choice to lead the US.

In contrast, the ANC’s top leadership, to its everlasting shame, nurtured Malema’s fascism when he was still a party member. His tirades went unrebuked, his threats of violence went unchallenged, his racism and sexism went unremarked upon.

It is only now, following his expulsion and Malema turning his demagoguery to devastating effect against them, that the ANC has suddenly developed a concern for constitutional and ethical niceties. It is only now, with Malema threatening to remove Zuma’s government “through the barrel of a gun” that the ANC is voicing outrage and demanding police investigations of incitement to violence and treason.

Another important difference between the two countries is that the American media is fiercely critical. That is more than can be said for most of the SA media.

While Zuma undoubtedly deserves the relentlessly bad press he gets, it should be compared with the relatively easy ride that Malema gets. Like children watching a comedy act, the media is mostly in delighted thrall to Malema’s every outrageous move, rather than carrying out the Third Estate’s duty of unpacking the imminent danger the EFF poses to our democracy.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


  1. Alastair Grant Alastair Grant 7 May 2016

    I think you mean “Fourth Estate” – but otherwise a really excellent and perceptive piece.

  2. Paul Bluewater Paul Bluewater 7 May 2016

    Brace yourself,

    The post WW2 status quo is over, done, so the whole “production/socio/economic/fiscal/sustainable” (entire human experience/expectation) model needs serious adjustment, and individuals need a substantial “technological/information/education” upgrade, and urgently!
    The world has neither coherently just yet…hence no future “reality-inspired” vision to work towards….and so a rudderless world looks to the looney fringe for direction…locally, abroad, everywhere…

    The good news is..
    In time, we will likely find direction.
    We have made wonderful progress in the last few 1000, or even couple of hundred, or a hundred years, in the way we treat each other for the most part!!
    All told, it’s been a sterling achievement globally, and long may this trend continue…with or without the Mr. Zuma’s, Mr. Trump’s, or anybody else…
    Ignorance was, is, and will always be the enemy.

  3. Isaac Newton Isaac Newton 8 May 2016

    Brilliant observations. Thank you.

  4. Joseph Phiri Joseph Phiri 8 May 2016

    What a terrible article William. You try to make your case by comparing the incomparables. In your article you do not seem to grasp the South African mentality. South Africans have the ‘sneering antipathy’ against Donald Trump as you call it because we know what it means to live under a racist regime. We know, especially for black people, what it means to be a second class citizen in your own country. Some of us who were brought up in exile know what it means to be a refugee. We know what it means to be an outsider. That is why we are so against Trump’s racism, sexism and attacks against Muslims. You make a claim that South Africans elected Zuma twice. No we elected the ANC twice. We understand the ANC’s weaknesses, we understand Mr Zuma is a weak leader prone to making wrong decisions. But we still know they are not the DA. We elect them despite their corruption because unlike Malema they will not pass damaging laws. We elect the ANC unlike the DA because under the ANC we have a chance as black people. Under the DA we will have equal opportunity, meaning not employment equity. What those people who sneer against black people’s choice to vote for the ANC is our realization that these jobs we currently hold, despite being qualified, are as a result of employment equity. We get a chance that would normally not be accorded to us.

  5. Johan Kruger Johan Kruger 8 May 2016

    Excellent! Thanks!

  6. DavyH DavyH 9 May 2016

    But this is a discussion of leadership, not fundamental principles. Do you honestly believe either Zuma or Malema to be a leader capable of guiding the country through a period of long-term benefit to anyone but themselves and their cronies? If not, how do you intend to address it – not, surely, by maintaining the status quo?
    Relying on a top structure that has been packed with self-serving sycophants simply won’t work.
    I’m happy that you are pro-ANC, but surely you cannot be comfortable with the current leadership.

  7. WSM WSM 9 May 2016

    Thanks, guys.
    And Alastair, yes. You are right. Really bad miss for a journo to muddle the peasants and the press. On the other hand, the way the media is going…

  8. Darrillio Darrillio 9 May 2016

    The worry is that Trump is possibly merely articulating aloud and in public, what many people do in fact think.

  9. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 9 May 2016

    Imagine you are a 21 year old, universtiy graduated, born free – with white skin. Does your argument still hold the same moral value?

  10. dg dg 9 May 2016

    Trump will add entertainment to politics and shake up the complacent USA – hope he does win. He is most definitely not the devil.

  11. communicator communicator 10 May 2016

    What the USA really needs is a strong no nonsense, zero tolerance and morally minded leader to steer this country into the right direction. He should come down hard on crime and grime and close down pornographic and immoral business activities as well.

  12. ian shaw ian shaw 10 May 2016

    No damaging laws? How about the Internet censorship, the constant erosion of the Constitution???

  13. Jaap Folmer Jaap Folmer 12 May 2016

    Trump doesn’t mean about 89% of what he says. He just says it to get endless amounts of free media time from the sensation sl*ts that the media have degenerated into. He feeds them their favorite drug: sensation, sensation, sensation.

    What he really thinks and will actually do, nobody knows. Not even Donald Trump.

    This makes him a disaster in the making. No the sneering is not misplaced.

  14. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 12 May 2016

    The media show almost no understanding of the danger the EFF poses to our democracy. The explanation seems to be that they think any ‘opposition’ to the ANC is better than none. Perhaps you’re right, though, and they think, like children, it’s all some kind of entertainment.

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