There is nothing like uncertainty and the fears it creates to give credence to extremists and to give their rants more attention than they deserve.

South Africa at present is fertile ground for extremists; they’re all running around screeching that the sky is going to fall on our heads, but for radically opposed reasons. The white rightwing would have us believe it is because the white baas no longer stands at the top with a sjambok and a glass of Klipdrift. Yet apartheid was a disaster, by 1993, the South African economy was slowly getting off its knees but despite that a World Bank report estimated that SA whites had a personal per capita income level 9,5 times higher than Africans, 4,5 times higher than those classified as coloured and three times more than Asians.

The unbanning of organisations and release of Nelson Mandela, saw money start to flow back into South Africa and by January 1993 inflation, for the first time in 15 years, reached single digits – 9,6%, the currency was strengthening and although prime lending rates were at 17,25% they were declining. Things are grim now, but still not that bad.

We were never able to exploit the full value of our diverse society to create a dynamic mix like Australia or the United States. We became inward looking, selfish and anxious.

Black racists, who have proliferated in recent times, would have us believe that nothing has really changed. They feel oppressed by white racism even though it’s rare to find a place where whites are in charge any more. They are defined by a profound sense of victimology and entitlement and none of the pride Steve Biko urged.
They too ignore fact: since 1994, according to BusinessMap Foundation, there have been R225-billion worth of Black Economic Empowerment transactions, with 173 empowerment deals, worth R75-billion alone in 2006.

In 2007, the University of Cape Town/Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing and TNS Research Survey estimated the buying power of the country’s 2.6 million black diamonds at about R180-billion.

We now have close to 50 000 dollar millionaires of whom a third are women. Nearly all these new dollar millionaires are black.

But the black racist, like the white racist, wants more. They both want more by doing minimal work (who else has the time to write screeds of rant on blogs?) and accepting zero responsibility. Racists – black and white – don’t really give a toss about the escalating poverty in this country, they are me-focussed. They talk about the change they say needs to happen but rarely do something positive to help anyone, including the people they claim to speak for.

Then we have the extremists who are still locked in fantasies around 1917 and the Russian revolution, they wade through Marx and Lenin, Gramsci and others. They are some of the nicest individuals and usually the worst dressed. You don’t want to get stuck next to them at lunch or dinner. Whereas the white or black racist you just want to smack and storm away from the table, the retro-lefties are so nice you don’t want to offend them and so they drone on and on and on…

They are also able to drink white racists under the table any day (which is quite something), but they drink red wine, naturally, the cheaper the better.

They are second on the boredom scale only to Christian evangelists and the less said about them the better.

Extremists by their nature are loners. They dream of converting crowds but most are so hung up about a wide range of issues they stick to their own narrow circles. They have no idea of how to have a conversation with you and me, and when they try they trot out the same tired tracts, trying to bludgeon or stupefy us into conversion.

They are often paranoid believing “they” are out to get them – “they” can be anything from state intelligence services to liberals, the rich, big business, people of other colours or religions… the list is long.

Actually, it is rare that anyone is ever interested in extremists, their propensity for exaggeration make them most valuable to satirists and either sad or bores for the rest of us.

The way so many extremists hate liberals, makes being a liberal appear incredibly attractive, except every liberal I’ve met has tended to be rather dull and hugely ineffectual. Extremists hate them so much because they don’t get out enough to realise how little most liberals ever achieve.

Extremists are permanently anxious. Things are always ‘worse’ than what we, the hoi-polloi, imagine. There are endless conspiracies out there, so they believe, and every nutter in the world now has access to the internet so they can all communicate and drive each other into paranoid frenzies about the next plot.

It would be refreshing if we stopped allowing extremists to upset us, if we refused to engage in dialogue with them, because our shock, anger or any response at all is what they need to warm their cold little lives.

Extremists, however, are a necessary evil. Sometimes, but only rarely, there may be one with an original thought, something really provocative or new that should stimulate us or societies into remedying challenges, working harder to improve our societies.

Extremists grow in strength when the majority of individuals allow themselves to become paralysed by fears and anxieties. We are at precisely that point in South African society, where the list of our challenges – joblessness, crime, electricity cuts, violence, xenophobia, racism, interest rate hikes, high food and petrol prices – is pushing us to consider that which in the past we would have rejected.

We need someone or something to blame. And a lack of accountable leadership has made the desire of ordinary citizens to blame much greater.

People are never able to effectively lash out at failed leaders, so they attack each other. And herein lies our danger.

Rumours proliferate – go to Zimbabwe and you’ll discover a society of the biggest rumour mongers in the world, why? Because their leadership lies so often, they can trust no one and so rumours are told as if truth and all of society becomes immobilised.

South Africa is at the most dangerous crossroads in our history. We have all we claimed we strived for – freedom, democracy, an economy underpinned by strong fundamentals, innovative people (although few work hard enough), judges with integrity. We are being failed by terrible leadership, a culture of entitlement (the BEEs learnt well from the Broeders) and a tendency to ignore problems especially if it means extending social justice to those who need it most.

This year we have opened Pandora’s box, we have revealed rampant xenophobia, police ineffectuality against violence, deeply held but most often disguised feelings of tribalism (and 100% Zuluboy has done nothing to quash it), resurgent racism (black against white, white against black), and a lack of accountable leadership everywhere from Eskom, to the SABC, Tiger Brands to the Presidency.

We are deep, deep in the kak. However, if we give in to extremist thinking, we will pull the walls down around our ears. South Africa patented the word “miracle” and the present situation requires nothing less than a series of miracles.

Our spirit has revealed itself as corrupt, we have to urgently start developing and implementing values systems.

We can’t wait until we go to the polls next year there simply is not enough time. The situation is way too serious. We’ve been exceedingly generous to foreigners – enough now; start turning some of that generosity to our own citizens, without it, this nation will burn yet. And as for the extremists, ignore them, do what you know is fair and just.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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