(This piece first appeared on tonylankester.com)
I’m usually pretty open-minded when it comes to reading or hearing the views of foreign journalists about South Africa. I enjoy hearing their perspectives, even if they are sometimes a bit naive and dewy-eyed. Occasionally I will get frustrated that they fail to see a broader picture or take our unique context into consideration. Rarely, though do I find myself getting exercised or angry about what they write or say. Today, however, is one of those days.
A Facebook friend linked to an article in the UK’s Daily Mail titled: “He has four wives and he faced 783 counts of corruption: PETER HITCHENS on South Africa’s next president” and, after wading through the patronising, smug, biased, drivel that followed I wanted to board the next plane, find Mr Hitchens and choke him with his own phlegm.
Let’s be clear — I am not an apologist for either the ANC or Jacob Zuma. I have been — in public and in private — highly critical of both. But something in the region of 60% of our country’s population has voted for them in this election. And yet Hitchens knows better than all of them combined. So I can’t stand by and watch him parade a series of right-wing opinions disguised as journalism like the worst kind of pedagogue and pretend that it is ok. It’s not.
Hitchens’ basic premise is that South Africa is a failure, and it is only a matter of time before we go down the toilet. Because that’s what happens to all African countries. Because Africans cannot survive without the learned guidance of the “civilised” West.
To back up his argument he cites a shopping list of what he seems to think are disasters of the New South Africa. While factually some of what he writes may be true, he embarks on shameless hand-picking of events and selective focusing on some events to prop up his racist arguments. He ignores some of the truths he finds inconvenient, he dismisses that which argues against him. His world view is a simple one — he is right, everyone else is wrong, and Africa will be a disaster because it cannot be any other way.
Mr Hitchens — it is precisely because the West has, for decades, seen Africa as a one-stop shop for slaves and mineral wealth, and a place for adventure, shameless resource-pillaging and colonial mischief that the continent has battled to find its own feet.
Yes, there is corruption on the continent. Perhaps it is more obvious, less underhand and sophisticated than the influence-peddling and corruption that happens in the West, but it is no different in essence. Africans are no more inherently corrupt or evil than any other people anywhere else in the world. Yes, we had Idi Amin. But Germany had Adolf Hitler. Yes, there were massacres in Rwanda (that the West and the UN ignored), but there are regular reports of kids in America taking guns to school and mowing down their classmates. We have wars and genocide over political power. The UK and US go to war over oil. Every society has good, and every society has evil. Neither the good nor the evil defines the whole society, but the way society deals with the evil can offer insight into its true nature.
Let’s ignore, for a moment, how the West has chosen to deal with the evil it has encountered over the decades. It is not beyond reproach but I suspect you wouldn’t appreciate being lectured by a mere African so let me stick to something I can talk about — my own backyard.
How did South Africa deal with the joint evils of British colonialism and apartheid? We had decades of misery, deprivation of basic day-to-day services and non-existent human rights for the vast majority of our population. Then the apartheid government, giving in to internal and external pressure, began making a tentative move toward democracy. It was smoother than most would have imagined it could have been. There were negotiations, there were arguments, there was a referendum. Then within four years of the start of that process we had our first democratic election, followed by the mature purging of the country’s conscience led by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There was minimal bloodshed and since then we have had more similarly peaceful elections.
You refer to today’s election as “hopelessly one-sided and rather crooked” as if those terms are interchangeable. Why does having one party dominate, immediately imply that it is crooked? There has not been a single international observer, commentator or analyst at any of our elections who has concluded that our polls are anything other than free and fair. I too would like a more robust multi-party democracy. But others disagree with me and since they outnumber me they will prevail. It’s called democracy, Mr Hitchens, and if the people of South Africa want one party to dominate, then please respect that. Yes, even if you disagree with that party or dislike the individual at the top of it. Even if that person is steeped in a culture that confounds you, Mr Hitchens, or is outside your own frame of reference.
A culture that is accepting of polygamy and respects traditional medicine. That is celebrated by people wearing clothes different to yours, and who have ways of behaving that, through your colonial eyes, may appear quaint, amusing or primitive. South Africans are proud of their culture and just because some of us choose to celebrate life through traditional dance carrying a spear and wearing traditional clothes rather than putting on a tuxedo and heading off to the Royal Albert Hall, does not make us inferior to you, just as your expression of your culture does not make you inferior to us. Such cultural imperialism is as despicable now as it was when the continent was blanketed with colonial do-gooders trying to “tame the savages” by sharing their civilised world with us.
In your article you make much of the shockingly poor conditions in which many South Africans live. You are right. It is shameful and it is unacceptable that so many live in shacks without proper sewerage, running water or electricity. It is devastating that so many people don’t have access to decent education or basic healthcare. And, yes, someone should be held accountable for that.
But you are too quick to lay all of that blame at the ANC’s door. Those conditions — or at least the roots of those conditions — extend back to long before 1994. Things were not rosy for black people under white rule, as you seem to imply they were. Bantu Education, to give just one example, had as its basic premise that black people did not need education and so it was wasteful to spend money educating them. So suddenly, come 1994, we not only had millions of children attending schools with rudimentary facilities and overstretched teachers, but we also had millions of adults who for decades had been deprived of access to decent facilities.
Play that same basic scenario out in virtually every other field — healthcare, policing, water, electricity, sport and the arts.
How do you fix that sort of legacy? Where do you begin? I have no idea. Nor, frankly, did our politicians and, yes, a lot of South Africans are deeply pissed off that that is the case and that more hasn’t been done. We also hold out the hope that it will still get fixed. Meanwhile spare us your patronising tone and the implication that we are to be a basket case because, well, we’re African.
There’s an assumption there that all African countries will eventually collapse. Your language betrays your prejudices — in one paragraph you juxtapose Africa with what you call “the civilised world”… as if poor Africans could not possibly be civilised, at least not to the standard by which you measure civilisation.
You refer to Nelson Mandela as “politically ineffectual and naive”. Just the opposite is true. Only a genuine statesman and adept politician could have steered this country away from civil war to peace as he did. I cannot imagine George W Bush or Margaret Thatcher coming close to achieving anything similar.
You state that last year “Violent xenophobic rage against uncontrolled mass immigration was played down … in South Africa”. Where were you, Mr Hitchens when it dominated every single radio, television and newspaper news story in this country for weeks on end?
You refer to Koeberg and how it has caused “fears of an African Chernobyl”. Not in anything I have read or in any conversations I have heard.
You repeatedly refer to squatter camps that have “sprung up” around the country, implying that they were not there before the ANC came to power. No, Mr Hitchens, they were here. But if you visited the country in the 80s you presumably stayed far away from the dire poverty in the rural corners of KwaZulu-Natal and the squalor in the “homelands”. The only reason you are seeing them now is that people are free to move where they want. And where they want to be is close to the cities and the jobs they might offer.
Now to Jacob Zuma, the main focus of your article. You dismiss him as a “populist one-time Zulu herd-boy”. Um, so what, Mr Hitchens? Ronald Reagan was a populist one-time B-grade Hollywood actor. John Major had three O-levels and failed in his first job application to be a bus conductor.
Yes, Zuma has not answered corruption charges against him in court. Most South Africans would have preferred it if he had, and are angry that he hasn’t. But politicians the world over have a way of sliming out of trouble. The implication is that Zuma got away with it because he is no better than the rest of Africa’s leaders, and so South Africa will go the same way as many other countries on the continent.
Presumably the same standard doesn’t apply to Silvio Berlusconi, Bill Clinton or any one of the dozens of other Western leaders who have faced corruption allegations against them in the course of their careers. Or, worse, the ones who get away with it completely — those who take money from big oil companies to embark on a multibillion-dollar war with Iraq, for example.
The point, Mr Hitchens, is not that Zuma is African and therefore gets off scot-free. It is that he is African, and therefore you feel you can use him to prop up your prejudiced assertion that all Africans are corrupt.
I repeat what I wrote earlier — I have been, and will continue to be, critical of Zuma and the ANC when I feel I have something to say about them. I would never, however, demean a fellow South African’s culture, belittle things they hold dear or claim any sort of cultural high ground because, in 2009, the world has no space for such narrow-minded arrogance.
All is not doom and gloom in Africa, just as all is not perfect in the West. Spare us your proselytising and your sanctimonious “holier than thou” attitude. We’ll get by without your ill-informed perspective and your cultural bigotry, thank you very much.