This is not per se another article on the ANCYL’s comments regarding FNB’s new advertising campaign. If it were, it would probably devolve into an angst-filled rant at the ANCYL’s stupidity and FNB’s corporate power, much like the others I have read. Instead I want to focus on just one word, the word that the ANCYL tagged on the end of their most publicised comments — ”treasonous”. To do so however requires a slight detour, so bear with me.

In my understanding I have always thought that the concept of treason has two mutually inclusive aspects or halves. The first aspect is a concern with betrayal or an undermining of state, persons, institutions etc. The second aspect requires that the person, company or whatever that commits treason does so actively and consciously. Like other forms of crime, in order to commit treason it can be no accident when one attempts to undermine the state — the act of treason must be done deliberately, like trying to blow up the house of Parliament or something. If, for instance, I happen to spill a drink on the president by accident, and it really was an accident, then this is not treasonous. If I happen to spill a glass of acid on the president that I had prepared for just such an event, and because I knew the president might pass close by, then this might be seen as a treasonous act. While I am no lawyer, I shall use this understanding as a working definition.

Now, if treason is both a conscious activity and a form of betrayal, how might the FNB advert be treasonous, and importantly, who is committing the treason? The most visible treasonous plotters are of course the children standing up in front of a camera and asking for what are essentially their constitutional rights anyway. I think we could all agree however that even the ANCYL would not attempt to accuse them of treason. Then again, maybe they might. I shall leave that idea open for the moment. The other likely candidate is the bank itself. If we are to jump on the anti-capitalist bandwagon perhaps they are committing a form of treason in the indisputable disproportion of wealth that they have accumulated in relation to the average South African household. That is, however, a very different argument and one that can be explored elsewhere. As far as I understand this project is part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme, and while I unreservedly believe that CSR programmes are just a nice way of articulating money-making racquets themselves, again I am not sure if they could be labelled as treasonous. So, who is committing treason here? Who is actively attempting to undermine the state?

The answer is, of course, no one. Unless the truth itself has become ”treasonous”. What the advert does is demonstrate the lived reality of many children in the country — a lived reality that is essentially the result of a lack of political will and ability to finally do something about the economic condition of the majority of this country. And this is what, after that little detour, concerns me. It seems to me that South African politics has become nothing more than rhetoric, a rhetoric itself which does not even attempt to engage with the lives of the citizens of this country. The truth is that people are still, after two decades, still in poverty, still without water, still without food and still without futures. And yet now when that is revealed, it becomes ”treasonous”. Criticism is not treason. The government’s labelling criticism as treason is however self-denial, a far more valid form of treason if one was to extend the logic.

I cannot help but feel that the political progress of this country has devolved into nothing but political rhetoric, a rhetoric that can only be sustained by continually uttering ever more seemingly banal and completely incorrect statements. Calling each other comrade, however much we scream it, is not going to fix this country’s problems. Indeed the political rhetoric, much like politician’s jobs, can only continue to sustain themselves if more outrages (and more false) comments are made which keep the rhetoric machine turning. South African politics has, unfortunately, become a game of words in which the players seem to be forgetting even the dictionary. Including the Pedi dictionary, Mr Malema. When people stand up and voice the lived reality of their own experience as one which is unjust, and that injustice is called treasonous, then we live in a very strange society. If truth has become treasonous then we live in a very frightening reality.


Simon Howell

Simon Howell

Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD...

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