How seamlessly the South African discourse has shifted from a national conversation to spitting threats. And how ineffectual government has been in the face of property destruction and threats of public violence.

A fortnight ago University of Cape Town (UCT) students were seducing a placatory commentariat with their #RhodesMustFall campaign. This week these same students, invigorated by their easy victory, were dancing on tables, chanting “One settler, one bullet”. No doubt the ethnic cleansing, when and if it comes, will be hash-tagged on Twitter, #OneSettlerOneBullet, for an easy “like” or retweet.

On Thursday, a hastily convened meeting of UCT’s council voted for the immediate removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist whose only redeeming feature is that he endowed their university so lavishly 113 years ago. Oh, I forget, the despicable rogue also donated the land that is now Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden.

Table Mountain wouldn’t look quite so majestic covered in shacks and commercial high rises, but expect soon to see #KirstenboschForKhoisan and #KirstenboschMustBurn. Populism is not about cogency, it’s about passion.

The past half dozen years, the Zuma years, illustrate the difference between winning power and governing. President Jacob Zuma’s incarnation of the African National Congress was last year re-elected with a very healthy 62% of votes. Yet political life is increasingly determined not by Zuma’s administration, but by a loose alliance of radical nationalists both inside and outside of Parliament.

Events this week illustrate the fragility of public order. They are linked to government’s reluctance to enforce the law on occasions when this could alienate important constituencies.

Following upon the Rhodes controversy, statues and memorials perceived to be part of “white” SA’s heritage were defaced, burnt or vandalised in Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban.

Ironies abound in the choices. The Port Elizabeth’s “colonial” Horse Memorial, the dismemberment of which was lauded by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), commemorates the 300 000 “gallant animals” that died during the Anglo-Boer War.

its plaque reads: “The greatness of a nation consists not so much in the number of its people or the extent of its territory, as in the extent and justice of its compassion.” Presumably such British sentimentalism is viewed as being profoundly anti-revolutionary, by the cadres who toppled the bronze statue of a soldier kneeling next to his mount with a bucket of water.

In Pretoria, the statue of Paul Kruger, the 19th century president of the Transvaal Republic, was defaced with paint by the EFF. Rhodes and Kruger were of course mortal enemies, but historical subtleties are not of much interest to the radicals.

Although the statue toppling campaign claims to be about thwarted “transformation”, it actually has no discernible goals except to outrage white sensibilities. This it is achieving admirably. Afrikaners chained themselves to the Kruger statue to “protect” it and the EFF gleefully promised to strike again.

Government meanwhile calls for “restraint” and a national debate. Decisions on removal, in the words of the ANC’s Xoliswa Tom, should be on the basis of “sufficient consensus”. Since the Rhodes removal followed a poll showing that 60% of students wanted to retain the statue, append to “sufficient consensus” the phrase “among our supporters”.

Police investigations into these acts of property destruction seem desultory or non-existent. The Kruger daubing was extensively videoed and the EFF claimed responsibility, yet there have been no charges.

Were it only statues and pushing the white community’s buttons, it would not much matter. However, populist direct action, thriving under the benign indifference of state security structures, is gaining a malign momentum.

In Khayelitsha, the EFF orchestrated a land invasion, proclaiming Rondebosch and Camps Bay to be next. It called on the homeless nationwide to “identify open and unoccupied land wherever they choose”.

Again, such incitement to criminal acts should excite police attention, but again only silence. At the very least, SA should be wrestling with the conundrum of a party taking its parliamentary seats in a constitutional democracy while actively encouraging people to break the laws enshrined in that constitution.

A week ago King Goodwill Zwelithini told followers that he could no longer tolerate the country’s leadership, as they were scared to deal with foreigners who were stealing opportunities meant for South Africans. Foreigners should pack their bags and leave.

This week Mozambicans and Zimbabweans in Durban were attacked by mobs armed with sticks and crowbars, chased from the townships, and had their meagre belongings looted. The King calls it coincidence; others might call it the predictable result of incitement.

Zuma is characteristically silent. One of his sons though, Edward Zuma, says he “fully agrees” that the foreigners should get out.

It must warm President Robert Mugabe’s despotic heart — here on his first state visit in 20 years — to find an ANC that asserted the superiority of its reconciliatory democracy over his race-based autocracy, is now helplessly besieged by a tactically sophisticated group of radicals — radicals who wish to emulate his Zimbabwean excesses, nogal.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer

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....

Leave a comment