William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Birds of a political feather

Politicians with competing ideologies like to think of themselves as fundamentally different: socialist versus capitalist, libertarian as opposed to authoritarian, etc.

Given, however, the universality of the human condition, they are actually often more alike in their personal foibles and personalities than they would care to acknowledge. Or have us to notice.

For example, there is the shrill socialist whose giddy enjoyment of capitalist toys blinds him to the inappropriateness of the taxpayer paying for his R1.2 million top-of-the-range BMW. That while excoriating for their obscene wealth, the captains of industry who contributed that money to the fiscus. Take a bow, Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education and training.

More currently, take the disconcerting similarities between Julius Malema, self-proclaimed champion of the poor and driver of a confiscatory radicalism, and Donald Trump, the billionaire conservative whose corny “Let’s make America great again” promise appears to resonate among middle- and working-class voters.

Both are messianic political outsiders who brandish their anti-establishment antipathies with pride, despite being very much part of the privileged class. Both, in turn, are loathed by the party elites.

In the case of Malema, the African National Congress ruling echelon had him ejected from the party because of his disruptive ways and lack of respect for the old guard. In the case of Trump, the immunity from party boss control that wealth and celebrity accord him, have ensured him an almost universal loathing from the Republican grandees.

Neither will, nor can, stay “on message” with the official line. That is because both are narcissists, more driven by massive egos than by ideologies. Juju and The Donald are both at heart crypto-fascists and their biggest difference, aside from the obvious one of race, is that the former prefers a scary red beret over the latter’s scary, bouffant comb-over.

Both were initially dismissed as no-hopers. Their rise has been less because of their ideologies, than because their ability to tap into a growing popular revulsion towards self-perpetuating and corrupt national elites.

The media response, too, has similarities. Initially it was bewilderment and high-minded scepticism. But when the entertainment value of both men in celebrity-obsessed cultures became irresistible — as it soon did to a financially floundering media that has perforce largely abandoned its ancient Fourth Estate responsibilities for the 21st century equivalents of bear baiting and freak shows — paralysed horror turned to palm-rubbing glee.

One must not stretch the analogies to breaking point, but you get the drift. And such shared characteristics are true, too, of political parties. As different as they appear to be on the surface, so similar they are beneath it. And vice versa.

The ANC — a party that stresses the importance of disciplined cadres, socialist solidarity and personal self-sacrifice for the greater good — is actually admirably tolerant when it comes to internal differences of opinion. Such regular and passionate public bickering, bizarrely even between ministers, indicates a quintessentially liberal approach to freedom of opinion.

Then there is the Democratic Alliance. This is the party that wears its supposed commitment to rights to freedom of speech and conscience like a luminescent badge but in reality has a recent history of highly authoritarian leadership tradition.

Former DA leader Helen Zille was often accused by former staffers of ruling her cowed and fearful public representatives with an iron fist. Her handpicked successor, Mmusi Maimane, continues the Stalinist tradition.

In the past week Dianne Kohler Barnard, one of their finest MPs in terms of her contributions in the parliamentary committees to such important portfolios as health and police, has been suspended as shadow police minister. Her heinous, career-wrecking crime was to share on Facebook a sardonic post by a journalist, which drew a favourable comparison between the apartheid days of former president PW Botha and conditions today, under President Jacob Zuma.

It was an undeniably stupid comment but typically provocative stuff from a jaded hack. It was even dumber of Kohler Barnard to have repeated it, since social media’s stormtroopers are not renowned for their grasp of satire and dark humour. It is not, however, as her opponents are gleefully claiming, proof of Kohler Barnard’s innate racism.

Maimane’s suspension of Kohler Barnard, with a disciplinary hearing and possible expulsion from the DA looming, is a pathetic over-reaction. Whatever happened to the constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of opinion, albeit these are fleeting and laughable opinions? Whatever happened to the politician’s right to put their foot in their mouth? Sometimes also fist and elbow.

Kohler Barnard took down the posting almost immediately. She is publicly contrite and no doubt privately humiliated. Give her a sharp rebuke and let it be.

On the other hand, if Maimane is as much alike as it seems to arch-disciplinarians Thabo Mbeki (whom he professes to admire) and PW Botha (whom he professes to loathe), Kohler Barnard is toast. Perhaps she should swop her DA blues for Economic Freedom Fighter red overalls.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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