The ANC Youth League's response to First National Bank's ‘You can help' campaign was to label the institution ‘treasonous', amid various other insults. We don't invest much meaning in the word treasonous these days but, make no mistake, it is a serious accusation indeed: a crime against a nation state punishable, in many countries, by death. The death penalty has been abolished in South Africa but that should not detract from the profound nature of the charge. Along with ideas such as sedition and sabotage it is at the top of list when it comes to crimes against the state.
So why is the idea not taken as seriously as it should be? Much of the reason is due to the fact that ‘treason' has become only the latest word, in a long list of words, to be usurped and redefined by the powers of political correctness - a fundamental assault on a country's safety and security confused with mere disagreement, and used to bully and intimidate dissenters, as opposed to actual plotters. So misused and bandied-about is the charge that it would seem even its own, dark history in South Africa has been forgotten by its handlers. Lest we forget, Nelson Mandela stood trial for treason, in the very real sense of the word, and staked his life for his beliefs. The ANC demonstrates scant respect for that fact every time it turns the word into a petty insult.
The FNB squabble is not the first time the ANC or the ANCYL have evoked the allegation that a person or organization has acted in a ‘treasonous' manner. If not the ANC, then its supporters and those aligned to it. What follows below is a list of ten such instances; for the sake of brevity: The ANC's top ten treasonous people.
What can one tell from such a list? A few things.
First, given that, in almost every instance, the ‘crime' was no more than disagreement (usually with the ANC's policy or the position of some faction within it), we are talking about an ego that has ballooned out of all proportion. The party sees itself as the soul vestige of the national good - ironic, give its actual behavior - and that any criticism of it therefore represents an attack on the nation itself. That is a profoundly undemocratic state of affairs. When a political party anoints itself arbiter of the national interest, and the accusation of ‘treason' the weapon by which seeks to silence dissent, you can be sure it has lost sight not just of its principles but all sense of perspective too.
Second, the range of people accused of ‘treason' are so varied and, often, of such standing that were every accusation true the South African state would be under profound assault by no less than the opposition, business, the church, artists, the media and, best of all, by the ANC itself (as you shall see, disgruntled ANC members waste no time turning the accusation on its own). The charge of treason has become a litmus test for the ANC's paranoia. The only thing these people all have in common is disagreement with the ANC.
Third, the intended purpose of all of this is quite clear: an attempt to shut down and stifle debate, difference and criticism. People who use the word treason in this way are the enemies of freedom. They seek to control ideas, to limit discussion and to suppress dissent and disagreement. It is the McCarthyist attitude of a tyrant.
Here, then, and in no particular order, follows the ANC's top ten treasonous people:
The ANC's top ten ‘treasonous' people
1. Mzilikazi wa Afrika
The day after Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika wrote an article setting out how Police Commisioner Bheki Cele had been involved in the dubious awarding of a R500 million lease agreement in August 2010 - the latest amid several highly critical articles concerning the ANC government - he was arrested on charges of fraud and defeating the ends of justice. On his arrest the ANCYL released at statement which contained the following call to action: "We call upon the prosecution authority to charge him with high treason as his actions are a threat to national security." It went on to state:
"He has undermined security in the Presidency and the Mpumalanga Premier's office which is a direct attack to the state and its people and a serious breach of national security. Wa Afrika and his co-accused are a threat to themselves and the whole nation."
Later, the police admitted his arrest was "wrongful" and the Minister agreed to pay Wa Afrika R100 000 in damages. Police commissioner Bheki Cele was later fired by the President.
2. First National Bank
In response to FNB's ‘You can help' campaign, a call to citizens to act to make a positive difference, the ANCYL labeled the bank "treasonous" and the campaign a "sinister act". Its statement also contained the following:
"FNB, in an obviously lame attempt to recreate an Arab Spring of some sort in South Africa, Business as a whole has more than enough platforms from which to raise any issues with the ANC government, and this they have been doing, there is no basis for such insults and treasonous attacks on our government."
The ‘Arab Spring' reference constitutes the suggestion that FNB was trying to overthrow the government itself. The ANC wasted no time escalating the attack and, through sustained political pressure, compelled FNB into withdrawing certain critical clippings from its campaign website (as if that act would render the clippings or the sentiments they expressed non-existent). In a groveling apology, the bank admitted it believed it was at fault when it posted them.
3. Desmond Tutu
When, in February 2005, Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile said in parliament: "[Government has] called on sports administrators to sacrifice a little bit in terms of wanting to win, because even when we field these lily white teams, we lose", Archbishop Desmond Tutu responded by arguing that we should not allow for tokenism in sport. His public criticism was slammed by ANC chairperson of the sports portfolio committee Butana Komphela - a man who has himself admitted "I know nothing about [sport] but I know the policy position of the ANC around it". He would label Tutu ‘treasonous' for speaking out against quotas in this way:
"The Constitution requires that we move from the old to the new. If anyone says transformation should be scrapped, it is the same as high treason."
That comment was rightly met by much public outrage, and even the ANC distanced itself from Komphela somewhat, although never rebuking him or his comment directly. Tutu had, somewhat ironically perhaps, been subject to a real threat of a high treason charge, when the apartheid government investigated him for comments he made, literally, about overthrowing the government, in 1987. In the end he had to settle for an obfuscating retraction from Komphela, who later argued he had not, actually, accused Tutu of being treasonous.
4. Tony Leon
Speaking the National Assembly, in a debate on the ‘Travelgate' scandal in August 2004, ANC MP and caucus chair Vytjie Mentor said of Leon:
"He used the media last week on Wednesday to instigate for an uprising, and that is actually treasonous."
She proceeded to attack the country's journalists who she described as disloyal for always criticizing the government. Speaking the week before, Leon had expressed his outrage at how the Travelgate accused were being shielded, the public kept in the dark and, as a result, at how parliament was being undermined in turn. Leon was reported in the Argus as having stated:
"I just wish that there would be a sort of popular uprising. I don't mean people storming the barricades, but real popular anger that will force parliament to seize control of itself and right itself. Which we could still do."
But that was too much for Mentor - a serial ‘treason' offender, as we shall see - and the very idea that people should express their unhappiness at the way their elected officials were behaving, labeled treason itself.
5. Julius Malema 1
If, in the ANC's world, disagreement with the party is the measure of treason then it follows that few things could be more treasonous than one of its own turning on the party itself? And who better fits that bill than Julius Malema, once the demagogic darling of Zuma's populists supporters, now just a demagogue. As the long, drawn-out process of his excommunication unfolded, at one point Malema challenged the grounds on which his disciplinary hearing was being held. That, however, was too much for the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, which labeled his questioning of the ANC's constitution equivalent to treason.
6. Julius Malema 2
Having already tired to overthrow the state once, by questioning the ANC's constitution, according to the ANC in the Eastern Cape and the South African National Military Veterans Association, he had essentially tried to do it again when he called on mine workers to go on a nationwide strike and to remove the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, in September 2012. They described his acts as "treasonous" and tantamount to mutiny. Not quite the stuff of Guy Fawkes, but then the NUM is hardly the British parliament.
A line that nicely captures the hysteria of the time is the following, about Malema and from a Nehawu official:
"[Malema is] resorting to Nazi tactics by appealing to the working classes to restore his political career".
Irony doesn't come much thicker; for what was it, if not populism, that elevated Malema so quickly in the alliance?
7. Brett Murray/The Spear
To the best of my knowledge, a painting has never brought down a government but, such was the deep disgust the ANC felt towards Brett Murray's ‘The Spear' (a depiction of a Lenin-like Zuma with his genitals showing), the ANC clearly thought this a distinct possibility. It whipped up such a hysterical storm of moral outrage that, at its height, Enoch Mthembu, spokesperson for the Shembe Church's Thembezinhle faction, would call for Murray to be stoned to death for his ‘treasonous' act. Later, he would explain his mad impulse as follows:
"I was merely quoting the Bible when I said this artist should be stoned because, as far as I am concerned, this was an act of treason, and the Bible says those who do that should be stoned."
Later still, he would "merely" retract - no doubt a "mere" oversight on his part, just the "mere", mistaken call for murder. Significantly though, no retraction on the treason claim.
Mthembu was not the only one to evoke treason in relation to the painting. Cosatu provincial secretary Anele Gxoyiya, not to be outdone, added the accusation that Murray was an apartheid agent:
"The portrait of the President of the Republic with his genitals exposed is extremely rude and exposes how apartheid has succeeded to intoxicate its offsprings. This shows high levels of insanity bred by deep-seated hatred and racism. It is our view that an apartheid agent has committed an act of treason by insulting a sitting president in such an inhuman manner."
8. Retail Manufacturers
In an act typical of ANC bullying and intimidation, not dissimilar from government's more recent response to Anglo Platinum, then-deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka would tell South Africa's clothing retailers in September 2006 that any attempt to import cheap clothing from other countries (to get around a government clamp down on cheap imports from China) would be viewed as "treason".
On the best of days the ANC government doesn't seem to grasp the most basic facts necessary to build a floursihing market economy and this approach was no exception - as with the motor industry, an attempt artifically to shore up failing economies while simultaiously making it as difficult as possible to run a small business or attract foreign direct investment. Now ‘treason' would be added to the list of non-economic considerations these companies would have to weigh when trying to grow or prosper.
9. The Democratic Alliance
This list would not be complete without the official opposition being labelled treasonous, the hallmark of any authoritarian governing party obsessed with power. Sure enough, the ANC has often obliged. On one such occasion, in November 2005, the details of which I have documented elsewhere, no less than a parliamentary debate on tolerance itself was brought to a bitter and ironic close when ANC MP Vytjie Mentor, a year after her initial such undemocratic slander, saw fit once again to label the opposition treasonous. She had actually made the same remark a week earlier and forced to withdraw, but repeated in the debate and this time refused to retract. As a result, a debate on tolerance was brought to an intolerant end.
10. The Koeberg Bolt
How, you might ask, could an inanimate object be treasonous? Good question. In truth this last example does not strictly illustrating the misuse of ‘treason'; rather ‘sabotage' - treason's close relative - was the adjective used to express by the ANC to deflect attention and misdirect debate.
In the run up to the 2006 local government elections and in the face of wide spread public protests over the lack service delivery, huge electricity blackouts across the Western Cape put massive extra pressure on the government. As it turned out, a bolt had been left in one of the generators at Koeberg, damaging the machine and meaning that the blackouts would continue for months as new parts had to be ordered and installed - a process which would take a substantial amount of time. So, how did public enterprises minister Alec Erwin explain the bolt - he said it was ‘sabotage'; quite clearly and quite explicitly on the SABC News at 7pm on 28 February 2006.
"This is not, in fact, an accident. Any interference with any electricity installation is an exceptionally serious crime. It is sabotage".
Good politics he no doubt thought. People will unite behind the ANC because its administration is being sabotaged. One problem with that theory though, it wasn't sabotage. Well, only a problem if you believe you should stand by what you say. Erwin clearly didn't believe that to be important. After much controversy and debate on the issue, things came to a head on 7 August 2006, when Erwin appeared before parliament to present a report on the incident. By that point, his explanation had changed. (Interestingly, there were zero consequences for Erwin, the Executive obviously being quite happy with his explanation/about turn.) Here is his amended position:
"The cause of the damage to the generators is the question that has caused massive public interest. Of as much interest has been whether I said that this was an act of sabotage. I did not say this. All attempts I made to our erudite media to say what I did say merely got me into deeper linguistic difficulties."
Falsehoods and false accusations make for good company.
As is evident from the above, very often the accusation of treason is completely unfounded; either the evidence is misrepresented, there is no evidence at all, falsehoods are invented or some critical observation is turned around and hyped into a national catastrophe. But one thing you will not find, for all the accusations of ‘treason' the ANC throws around, is anyone actually attempting to overthrow the government. Treason has become nothing more than a byword for the ANC's petty discontent.
So, should we care? So what, that the word is so misused? Well, for one there are the various concerns identified above. Primary amongst them: that its misuse is a way for the ANC to shut down debate. That is something to be rallied against.
Hypocrisy runs deep in the ANC and so it should be no surprise that the party itself has, when it suits it, also expressed concern about the misuse of the word. Of course, its concern would be directed at the media - the very thing it has so often accused of treason itself. Take this quote, for example, from a June 2011 ANCYL statementberating the media for never covering the ANC government in a positive light:
"It should not be that in a country that allows one the privilege of freedom of speech through the Constitution that an expression of truth against the media is equated to treason and should be a punishable offence."
Well put, Floyd Shivambu. How true, and how convenient a sentiment for the ANC too. Of course there has existed for sometime now a substantial gulf between what the ANC says and what it actually does. Its use of the word treason being a powerful example.
It might be very easy to argue that, today, to be called ‘treasonous' by the ANC is something of a badge of honour - a sure sign you have spoken truth to power and that such cheap slander was the only response the party could muster in response. But you get the sense even that would be to dishonor the history of the word and of those brave men and women who, for all our sakes, once faced a far more serious abuse of the idea with a bravery and fortitude the ANC of today could not scrape together enough of to fill a teaspoon.
Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols) - Winner: Best Political Blog 2012 - where this article first appeared.
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