A farewell to activism

Thomas Johnson on why he's finally had enough

I’ve been an activist of sorts for 20 years. From direct activism being a member of community organisations to the armchair kind writing letters and articles challenging the status quo of mismanagement, incompetence and societal apathy.

Over the years I took low-key activism to my workplace, on principle or out of necessity challenging things I believed was questionable or just plainly stupid. It did me no favours with my employers, which lead to my sacking on a couple of occasions. I don’t regret it, though.

I don’t mind criticism or an affront to my right of free speech, e.g., I’m “irrational”, “unfair”, an Uncle Tom, a supporter of one political party or another, which by the way is not true because I fiercely value my independence. As a Cape Town city councillor wrote in 2015 about my criticism of his then provincial boss Premier Helen Zille:

“I am sickened by the drivel armchair politician Thomas Johnson spews. He must join or start a political party and effect change from within, instead of criticising all and sundry from the line. Join the ranks and become a meaningful player, Sir”.

In other words, shut up! But when I read that I wondered where this minor politician was 20 years ago when a handful of like-minded people and I, on separate fronts and projects, fought against official and community antipathy, indifference and granite-faced opposition to improve our shared community. No doubt in a cushy job.

But two events recently made me again realise I’m out of step with the milieu in South Africa of manufactured outrage, conformity to suffocating political correctness and multiple threats to freedom of speech, good governance and constitutional standards. 

I finally accepted the long-dawning realisation I’m being bothersome speaking about concerns people never mind those in authority want to hear. 

The first was the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) inexorable descent into insanity. I had been writing about UCT since 2012 and their unreasonable race-based admissions policy, but especially since the Rhodes statue, fees, art removal and whites-have-done-us-bad-since-colonialism “transformation” crises, which according to UCT’s alumni director Russell Ally I don’t understand (I lived under apartheid!).

The warning signs were there but the tipping point was when vice-chancellor Max Price and his executive unilaterally withdrew the Academic Freedom Committee’s invitation to editor, journalist and author Flemming Rose to give the 2016 TB Davie Memorial Lecture. This indicated to me UCT had become the antithesis of a university and is one in name only. I therefore finally dissociated myself as an alumnus because I don’t share its lack of values. 

In January in a letter to Price, registrar Royston Pillay, Ally and others I stated events on campus since showed there’s little to no hope of redemption for the university and confirmed that revocation. And to ensure there was no confusion, I separately instructed Pillay to remove/suspend my name from the alumni register and all the rights, benefits and responsibilities that go with it. 

It’s no concern to me whether or not they respect my wishes or if there’s legal precedent to do so.  As I told them, they have broken so many rules and created new ones to accommodate protestors who don’t care about such niceties that another one of minor significance – following my instruction – matters not.

The second event was the conclusion to complaints I had laid – the first in 2015 and second 2016 – with Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu against the City of Cape Town about its mismanagement of Cape Town Stadium. In November Makwetu replied he would not investigate the substantial part of my 2016 complaint because it allegedly fell outside his scope, and I should refer it to the public protector, which I did to no avail. (Incidentally, the public protector has still not given me a response about the status of an unrelated 2012 complaint.)

In a letter two weeks ago to Makwetu I said I’m “surprised and puzzled” by his decision because legislation and Treasury regulations gives him “wide scope to investigate whatever [he] likes as part of the annual financial audit” (as a former AG audit contractor I know this for a fact), and that I was being “brushed-off”. I said the only difference between my complaints and that of political parties that “use and abuse” chapter 9 institutions is I’m “nobody”, and they “oblige, perhaps not because of the merits of the complaint, but that it’s politically expedient to do so”. 

“So I give up. I shall not pursue the stadium matter [or anything else for that matter] with the public protector. If politicians, government employees and the state want to steal from and impoverish citizens and taxpayers through graft, corruption and incompetence, I’ve done what I can.” 

I tell myself giving up is a tactical retreat but it’s a defeat of personal, individual activism. I’m not sorry, though. I’m in good company because few people care enough to stick their heads above the safety of their ramparts.

An acquaintance who is going through significant workplace and voluntary community work challenges against abuse of power, etc. told me few people are motivated by principle, and the corruption, indifference and incompetence of those in authority – those who guard the guardians – is “exhausting”.

Business Day’s editorial on February 2 about Gerrie Nel’s resignation and joining AfriForum’s prosecution unit confirms there’s widespread, justified disillusionment with state institutions: “Star prosecutor Gerrie Nel’s actions reflect a sense the National Prosecutions Authority is just not doing its job”.  (Also see Gerrie Nel cites "selective NPA prosecutions".) 

In light of this development, what I told the auditor-general on January 18 – state agencies conduct politically expedient investigations – would have been prescient except the jaded public already has no confidence in the state or their officers to do what they’re mandated to do.  Daily reports confirm this.

I recently told an activist if reason and moral suasion fails, all that’s left are protest and legal action.  Lately I’ve found that in this country rhetoric and argument are futile, and because few are listening, mostly self-indulgent. In debates particularly about UCT (including recent personal communication with UCT officers) nobody really listens or wants to understand, and so it becomes circular, an exercise in futility.

In an interview this week former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and Stanford fellow Jonathan Jansen ascribed this to student (and academic?) protestors lacking analytical skills and therefore resorting to anger and violence anger when challenged. “We [in South Africa] are living in an age of unreason.”  

Indeed, recently in a convoluted, toadying argument UCT dean Suellen Shay said we (she said “universities” but universities are an extension of the public) must embrace “chaos”, which is another meaning of unreason. (Embracing, or “engaging”, disorder is the modus operandi and goal of nihilists.  So UCT is embracing nihilism?)

Jansen’s assessment does not only apply to UCT or SA universities. Irrationality permeates the country’s leadership and national politics, from whence we are supposed to derive good example.  It permeates public discourse, frequently couched in reasonable-sounding English language. But challenge interlocutors and either they go dumb or resort to insults, non sequiturs and – there we have it – unreason. 

I even found a disturbing element of irrationality alongside the usual hubris, obfuscation and evasion in my unsuccessful attempts to get information from the City of Cape Town about Cape Town Stadium, and from the public protector about my five-year-old complaint. It was exhausting.

Since reason has failed, effective activism is the preserve of the poor, students and nihilists who burn and destroy without thought and care of the consequences and future, and well-funded political parties and NGOs that are able to launch costly legal battles – “lawfare”, which the DA is famous for. 

Development economist and writer Gavin Chait told me significant socio-economic change will not happen in South Africa unless and until the poor and middle-class stand and protest together like the Arab Spring Uprising (and today, like Americans of all classes protesting against President Donald Trump’s immigration order).

But the South African middle-class – black and white – will not protest in the effective manner the poor use. They are too comfortable in class and consumer-driven affluence, privilege and smugness to care. Also it’s infra dig to protest. In fact, they rarely protest at all.

Many of them harbour real and perceived injuries and class and racial grudges against each other, government, white monopoly capital, BEE, very rich, poor, ANC, DA, blacks, whites, pro-fallists, anti-fallists, AfriForum, Cosatu, Penny Sparrow, Velaphi Khumalo, Julius Malema, Steve Hofmeyr, established media, independent journalism, etc – the list is tiresomely long. 

They focus almost exclusively on exaggerated slights that they fail to perceive the real and present dangers to our democracy that are evident beyond their immediate ken – increasing, insidious authoritarianism and control, innate corruption, lack of economic growth and development, seething discontent of the poor, ingrained high levels of poverty and unemployment, a rigid, inefficient and highly concentrated economy and amoral, profiteering corporations.

If we accept the thesis the middle-class is society’s core and most influential group, that if they wanted to could facilitate measurable social change, then this country’s politicians have opportunistically exploited their bickering, disunity and lack of common purpose for nefarious agendas.

Pertinent to the issues I mention above, how many (middle-class) people allegedly concerned by events at UCT and agreeing with critics the university is dissolving before our eyes (Jansen: “UCT is essentially destroyed”) have said they shall not send their children to study there in 2017 and after, or cease donating, and meant it? 

How many Cape Town ratepayers reading about the hundreds of millions wasted on the stadium past, present and future, and alienation of valuable Waterfront public land to further council’s development, commercial agenda have objected to the mayor, their councillors and papers about the waste of their money? 

(How many express genuine outrage at the daily indignities and crimes the poor especially suffer, often at the hands of indifferent and criminally negligent politicians and bureaucrats, like the latest in a long list, the death of 94 mentally ill people – “Another South African Horror Story: When the state fails its people”.  But they quickly rouse themselves from their indifference to pronounce their anger about real and manufactured racism?)

I would wager very few to none. Or perhaps like me they gave up to preserve their sanity, realising they cannot do the same thing over and over and expect a different result (as Albert Einstein said). 

But if they are concerned about society, as one assumes they are, and have the power to change it, why did so few alumni attend UCT’s disastrous, chaotic convocation meeting in December thereby not supporting the motion of no confidence against management? (Disclosure: I didn’t attend because I had already publically written off UCT.)

Why did so many middle-class voters give the DA, which many complained about of arrogance and disregarding the public’s wishes especially about its development agenda, a landslide win in the August 2016 municipal elections?

South Africa is in the position it’s in partly because this group abdicated its responsibility of citizen activism to nebulous “others” – political parties, NGOs, rural voters that overwhelmingly re-elects the ANC, protesting township dwellers, business, media and so on – each of them special interest groups that have their own agendas. (Note in my cynicism I’m not saying that because citizen activism is dead or rare charity and altruism are too, but it goes by almost unnoticed and is generally irrelevant to the consumerist society at large.)

In my recent letter to the auditor-general I asked and answered a rhetorical question: “If people enter the ‘public service’, why are they so reluctant to deliver service to the public, their ultimate clients? But of course in South Africa government employment is seen by far too many as a road to personal wealth, status and ambition, i.e., ‘I never entered politics to remain poor’”. 

During my days of direct community involvement I became tired and disheartened by the childish politicisation of issues and how certain individuals used their participation, not in the community’s interest, but to further their political ambitions.  I saw how this created unnecessary conflict, weakened community resolve and official commitment, pushing objectives almost out of reach.

Around that time an ANC elder and member of Parliament (now retired) without knowing me contemptuously wrote me (fax in those days) I was “divisive” for writing the ANC’s (I included the official opposition’s too) economic policies did not foster growth and development.  “Join the ANC”, he chided me. Almost 20 years later his admonition was supernaturally echoed in almost the same words and tone by a DA councillor because I dared question their fractured dominion.

Unlike these political hacks and wannabees I became an activist, including an armchair one, not because I have personal or political aspirations. I got nothing for doing so, including reimbursement for my resources. I did so because I believed it was in the public good. 

Now that has changed. A load’s been lifted to be like most people and view things, which previously may have riled and spurred my activist horse, from an unconcerned distance. My future “engagement” (UCT’s and Ally’s second favourite word after “transformation”) shall be from the neutral corner, neither part of the fray nor totally out of it either.