Our racial discontents

RW Johnson says that as the ANC is worn down by its failures, it is reverting to racial antagonism

The fight over hate speech

“Those are desperate moves by a dying donkey (the ANC). These people, mark my words, are going to start killing. They have become so desperate that they are going to start killing. They have started killing each other internally. They will come for us.” - Julius Malema (Mail and Guardian, 3-9 February 2017.)

Malema was not exaggerating. Already one DA councillor has been assassinated, allegedly by the ANC councillor whom he had unseated, and there have been at least 18 intra-ANC killings in the last year, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. Even Gwede Mantashe, in his memorial lecture on Fidel Castro, spoke of “the depth of hate between members of the ANC's National Executive Committee”.

This is the context in which the new hate speech law is being proposed. It is easy to agree with Anthea Jeffery that the real purpose of the bill is to throw whites more and more into the shadow, deny their contribution to South Africa's history, seek to mobilise race hatred against whites and to achieve the greater racial polarisation which is now the ANC's chief hope of holding its coalition together.

It is also easy to agree that this is all horribly one-sided: that anti-white racism up to and including death threats against whites are tolerated while mere insults by whites against Africans are treated with the full force of the law.

It is impossible to defend a woman as stupid as Penny Sparrow but I have to say that I have not infrequently been called things rather worse than being a monkey and I would not myself regard someone who called me a monkey as guilty of hate speech. Indeed, I would not even imagine that I had a case for defamation against him or her.

However, even that won't do, will it? The reason why that word is much more hurtful to an African than it would be to me is a long history of whites calling Africans apes or monkeys and generally suggesting that they have still “to come down from the trees” – i.e. insinuating that they really still belong to an anterior group in the evolutionary chain. So we have to understand that history first. And, of course, we also have to accept that if today unfair and one-sided racism against whites is permissible while even minor insults against Africans are heavily punishable, then the opposite was true for hundreds of years.

Public racism is always one-sided. When I was a child a white man who raped an African woman might be fined or given a short jail sentence but an African man who raped a white woman would be hanged. Similarly, whites could, on an everyday basis, speak of “kaffirs” or “black bastards”, but an African who called a white man “a white bastard” would often have been beaten up and if the matter went to court the judge would doubtless have said that the white man guilty of that violence had been provoked beyond all bearing.

So, if we look at things as simply a historical tit-for-tat, what is happening today is easily comprehensible – and that is probably the way that many people do look at it. Indeed, on that basis whites should expect this sort of thing to be the norm for centuries ahead. We may find it upsetting that the ANC uses racial mobilization against whites but of course white politicians used swart gevaar tactics over and over again – racial mobilization against blacks.

It is, of course, nonsense to deny that blacks can be just as racist as anyone else. But it must also be conceded that anti-white racism by blacks often serves a different purpose. Because it occurs in a context where whites were the dominant group – the employer class – for hundreds of years, anti-white racism is also a way in which aspirant black politicians advertise their own boldness. They are like the young warriors of a tribe, waving their spears and hurling insults at the enemy. Part of this is an attempt to build their own self-confidence, but even more it is to make their constituency admire them for their courage, their willingness to shock.

This is why the most flagrant and open anti-white racism is seen not in the mouths of established politicians but instead it comes from students wearing “Fuck all whites” T-shirts or (most notably) from Julius Malema who is desperately trying to build his constituency to the left of the ANC despite having no money: a difficult enough project. So he will hurl out a white BBC journalist as a “bloody agent” so as to show he is a black man bossing whites around, just as he will deliberately shock with statements about not calling for the slaughter of whites – yet.

This was a game begun by the young radicals of the PAC with their slogan of “one settler, one bullet”. Or again, one finds Malema telling “Afrikaner males, you will know your place”. Here the trick is to deliberately echo the old white racist rhetoric about “keeping kaffirs in their place”. Such gambits gain him invaluable publicity and doubtless gets many young blacks to admire him for his boldness.

In other words, a lot of this anti-white invective is empty bluster, really intended more to develop the black constituency behind the speaker than to have any impact on the whites ahead of him. These characteristics apply purely to anti-white racism by blacks. In the bad old apartheid days, after all, it never took any particular boldness or courage for young racist whites to refer to “kaffirs” or “coolies” and they could hardly build public admiration even among whites by using such foul language.

It is possible to get too upset about this. All South Africans have heard racist epithets throughout their lives, but the present generation less than ever before. (I often ask young blacks whether they have ever had to endure racist treatment or language. They almost invariably look astonished and say No, of course not.) And, as the Institute of Race Relations survey has shown, most South Africans feel that race relations are fairly harmonious and that everyone rubs along with everyone else.

The trouble is that it wasn't supposed to be like that. The ANC, for its part, always insisted that it was a non-racial party and that all racism was bad. But white society also evolved towards a similar position. Even by the 1960s straightforward “baaskap” had fallen from grace. Instead, there was separate development – and part of that was a banishing of the word “kaffir” from polite speech. Indeed, from being “kaffirs”, Africans became Bantu, after which they became “plurals” and then Africans or just blacks.

Long before 1990 even the National Party, let alone the Democratic Party, insisted that it was in no way racist. So by the time the two sides met after 1990 they had converged upon a completely common agreement that all trace of racism or unfair discrimination must be expunged. This was the implicit understanding underlying the whole De Klerk-Mandela period, 1990-1999.

We are, however, now a very long way from that. The key elements in the present conjuncture are:

1. An almost complete halt to economic growth caused by the cumulative weight of ANC legislation and behaviour, which have the effect of stifling investment. The result is a state running out of money and regularly falling per capita income.

2. The complete loss of ANC hegemony. Even though vestigial party loyalties remain, the ANC is now generally seen as a party in decline, riddled by corruption. There has been a corresponding drop in the ANC's prestige internationally.

3. The pressures exerted by the two state-reliant sectors of the black bourgeoisie are in no way attenuated by the economic situation. These are of two key kinds: the huge pressure for higher pay and more jobs in government service from the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, and the pressure for more business opportunities from the BEE-dependent black business class.

4. The beleaguered ANC leadership is in its key election year and has opted to radicalize policy in response. All the talk is of fighting poverty and inequality but in practice all policy is aimed at satisfying the never-ceasing demands of this bourgeoisie.

5. All the external pressure – from the IMF and the rating agencies – is for labour market reform, the reduction of the fiscal deficit, better management of the SOEs, more incentives for investment and reform of the education system. But while the Treasury, at least in its dealings with the ratings agencies, has suggested that a few such reforms may be forthcoming, in practice the ANC leadership shows absolutely no interest in such reforms and instead seems bent on exactly the sort of policies which will further hinder investment, slow growth and create more unemployment. This is a process which forcibly redistributes wealth and income away from the black poor and middle class whites and towards the black bourgeoisie, especially the politically connected.

6. This results in mounting contradictions. The Treasury, even under Gigaba, will want to cut the budget deficit but Ministers repeatedly propose expansionary schemes, pushed as they are by both sections of the black bourgeoisie. Gigaba will doubtless concede more to them than Gordhan would have. And now Eskom is limbering up to build a whole fleet of nuclear power stations, essentially so that Zuma can pay his debts to the Russians and further enrich the Guptas.

This will produce a great surge in public debt with the tremendously serious consequence that the markets may stop accepting South African bonds. Meanwhile the radical programme proposed by Zuma further slows the rate of growth, causing higher unemployment and more frustration.

Such a programme was what the ANC imagined as part of an advance towards socialism mounted by an ever-more dominant ANC. Instead it is being attempted rather desperately by an ANC which is losing ground and going backward. The general crisis which this reflects leads to increased factional struggle within the ANC.

Meanwhile, white-owned businesses which gave way fairly easily in the past, are resisting much more firmly now. They cannot, for example, manage without the new FICA legislation. Nor can they countenance the attempted grab for the private security companies. Nor can they allow the principle of repeated re-empowerment each time black investors sell their holdings off. And the banks find themselves under far too much pressure (competition from Capitec, credit downgrades, poor investment returns) to offer the sorts of huge discounts necessary if the government's plans for much greater black ownership are to be fulfilled.

The farmers, faced with attempted expropriation, are also bound to resist. Agriculture is still recovering from a drought which has put many farmers out of business and left many others groaning under large debts. It is little wonder that Business Leadership South Africa has at last resolved to take a stand. The net result of all this is that it will be almost impossibly difficult to pressure business into giving away resources in BEE schemes.

In general it has to be realised that while schemes for redistribution can work in a climate of 5% growth when everyone is getting better off, they won't work in a climate of zero growth. Yet the pressures from the state-reliant black bourgeoisie – and even from its cadet branch in the universities – show no sign of diminishing.

The result is a period of exacerbated tensions of every kind – dog eats dog, factional strife, tribal, xenophobic and racial antagonisms. All of this would diminish or even disappear if the economy was growing healthily. The hate speech legislation is merely one of the epiphenomena of this period. What it represents is yet one more attempt by the ruling elite to manufacture consent (or, at least, its appearance). This is part of its increasing desperation at its loss of hegemony.

In the last few years the SABC, already a vehicle for ANC propaganda, has been joined by ANN-7 (Gupta-TV) and thanks to a classic government fix, ownership of the Independent group of newspapers has been transferred to a loyal ANC supporter, transforming these papers into ANC rags. Yet none of this has worked: every poll shows minimal support, trust or respect for the government.

Among the urban population who read newspapers, Zuma's approval rating is down to 20%. And every day Zuma is publicly attacked, derided and lampooned in a way that other African presidents do not have to face. So now the hate speech bill seeks to make insults to the President or his cabinet a punishable offence.

This latter provision is interesting. In effect it means that the ANC elite has decided to borrow one of the classic elite-protection mechanisms seen hitherto only in the more backward African states. This is, of course, in line with its rejection of the ICC and its pushing through of an anti-ICC motion at the AU. In effect, it is a retreat into classic African “big man” patrimonialism. This has threatened for some time: Zuma's discomfort over his questioning about Nkandla has resulted in frequent complaints that a leader should not be treated like that, and that resort to a “Western-style judiciary” is inappropriate in Africa.

In other words, the ANC's gambit with the hate speech bill is bound to fail. Obviously, it will lead to a head-on clash with the Constitutional Court over the free speech clauses of the Constitution. Secondly, as demonstrated above, ANC propaganda is simply not working despite the government's ownership of much of the media. And, finally, the ANC is not just up against the Constitution. In effect the government is taking on traditions of free speech which go back hundreds of years in South Africa. Even at the height of apartheid there was no restraint on how anyone, black or white, might attack a President/premier or his cabinet. South Africans are too used to being able to say what they like for any government bill to change that.

To return to our beginning: the current period sees unprecedented levels of factional, tribal and other hostilities. In effect the politically-connected black bourgeoisie can never be satisfied, always needs feeding. It simply does not recognise economic, budget or political constraints. The urge towards primary accumulation is simply too elemental, too strong. Meanwhile, Malema is not wrong: these tensions are leading to killings, death threats etc.

This puts the ANC leadership in a desperate position. It too is driven by rent-seeking accumulation but it is anxiously aware that it is losing ground politically and of the ever present pressure from both sections of this bourgeoisie. If it cannot deliver, its leadership role is at stake. It now finds itself very boxed in. And, above all, it was not supposed to be like this. The old ANC narrative would see them striding from one socialist success to the next at the head of an ecstatic nation: the reality is the opposite. So how to respond to this situation?

The answer is to try to make “white monopoly capital” the Great Satan. This is clearly a strategic decision taken at the top. The reference to “monopoly capital” is there merely to dress things up in leftist language. The only important word in that description is “white”. In effect the leadership is trying to re-assert control by insisting on the primacy of the black/white cleavage over and above all the others – factional, tribal, xenophobic etc. This is difficult: after all, it's not white monopoly capital that is killing ANC cadres.

The sad truth is that African nationalism depended, inevitably, on a racial mobilization against the white oppressor. While white or Indian intellectuals managed to pin the “non-racial” slogan onto this donkey (it legitimated their own position in the movement, after all), this commitment was never more than skin deep. The fundamental commitment at grass roots was to take the fight to “die Boere”. Now, as the ANC is worn down by its failures, it is again being reduced to this straightforward racial antagonism. If not its dying croak, it is a clear sign that the patient is in intensive care.

*This is the revised and edited version of a presentation by RW Johnson to a panel discussion on hate speech held by the Solidarity Movement.