Henry Ford once quipped that buyers of his new Model T could have their cars painted any colour “so long as it is black”. Some intellectuals would similarly sell the public any political ideology, so long as it is red. But while the commissars of our cultural mafia like to profess tolerance, pluralism and diversity, these important liberal principles are no longer considered universal.
Instead, they lie ranked on a convoluted matrix, one that is collectivist in nature, and where no stone exists to decode the ever-shifting claims and attendant demands. Such compassionate values tend to apply solely to immutable features, and then only of some, and hardly ever to ideas. Worse still, given the amorphous nature of its tenets, is the misguided notion that progressive leftism has become a meta-ideology around which everything else should centre.
Dissenters to this worldview get hauled before character hit squads for death by a thousand cuts. These are delivered in the shape of countless online campaigns, commentaries, editorials, and often even supposedly straight news reports. Adversaries are framed in the worst possible light, if not demonised outright, and rarely do their views enjoy charitable interpretations. By striking at opponents’ standing, whether social, political, or economic, and often all three, the ultimate aim is to eliminate opposing ideas by removing rivals from public debate.
One of the organisations that has been repeatedly subjected to this treatment is AfriForum. Media reports about their work have been marked by fantastical fabrications and distortions: interview after interview has been conducted by antagonistic journalists breathlessly convinced they are “speaking truth to power”. They have not however been speaking truth, and the power they wish to topple is that of a civil rights organisation with every right to associate – much like any other group providing a bulwark against the state in a democratic society. The organisation has had numerous victories before the press ombudsman, although this must surely be of little consolation. Social and political battles are fought on the terrain of public opinion, and retractions are almost always mere footnotes to our unfolding stories.
A more recent target is the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Just a few short years ago, journalists and other writers described the organisation as a ‘liberal think-tank”. It has consistently been a liberal think-tank since the 1930s – and it espouses the same values it did during the fight against apartheid. At some point in the past few years, however, progressives shifted their sights to take aim at this organisation.
Exactly when this started is not clear, but the turning point seems to have been its defence of property rights in the face of government’s move to Expropriation Without Compensation. At first, the epithets were comparatively benign. Words like conservative and right-wing started to creep in. Then it amped up to hard right, and the most egregious example must surely be that of academic Kelly-Jo Bluen.
With quasi-religious fervour, Bluen disrupted an IRR talk in London to declare the organisation a “white supremacist hate group”. She later somewhat sarcastically claimed she was merely exercising her right to free speech, perhaps in the belief she was turning ideological tables since this freedom is something the organisation holds dear. But the claim was disingenuous. And while it is easy enough to find statements like Bluen’s funny, or perhaps even foolish, this kind of rhetoric is no joke.
Vicious claims tend to leave a residue, and this is especially true when slanderous falsehoods are repeated often enough by small, but motivated groups with friendly media ties. Such campaigns against any perceived threats to progressives’ worldviews have real-life consequences. A short while ago former cabinet minister Derek Hanekom chillingly suggested on Twitter that perhaps the IRR should close down.
Similar statements have started to appear online about AfriForum being a “terrorist group” – a baseless charge that is simply not coherent or serious. However, this is in no small part due to the dishonest and unremitting media campaigns against them. By contrast, there has been a long tradition of remarkably soft-handed treatment reserved for politicians who like to fire off guns above crowds, sing and dance about killing people, and throttle or threaten journalists. (To be fair, the latter example has finally ignited a few fiery itches under certain posteriors. But, for a long time, the EFF’s racist rhetoric against whites, and later Indians, was not only ignored, but abetted by the incessant publication of anti-white screeds in the mainstream media.)
Consider the recent ANCYL flyer that advertised a weekend camp for military and guerrilla tactics training. Around the same time, another mysterious flyer from the Black Centric Forum (BCF) appeared promoting weapons training for “all interested blacks”, ostensibly in preparation for “the grassroots revolution in the near future”.
The handful of news reports about this have been quite breezy, and marked by a somewhat po-faced and just-the-facts-ma’am approach. This is in stark contrast to the usual frothing descriptors reserved for some ideological opponents. Had AfriForum made such an announcement – or any other supposed “hate group” socially-criminalised for defending civil liberties – it would almost certainly have prompted hysteria.
Another target who has long been subjected to similar vilification campaigns is Helen Zille – as has the DA. And while the party is certainly not above criticism, if one’s concern is progress then its track-record and performance are incomparable when it comes to service delivery, clean audits or job creation, as recently pointed out by writer Gareth van Onselen. The media have however not only been relentless, but ruthless, and this while the EFF sprouted its sexy red wings and the ruling party went about its business looting the state. (Has any columnist ever apologised, especially to the poor, for lambasting Zille and the DA when they tried to warn the public about the looming Zuma catastrophe?)
Take for example the New Frame piece (Helen Zille: more than just a jump to the right), which referred to Zille as “a purveyor of paranoid anti-intellectualism and right wing ideas”. The author, Christopher McMichael, made a cursory reference to Zille’s commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle, but then ignored her post-apartheid contributions and suggested there was an earlier kind of liberalism that “no longer has any meaningful political existence” in South Africa. Instead, those who now defend liberalism are inspired by a kind of politics that “is often organised around barely disguised racism, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia and fervent support for socioeconomic inequality”. McMichael also argued there was “an entire cottage industry of right-wingers […] trying to ride the free-speech train”, before then policing who Zille chooses to talk to, which shows she appears on, which accounts she retweets, and then who the retweeters of her retweets also happen to retweet. All this in a tortuous attempt to imply that while Zille may not subscribe to alt-right or white supremacist views, her “reactionary talking points” are similarly held by “outright blood-and-soil fascists”.
Another article, written by Rebecca Davis for the Daily Maverick (Zille’s post-politics ‘battle of ideas’ and preoccupation with identity politics), appeared on Twitter with an unflattering photograph. This tactic was so transparent to anyone, which is nearly everyone, who knows what Zille looks like. And while the picture was not in the least a fair representation, by subtly portraying her as monstrous her ideas by extension could be deemed abhorrent, too. Davis’ article implied it was the former premier who was obsessed with identity politics, but seemingly only when championed by “gay people, black people, trans people and women”. She said:
“For one thing, identity politics has never not been a feature of South African life. Apartheid was one of the most elaborate identity politics projects ever conceptualised. A culture of “victimhood”, which Zille disdains, is precisely what shaped Afrikaner identity in the post-Boer War era and which is still evident in the posturing of figures like Steve Hofmeyr and the political use of farm murders and the “war on Afrikaans” to paint the picture of a community under siege”.
But this is exactly the point. Liberals, like Zille and the IRR, have stood opposed to identity politics and been consistent in their views in this regard – then as now. That progressives should insist on embracing the kinds of doctrines capable of ushering in horrendous regimes, like apartheid, or just about any regime in the world where there has ever been pain and bloodshed, is baffling.
Nevertheless, when the IRR announced Zille’s new appointment as a senior policy fellow, this joining of forces inevitably sparked a minor mental implosion. Take for instance Daniel Friedman’s piece for The Citizen (Helen Zille, the IRR and the increasingly crowded right-wing closet). Friedman stated that some had suggested that the IRR and Zille “are not centrists as they claim but right-wingers, especially relative to the political landscape in South Africa”.
This illustrates the erroneous belief among some Leftists that they have somehow managed to magically shift the entire political compass. Zille’s stated aim of wanting to unite the middle prompted a rather sly response from Friedman, which was to claim, “Perhaps Zille felt that, “unite the right”, while catchy, was not a good slogan, sharing its name as it does with a US rally that saw white supremacists demonstrating what they like to do when they unite: which is to be racist, antisemitic and violent.”
Or consider Ismail Lagardien’s Daily Maverick piece (There is much more to Helen Zille’s shift to the right). Lagardien’s article is archetypal of the hit piece genre. His conclusion likening Zille to Zuma is merely risible, but his first sentence referencing the “alt-right” is more serious. To paraphrase an old movie line, Leftists keep using this word, but it does not mean what they think it means. Instead, this lumping together of political opponents to include just about anyone who is “to the right of Mao” has similarly become something of an online meme, simply because it is so pervasive.
Largardien deployed the fallacious guilt-by-association gimmick by including a list of actual white supremacists and sundry dodgy characters. By making these kinds of associations, his opponents – in this case Zille and other local liberals he clearly does not approve of – become persons of no good character. As such, their ideas can be written off as heinous, too. (Guilt-by-association is a popular trick likewise used to discredit campaigns against farm murders: see for example the Daily Maverick article by Marianne Thamm headlined Global alt-right exploiting SA’s divisions and history.)
In response to the IRR’s announcement, journalist and author Richard Poplak tweeted: “Just a teensy-weensy nitpick here: @helenzille and @IRR_SouthAfrica are not ‘reformist’ but rather ‘reactionary’ and ‘right-wing’. Which is all good – it’s a free country. But why are these fearless anti-PC champions of Truth so… mealy-mouthed. Own it!”
At first glance it is hard to know what to make of such a statement. Words like teensy-weensy, it’s a free country, and Own it! appear to bear the mark of schoolyard bullying, rather than thinking. Be that as it may, the idea that there has been a rightward shift of liberals is false. Those of the moderate centre, broadly speaking, have held. Instead, it is some on the left who have not only radicalised, but also shifted their positions as the state marched on, and this has had unfortunate consequences to public discourse.
In September 2018, Daily Maverick published an article by Poplak headlined The age of rich, entitled assholes. The piece was mainly about the Steinhoff scandal and the group’s disgraced former CEO. Poplak however first made a quick sho’t left – in context a rather gratuitous stop to discuss AfriForum’s submission on land reform before the constitutional review committee. To his credit, he acknowledged it had become “a sort of national pastime to beat up on AfriForum”. He then proceeded to engage in a spot of bashing himself.
After a quick and seamy jibe about “white genocide”, an evergreen phrase used to falsely discredit the organisation, Poplak claimed AfriForum had “a zesty appetite for kicking itself up the ass” and that it had gone “into full-blown hysteria” over expropriation without compensation. He claimed Roets was “so aggressive and uncivil” that he “basically broke” the committee.
This was a strange assertion. If Poplak believed AfriForum behaved poorly, in fact so poorly that the organisation alone deserved mention, he clearly did not watch the parliamentary sessions, nor even the full recording of the submission in question. Despite the paltry news coverage at the time, many sessions were marred by bad conduct that included threats of war, and which were far worse than anything the organisation said or did. The Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) was treated deplorably by the EFF, and the DA’s Glynnis Breytenbach – who similarly had much criticism to make of AfriForum’s submission – threatened to “moer” Floyd Shivambu.
Poplak nevertheless suggested the national debate on land expropriation was all going rather well. South Africans were hashing over changing the constitution to smooth the way for the state to take property – a state notorious for its unbridled corruption and the near capturing of an entire country, never mind any particular patch of land – like “grown-up members of a flourishing, functional democracy”.
But not AfriForum, who were apparently not acting like adults about the whole thing. “Check old Roetsie,” he said, claiming the organisation’s deputy head “sauntered into Parliament like he owned the joint” and then “proceeded to data-dump a steaming pile of Institute of Race Relations mumbo-jumbo into the brains of our elected representatives”.
It’s not clear whether Poplak fundamentally believes what he wrote or whether he is acutely susceptible to voguish groupthink, but he certainly appears to have had a remarkable change in views. And while ideological positions do evolve, and it is important that they do, this particular shift is telling and seemingly unwarranted.
In June 2014, Poplak wrote a different piece for Daily Maverick headlined Expropriation Without Compensation: It’s game on! At the time, Poplak held a kinder view not only of the IRR, who he referred to as “a ‘classically liberal think tank’ with solid Apartheid-busting credentials”, but also a somewhat more considered one on land reform. He had received messages about the emerging threat of expropriation from people concerned the ANC was trying to pre-empt Malema by “instituting a series of bills, amendments of bills, programmes, and legal initiatives that will make it much easier for the government to take away houses, farms, and Sandton City from rich white people, thereby turning South Africa into Zimbabwe”.
He then published a list of issues several organisations had already identified as possible threats to property rights. One might even consider such a list to have been an early warning. Poplak then set out to determine whether this list signalled “a politically expedient property rights revolution” or if the “landed gentry” could just “shake up another batch of martinis, swallow a couple of Ambien, and sleep off the fuss”. He however argued the ANC’s forte was “incoherence” and asked whether “the ANC is suddenly smart enough to engineer – across several portfolios, under the watchful eyes of an independent judiciary, all shivering beneath the shadow of Section 25 – a creeping cross-platform property heist”.
To answer this question, Poplak contacted our “in-house constitutional law boffin” Pierre de Vos, who was apparently “pretty clear on this issue”. The ANC could not implement many items on the list because section 25 would make them unconstitutional. “In fact, one could scroll through The List performing some dilettantish constitutional lawyering, and knock down about half of every proposed bill or amendment, using Section 15 (sic) as a cricket bat,” wrote Poplak.
Five years later, as we now know, the state is trying to break the bat. At the time, however, Poplak said that while any “pro-business” groups may have found the list “awfully statist and hostile to business”, if it were only considered “unemotionally”, it actually presented “a bunch of non-viable Constitutional amendments”. Still, the list pointed to a looming sea change to the country’s economic policies and so Poplak asked, “How, then, to stave off the economic implosion that inevitably accompanies radical land reform policies?” He warned: “Should the government crack open the Constitution and scrap Section 25, then the guesswork is over and South Africa is officially the continent’s next nationalisation experiment”.
Poplak did not think this was a good idea. He used the examples of land reform in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe to argue that nationalisation “has never turned out particularly well for Africans”. He therefore emphasised that South Africa needed to “wrest the debate from ideologues on the left and the right” or the country would “end up with radical solutions.”
He added, “We will end up not like Zimbabwe or Ethiopia, but like some new, much larger monster: the most sophisticated economy in Africa will tumble over the brink, into a hell of its own making.”
Poplak in 2014 felt the problem in South Africa was that “many of the country’s elites don’t quite understand the urgency of restitution” and called for “more creative solutions” to the land reform problem.
“Here’s one,” he said. “Why not give everyone in South Africa a title deed to the land they now live on?” This was certainly a good idea. Why then, in March 2018, did he rip into the Democratic Alliance for doing precisely that? Why then, did he brush off the dangers of the “economic implosion that inevitably accompanies radical land reform policies”? Instead, he said:
“Sorry to spoil the fun, but land has been expropriated without compensation in this part of the world – and most others – for roughly as long as humans have been bipedal. The ANC has done its fair share, which is to say that none of this shit is new, and that precisely zero of the hype is warranted. Nonetheless, the global media-scape is wracked by lurid wet dreams of a looming South African race war – pagan sacrifice; maidens defiled; land whipped out from under the muddy veldskoene of our industrious, Christ-loving farmers.”
Go back further to 2011 for another piece, co-authored by Poplak, titled Stories from the African road: South Africa is not, and never can be, Zimbabwe. Its purpose was to suggest that any comparison between South Africa and Zimbabwe was “bunk”, despite fellow citizens who “frequently utter such banalities”.
This was because South Africa was nothing like Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, there was no Madiba and no Archbishop Tutu. Indeed, there was no Trevor Manuel or Cyril Ramaphosa to “jettison the socialist rhetoric in favour of mainstream neo-liberal economic pragmatism”. South Africans therefore really did not need to fear people like Julius Malema, because despite the similarities between the two countries, “the new South African dispensation does not hanker after the trappings of the old one”. Instead, in South Africa, “forward momentum and its close cousin nation-building take place at the unsentimental (and ahistoric) level of modern finance”.
Another subject marked by remarkable ideological inconsistency is that of farm murders. In March 2017, Rebecca Davis wrote an article for Daily Maverick that seemingly acknowledged the problem, headlined Rural Safety: Are farm murders being underplayed for politics? A few quotes:
- “But there is little doubt that farmers are being killed at higher rates than other sections of the population.”
- “What is less easy to explain, however, is the level of brutality meted out in some of these attacks.”
- “The notion that some farm attacks are motivated by hatred and anger is politically sensitive, but cannot be dismissed. When Knowledge Paulus Mandlazi went on trial last year for murder and robbery on farms in the Brits area in 2014, he openly told the court that he ‘hated white people and wanted their money’.”
- “Some political figures see farm attacks as a form of retribution for the injustices and dispossession of the past.”
Davis went so far as to include a kindly quote from Nelson Mandela: “Beyond the immediate suffering, lack of security and stability in our rural and farming community causes serious disruption to our economy.”
She said those words were “the argument which farmers present when asked why farm attacks should be viewed as a special category of crime in South Africa.” She concluded her piece with two quotes from a farmer stating that “the biggest asset any government can have is a productive commercial farmer” and that one could not “spread politics over bread and feed the nation.”
In September 2018, about eighteen months later, Davis wrote another piece for Daily Maverick (What the latest crime stats suggest about farm murders). At the time, the SAPS had just released national crime statistics. A few quotes:
- “Sixty-two farm murders of a total 20,336 murders means that farm murders represented just over 0.3% of all killings in South Africa in 2017.”
- “It’s a fraction which has led many South Africans to question the prominence given to this type of crime in the national debate – particularly given the adoption of the issue internationally, by politicians in not just Australia but also the United Kingdom and the USA.”
- “But even after this week’s crime statistics release, AfriForum insists that a strong focus on the issue is justified.”
- “The wrangling over numbers has been a perpetual feature of the farm murder discussion, but it doesn’t address the issue’s central question: what justification is there for treating this category of crime as worthy of a higher priority than others?”
- “Discussing the loss of human lives solely in terms of their economic contribution to a society may seem a callous approach – but it is nonetheless one of the arguments that groups like AfriForum foreground most forcefully as a way of avoiding more contentious appeals on the grounds of race or culture.”
- “In the weeks to come, the official statistics for farm attacks are likely to be haggled over for the umpteenth time. But when it comes to an issue like farm murders, there are very few objective facts that can be agreed on – and even less common ground to be found over their meaning.”
Many people on the Left are deeply distressed about the global rightward shift in politics, pointing to Trump, Bolsonaro and Salvini as evidence of this. In his New Frame piece on Zille, Christopher McMichael claimed it was online conservative figures who “serve as the gateway to even more noxious politics”. He went further to say it was their conversations around “cultural Marxism” and “free speech” that were partly responsible for pushing people into a “network of radicalisation” – even though conservatives might “performatively” distance themselves from the far-right.
But while the problem of right-wing extremism, like any kind of extremism, is a serious one and cannot be ignored, there is a clear misunderstanding about how traditional liberals fit into this equation. A useful tome on this issue is Jeffrey Tucker’s Right-Wing Collectivism: The Other Threat to Liberty, published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). The book’s dedication provides a clue: “To the socialists of both parties,” it reads. Tucker describes the rise of the alt-right as the “most unexpected ideological development of our time”. But, unlike some unscrupulous commentators who like to lump their liberal or libertarian opponents into this same basket – and which Tucker puts down to their “[shared] dread of what has become the left in politics today” – right-wing collectivism has nothing to do with liberalism or libertarianism. Instead, right-wing collectivism “also opposes traditional liberalism. It opposes free trade, freedom of association, free migration and capitalism understood as a laissez-faire free market”. The two kinds of collectivism are instead mirror-images of one another, and even depend on one another. What they share is the desire for a Leviathan state, while liberals and libertarians do not.
The extremes of both right-wing and left-wing collectivism have resulted in the most gruesome human tragedies the world has ever seen – as expressed by fascism (for example by the national socialists in Germany), and communism. Many progressive media professionals and academics however insist on mislabelling their opponents. This is to punish them for their thoughtcrimes – and they go to great lengths to silence them.
Take for instance the recent online campaign mounted by some South African environmental journalists and academics to deplatform a colleague for his views on climate change. Despite the Kafkaesque accusation that he was creating “false controversy” and that their actions were “not about censorship”, evidence shows the crusaders by means of articles and unsparing social media postings, not only tagged his employers and relevant science and journalism professional associations, but also embarked on a slanderous offensive. Some of the words lanced at him included: troll, denialist, neo-fascist, racist, white supremacist and, perhaps most wretchedly, the idea that positions such as his would one day be deemed “far worse for society than paedophilia”.
The kinds of epithets being used in public debate are not about witty banter, nor about taking an entertaining side-swipe at an opponent for any particular readership’s pleasure. Rather, it is an abuse of terminology. And while debate should never be stultified, those who wrangle words might consider deploying their proper meanings, and not invent infantile monikers like “lite” or “adjacent” when their categorisation schemes don’t quite fit. In a climate of polarisation, and when every disagreement leads to this kind of dishonest labelling, there may well come a time when slogans like “Punch a Nazi” and “Bash the Fash” start to take on a new meaning.
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