The Two Weeks Hate and Tony Leon

James Myburgh writes on the latest outpouring of national rage over nothing

In South Africa there is a ritual, best described as the Two Weeks Hate*, in which some person or institution becomes the focus of intense uncontrollable rage, first on Twitter, and then across the local and sometimes even international media. This developed into its current form about five years ago and the general pattern, and the High Priests responsible for its execution, are all familiar by now.

The Two Weeks Hate commonly begins with a somewhat white-looking person (Lindsay Dentlinger, Adam Habib) or institution (eNCA, Clicks) doing or saying something that could be perceived as discriminatory or insulting to someone from the racial majority. A consensus then coheres on social media, and the visage of this person becomes, for a period, the object of intense popular hatred; the face of enduring, lying and insulting notions of white superiority. A stream of denunciations follow in the media refuting, smashing, and ridiculing, this person’s horrible “racism” as the pitiful rubbish that it is.

It is difficult to avoid joining in, at some point or another, and not be turned into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. For if one submits, then for a brief but sublime moment all one’s underlying anger, disappointment and frustration with the ANC government evaporates. The frenzy cannot sustain itself for too long however and usually, after about two weeks, it passes. The person’s image dissolves in the popular consciousness and our fearless protectors return to watching and waiting for the imminent re-emergence of the “demon of white racism” in corporeal form; which it soon will, its influence never seems to diminish, despite being hated and despised by everybody.

The latest object of the Two Weeks Hate is the former leader of the Democratic Alliance, Tony Leon, for remarks that he made while promoting his new book Future Tense: Reflections on my troubled land. In two of the chapters Leon deals at length with the troubles that beset the Democratic Alliance under Mmusi Maimane’s leadership.

According to his biographer Maimane had been an ANC supporter up until 2007, his political hero being Thabo Mbeki. After Mbeki’s ejection from the ANC Presidency in 2007 and then South African Presidency in 2008 Maimane had toyed with joining COPE, but had been put off by the new party’s leadership squabbles. He had finally decided, after much hesitation and reluctance (and cajoling by Ian Ollis), to join the DA in late 2010. Not long thereafter he was made the party’s candidate for Mayor of Johannesburg in the May 2011 local government elections, despite being a political neophyte and never having voted for the DA in his life. In December 2011 he was appointed the party’s national spokesperson.

After serving three years as the leader of the DA’s caucus on the Johannesburg council, he was made the party’s Premier candidate for Gauteng in the May 2014 elections. The DA failed to make the hoped-for electoral breakthrough in the province, despite having invested R100 million in his campaign. Immediately after the election Maimane transferred across to Parliament and, as Leon drily notes, “was promptly installed as parliamentary leader, without a day’s experience in the legislature”. In slightly less than a year Maimane was the elected leader of the Democratic Alliance.

Leon became closely acquainted with the inner workings of the DA under Maimane as he sat on the panel – along with Ryan Coetzee and Michiel le Roux – tasked by Maimane himself with examining the reasons for the DA’s electoral decline in the 2019 national elections. The panel reviewed over 200 written submissions and heard 40 oral submissions. Leon writes in his book that “On the contested issue of the party leadership, it was clear from all quarters, even those most sympathetic to him, that Maimane’s irresolution and essential passivity on crunch issues and personnel matters was the cause of many of the party’s travails.”

“On the even more vexed issue of policy confusion and values and party ideology,” Leon continues, “one of the key outsiders we interviewed – a black intellectual – summed it up: ‘The DA has been captivated by the racial and nationalist narrative of the ANC.’” (Maimane’s leadership was probably more symptom than cause of this ideological drift which was most aggressively driven, during his tenure, by senior political staffers who had started working for the DA in the Leon-era.)

In his book Leon comments that “It’s a good and necessary thing for a political movement to attract new recruits, unless it wishes to remain a small cult of true believers. But to hand over the top post of the principal opposition party in the country to someone who has no background in, nor long-time sympathy with, its core convictions is reckless.” It was in elucidating on this point in an interview with James de Villiers of News24 that Leon used the word “experiment” (it is not in the book). In the article published on Saturday 3 April 2021 De Villiers wrote:

“In his new book, Leon describes how he joined a review panel of the DA after its election losses in 2019… despite being advised not to. The outcome of the panel’s report – which recommended that Mmusi Maimane step down as leader – led to the resignation of Maimane and a number of other senior DA figures. Resting his right hand on this leg, Leon says Maimane’s election as DA leader “was an experiment that went wrong”, as Maimane had never committed to the party’s ideals before joining it. His tone grows tense, as he says Maimane tried to go after a constituency which the DA didn’t yet have, while neglecting the voters it did have.

According to the article Leon then went on to contrast the fulsome praise Maimane publicly heaped on Winnie Madikizela Mandela, following her death in 2018, with the party’s deliberate silence following the death of his father, the liberal jurist Ramon Leon, the same week. As is evident from the context Leon was describing Maimane’s leadership as an “experiment that went wrong” – the “experiment” here being a liberal opposition party electing someone from the political tradition of the dominant party as its leader.

When News24 tweeted out a link to the piece on early Saturday morning, on 3rd April 2021, it read as follows:

This Tweet stripped out the context and turned a comment about Maimane’s leadership of the DA into an apparently insulting comment about his person. The correct context and meaning was provided in the article itself, but this was placed behind the R75 per month News24 paywall. The reaction that followed was thus almost wholly to the tweet rather than Leon’s actual reported remarks, let alone the relevant chapters in the book.

Stung by Leon’s criticism, and with more than a few axes to grind against him as well, Maimane went on the offensive in response to the News24 tweet.

A consensus soon cohered on social media that Leon’s description of Maimane’s leadership as an experiment was deeply offensive and “racist”. Leon’s self-satisfied face became the latest object of the Two Weeks Hate.

Maimane further replied with an article on News24 in which he stated that Leon had tried to undermine not just his work as leader of the DA but his "very dignity and inherent worth as a human being. For Leon and his ilk, comments like this demonstrate that black people can only be experiments. They cannot lead, and can only ascend with the blessing of white controlled interests. It's textbook Cape liberal racism experienced over hundreds of years under the guise of 'progress' in the liberal-controlled Western Cape."

He also went onto various radio, TV and online programmes to claim that Leon had “dehumanised” him with his “offensive” remarks and that there was “no appropriate context to refer to a fellow human being as an experiment”.

Yet, instead of issuing the abject apology demanded and expected in such circumstances Leon responded by explaining and defending what he had said. People were leaping up and down in their places and screaming at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown out the maddening bleating sound coming from their computer and smartphone screens. A flood of outraged tweets, slanted news reports, and opinion pieces followed denouncing Leon and the DA for his horrendous “racism” and, even worse, “tone deafness”.

For example, in the Financial Mail Paul Ash wrote thatGiven SA’s grim history of "experiments" — apartheid, "independent" homelands and the SADF’s unhinged "drug rehabilitation" camp at Greefswald in Limpopo come rapidly to mind — one would hope that people would choose their metaphors more carefully. Then again, outraging people with thoughtless commentary seems to be something the DA can always be counted on to do.”

SANEF Chairsperson Sbu Ngalwa claimed in a Daily Maverick article that Leon had “referred to Mmusi Maimane as an “experiment’ that went wrong – a deeply offensive insult, steeped in a racist mindset of blacks as lab rats that can be used in political experiments and discarded at will.

On TimesLive Jonathan Jansen wrote that Tony Leon simply cannot grasp that his “comment on Mmusi Maimane as ‘an experiment’ in his appointment as the first black head of the opposition DA fits snugly within [a broader racial] narrative that his appointment could not have been meritorious. Experiments are for rats, not humans — and even with rats I am beginning to doubt the value of experimentation.”

Thamsanqa D Malinga claimed that Leon had been brought up to see “blacks as non-beings”. There was no “civility expected from him and his cohort of ‘lab assistants’ in their experimenting, with their superiority mentality. It is clear that Leon and his cohort in the DA are just a latter-day version of the cohort that undertook the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, that project on African-Americans condemned as ‘an ethically unjustified study’ that was done in the US between 1932 and 1972. The black members of the DA are mere subjects to be used as experiments and are not seen as equals.”

The basic form of the Two Weeks Hate was much the same as always. Once one has described the performance of a ritual once one has, in a sense, described them all. There were some particularities in this case that are worth noting, beyond Leon's egregious refusal to apologise, despite having done nothing wrong.

Up until at the moment at which News24 mis-tweeted out its link to the story the use of the anodyne word “experiment” in South African political discourse - meaning: to try something new or different / something that had not been done before - was widespread and commonly accepted. Indeed, it had been repeatedly used by commentators, of all colours, to describe the DA’s leadership and other travails over the past several years. For instance, in an article following Maimane’s election as DA leader Eddy Maloka wrote an article making the same basic point that Leon did in his book, albeit from an opposing ideological perspective. He wrote:

“[Zille] tried to repackage the DA as the mini-me copycat of the ANC, even looting the liberation movement for its struggle songs and heroes. The search for a model African was a top priority. Mazibuko was found, made and then thrown out when she tried to assert herself and raise an independent voice. The attempted marriage with Mamphela Ramphela was as brief as the show that was staged for public consumption. With the Mazibuko and Ramphela experiments having failed, a solution had to be found. Thus M2 [Mmusi Maimane].”

Maimane’s office submitted a response to Maloka’s article which took issue with his analysis but expressed no objection whatsoever to Maloka’s description of Mazibuko and Ramphela as “experiments having failed”. After Maimane took the DA into an informal coalition with the EFF in Tshwane and Johannesburg in 2016 Fikile Mbalula memorably summed it up in parliament as “a dangerous experiment not to be tried at home. The DA and EFF together are like mixing oil with water! What a monumental disaster!" Vukani Mde later accurately described the covert DA-EFF coalitions as a “disastrous experiment”.

When Maimane walked out of the Democratic Alliance the description in the press was of an “experiment” that had inter alia “exploded”, “failed dismally”, been “shed”, “gone badly awry”, “collapsed” and which would be “regretted”. After the DA then re-affirmed its liberal non-racial principles Carol Paton wrote in BusinessLive that the “experiment of playing ANC-lite has been left in the trash heap of history”.

As the switch for the latest Two Weeks Hate is flipped a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness seems to flow through much of our commentariat like an electric current. In the moment, considerations of consistency appear to be of little import. Yet the danger with claiming that a commonly used political expression is deeply racial and nefarious is that you may end up looking completely bovine and ridiculous - once the switch is turned off - especially if you yourself have used or sanctioned the expression before.

One of the social media influencers who had led the charge against Leon was Simon Grindrod. Commenting on the News24 Tweet he stated: “Mmusi Maimane was ‘an experiment’ to the DA. Let that sink in.” This was re-tweeted several hundred times, and received over a thousand “likes”. This was the same Simon Grindrod who had tweeted, in November last year, that “I’m not sure that this Steenhuisen/Zille/IRR experiment is working for the DA - and more importantly for the country.”

In an opinion piece headed “ANC utter failures embolden racists such as Tony Leon” Prince Mashele wrote that “even the bluntest minds among us understood” that what Leon sought to communicate by his remarks was “that the DA will never again install a black stooge at its helm to appease black people. In short, to hell with black people!” This is the same Prince Mashele who wrote an article in May 2018 - headed “The DA is a faltering social experiment in white privilege, black poverty debate” – stating that the DA was the only “party in South Africa today where a white man sits side by side with a black man trying to do politics together. The DA is, therefore, a very interesting and adventurous social experiment.”

The Sowetan published an editorial criticising Leon’s use of the phrase “an experiment gone wrong”, as it sought to “reduce Maimane’s leadership and agency to a mere exploratory effort by the party rather than a legitimate chapter in its political history. One of the traits of racism is precisely that – the use of power by white people to erase the significance of black people in the spaces they occupy.”

This is the same newspaper that commented on the occasion of Maimane’s resignation as leader of the DA (along with Herman Mashaba’s departure) that he had been elected DA leader “on a ticket that he will transform the historically white party into a non-racial entity whose structures and leadership reflected the demographics of SA. But the events of the last few days … suggest that the Maimane experiment has now collapsed.”

In an op-ed in the Mail & Guardian the Action SA leader, Herman Mashaba, said that he had been “deeply affected” by Leon’s disparaging reference to “Maimane as a “failed experiment” [sic].” This he suggested was an expression of profound racism which reflected badly on the DA and the white population more generally as they had failed to denounce Leon for his comments.

This is the same Herman Mashaba who had a book written about his period in office as Johannesburg Mayor by his former Chief of Staff Michael Beaumont (now chairperson of Action SA). In an article on TimesLive introducing the book The Accidental Mayor Beaumont writes, in reference to Mashaba, that the “political experiment of a non-politician, assuming the most important role in local government in SA through a complex coalition arrangement”, was a crucial story to tell. In the book itself reference is made, in a different context, to the “Mashaba experiment”.

Many of the articles on the controversy inaccurately claimed that Leon had labelled Maimane as a “failed experiment”. But if Google is to believed, the only South African politician who has used this particular expression against his political adversaries is Maimane himself.

In a speech to a rally in KwaZulu Natal one day before the 2019 national elections the then DA declared that “You only need to look around you in this metro of eThekwini to see that the ANC, as a party of government, is a failed experiment. They served their purpose as a liberation movement, but their toxic factionalism and greed has made of them a complete failure as a governing party."

The author worked as a Parliamentary Researcher for the Democratic Party of Tony Leon between 1997 and 2001. 

* With apologies to George Orwell, both for the term and the description