Jackson Mthembu and the Twittering revolutionaries

While there’s a truckload of recent religious batshittery I had planned to note here (sick people dying at faith-healing rallies, and so forth), Jackson Mthembu and a couple of other idiots are presently too difficult to ignore. First, there was yesterday’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) that recognised the Democratic Alliance as a legal person, and one which furthermore has the right to call for a review of the decision to drop corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma.

Section 45 of the SCA judgement reads (excerpted):

It clearly is in the public interest that the issues raised in the review application be adjudicated and, in my view, on the papers before us, it cannot seriously be contended that the DA is not acting, genuinely and in good faith, in the public interest.

The ANC press release, penned by dear Jackson, wants

to highlight the following: The continued attempt by the DA to use the Courts to undermine and paralyse government

Significant respect for the judiciary there. And of course, no attempt at political point-scoring. Which is good, seeing as Mac Maharaj had also remarked on the ruling and was quoted as saying “anyone who wishes to use Zuma SCA judgment for party political point-scoring would be doing a disservice to our country”. Good thing Jackson didn’t do that, then.

The other idiots are those intent on seeing malice or racism in anything that Helen Zille, Western Cape Premier, might have to say on Twitter. And, of course, to accuse anyone who dares to defend her as some sort of mindless zombie. Zille is a loose cannon on Twitter, no doubt. And as I’ve argued before, I think she’s got some strange and silly ideas. Today, she caused her regular round of outrage as a result of a tweet from yesterday which spoke of the Western Cape accommodating “ECape education refugees”.

If you can’t see why this is racist, then apparently you are a racist. Or so goes logic on Twitter (and also for Jackson, but more on him in a moment). Perhaps we should start at the beginning, by consulting a dictionary. One definition of a refugee could be “one who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution”. Of course, usually refugees flee a country, not failing education systems in the Eastern Cape. But Helen Zille was presumably using the word metaphorically. As I said on Twitter, her usage could certainly be described as hyperbolic, but racist? How does that work?

The way it works is simply that the pupils fleeing the Eastern Cape happen to be black. Hence, describing them as refugees is racist. Now, many refugees everywhere in the world are black. And the cause of this involved a fair amount of racism, in economics, in politics, in every aspect of the way some countries have operated (and some continue to). In this country, with our demographics and our history of social inequality, it stands to reason that most people who have something to flee would be black. Note that Zille never referred to race – she described them as refugees, which seems to have been intended as a description (while hyperbolic, as I mentioned) of the situation they faced themselves in, and which they decided to flee.

It’s a contingent detail that they are black, and that’s not a detail that’s relevant here – the material circumstance of a bunch of pupils (who happen to be black) is the issue, and the one Zille was presumably referring to in describing them as refugees. That they came to be refugees would undoubtedly involve racism, yes – but that’s not the issue here. Once they experience conditions that are worth fleeing from, how they got into that position is a matter for historians – describing them as being in that position doesn’t endorse it, or make the claim that they are there because of their race.

And now, let’s welcome Jackson back into the conversation:

The ANC is vindicated by the statement made by Helen Zille. This is typical of the erstwhile apartheid government’s mentality that resorted to influx control measures to restrict black people from the so-called white areas. (eh? These “refugees” are coming into the Western Cape – Zille’s made no effort to keep them out. Bit of an apartheid-Godwin, methinks.)

Zille’s racist statement underpins the DA’s policy of exclusionism of blacks. She will never say the same thing about whites who relocate from one area of the country to the Western Cape or even those who relocate from other countries to the Western Cape. To reduce South Africans who have free movement in their own country as refugees is tantamount to… labelling them with a tag associated with foreigners.

Zille’s reference to the Eastern Cape pupils as refugees is motivated by political opportunism, to be sure – it’s a chance to highlight how much better the Western Cape primary education system seems to be when compared to that of the Eastern Cape. But it also indicates sympathy, or at least an awareness (back to the definition of the word) that they are fleeing from an unpleasant situation. Any other sort of relocation, such as the examples Jackson uses, would only be of relevance as counterexamples or evidence of Zille “reducing” these pupils to anything if the situations were comparable.

Typical migration – whether for economic reasons, or to get an education – is driven by preference, not by need. Or rather, the needs are less severe. A word like “refugee” makes sense in the context of a systemic failure of some market, not simply someone moving to Gauteng because they find it difficult to find a job in the Cape. The point is that these pupils have been “reduced” to leaving their home-towns because the Eastern Cape education system has failed them – not because of anything Helen Zille has done.

But as is sadly so often the case, outrage and race-baiting are winning the day, both on Twitter and in the hypothetical mind of Jackson Mthembu. I agree that Zille’s Tweet was poorly-considered, as many of them are. And I think she’s said many unfortunate (and in the case of HIV/AIDS, appalling) things. But in this case, all she’s been is hyperbolic – and the racism exists only in the minds of those who see it in her use of the word “refugee”.

P.S. From the Kieno Kammies show in CapeTalk567, a 10 minute conversation on this between Jackson Mthembu and Helen Zille.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.