With critics like Ismail Lagardien about, it’s not so obvious that political parties need to spend time defending themselves, rather than simply pointing to negative opinion pieces about them while trying to resist guffawing. This is because while much of what Lagardien says contains a kernel of truth, this contribution is hyperbolic – and prolix – enough that it would only entrench existing biases rather than change any minds.
Today’s Daily Maverick includes an opinion piece by the Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, who asserts that identity politics is “destroying freedom”.
The short version of this response to some of her claims might read something like “sure, identity politics might compromise freedom in some of its extreme manifestations, but never as reliably as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination do”.
I’ve written two pieces pieces on Helen Zille’s recent tweets that led to today’s press conference with her and Mmusi Maimane, at which it was announced that she’ll continue as Premier of the Western Cape while withdrawing from DA activities generally, so there’s much I won’t repeat here.
As those of you who care about these things know, Helen Zille was (on June 7) suspended from all Democratic Alliance roles, pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing. The hearing began on Friday June 9, and it’s fairly safe to assume that Zille will contest any finding that doesn’t exonerate her.
Readers will know that I’m not partial to shaming others, and that I try to avoid polarised viewpoints. I also try to apply the principle of charity – in other words, try to understand what someone was trying to say, rather than simply judging their statements based on surface-level meaning.
And while it’s fairly easy to imagine what Helen Zille thought we should take from her tweets yesterday, it’s very difficult to comprehend how someone with so much experience and knowledge of South African politics could be so naive – or ignorant – as to tweet what she did.
Earlier this month Mike Dzange, a waiter at a Camps Bay restaurant called The Bungalow sparked a Twitter debate and quite a few columns when he opted to include “2 BLACKS” on the docket of a couple he was serving.
The couple was black, as was the waiter – and while that doesn’t preclude the possibility of the waiter himself having internalised some racist attitudes (here, simply meaning that he might never use that shorthand for white couples), it does make it less likely that he was intending to demean this couple.
Earlier this week I was in conversation with Gareth van Onselen (GvO) at a launch event for his new book, Holy Cows: The ambiguities of being South African.
As far as I can tell, the event wasn’t recorded, which is a pity as I think we had an interesting dialogue on various contentious issues that are raised – either directly or by implication – in the book.
Two of the book’s themes seem to be of particular interest, judging by the conversation at the other launch event I attended, as well as social media and other comment.
Helen Zille is first up, if we address these themes in the sequence they appear in the book. GvO spends two chapters discussing Zille’s Twitter persona, in an exercise that one review (linked immediately above) called “a little creepy and obsessive”.
(There’s a chapter in the book on Pyramid, an obscure quiz show that ran on CCV-TV in 1995 and 1996, and I’d think that GvO having watched every episode of that a fair bit more obsessive.)
The chapters on Zille highlight various themes that recur throughout her Twitter output, and demonstrate that being as engaged as she is (it’s more accurate to say ‘was’, since stepping down as leader) allows us to establish a rather different view on her preoccupations and political dispositions than what you find in carefully-crafted newsletters and speeches.
One of the things that comes through rather strongly is Christian conservatism, in particular her negative attitude towards drugs, alcohol and sex. I’ve written on some of these things myself in the past, and also expressed views on her religious outlook in general, and think that cataloguing the Tweets in the manner than GvO does is useful for making the case.
Furthermore, the case is useful to make, for two related reasons – first, because even if Zille is committed to your liberty, in the sense that a roughly liberal party ought to be – the moralising tone of so many of the Tweets leave one feeling that her liberalism can be rather grudging.
Second (and I’m not attributing these observations to GvO), the hectoring and inflexible message that emerges from quite a few of the Tweets don’t provide enough of a counterpoint to the ANC’s political messaging.
Again, what I’d hope for from a liberal party is a tone and content that encourages critical reflection on issues. I wouldn’t expect that from a nationalist party like the ANC – but tonally, there’s little to pick between them, at least if you regard Zille as representative of the party.
In short, I think the wealth of data collected by GvO in these chapters give us interesting things to think about on the micro issue of a particular person’s political branding, as well as the macro issue of the various South African political brands in the market and how they are differentiated.
The second issue I’ll touch on is ritual circumcision, as discussed in chapter 7. Again, I’ve also written a column on this subject, but mine resulted in nowhere near the abuse that GvO’s shorter treatment (shorter than in his book, I mean) of the issue in his Business Day column did.
According to Xolela Mangcu, GvO’s column was “hate speech“. According to another correspondent, GvO was an “outsider” who also engages in inconsistent reasoning by not discussing all sorts of other cultural practices equally critically.
There’s one politically interesting issue here, and then another issue that is interesting mostly because it demonstrates a moral deficit on the part of these two critics.
The politically interesting issue is the question of who gets to comment on which issues – whether you need to be from a certain “culture” to criticise its practices. I think – and I know GvO does – that the arguments are what matter, not where they come from.
But tone can make people more or less receptive to a message, and this is (partly) why a column like mine led to less abuse, in that I foregrounded my outsider status (for pragmatic reasons only – not because I think it relevant to the argument).
GvO wrote in a certain style (and those of you who are actually interested in the arguments should read the book, not only the short column), and that style might or might not have been maximally productive to reader engagement. But again, that’s a separate point to whether the argument is sound or not.
The second issue is this: if there’s a cultural practice which does, on occasion, result in deaths and injuries, there’s a real problem to address – and it’s a far more significant problem than a “white” man having the temerity to criticise a cultural practice.
Yes, it’s true that this particular practice can be conducted harmlessly (using the word loosely, in that I’m ignoring the reinforcement of patriarchy, etc.). So if anyone says that deaths and maiming are always a necessary consequence of initiation, they are wrong and ignorant.
GvO doesn’t do that. And by all means, correct him or anyone else on particular facts they get wrong – but for as long as there exists a subset of traditional rituals that are open to the sorts of criticisms contained in the article and the book, there’s an argument to respond to.
Because if you don’t respond to the argument, then you’re telling us that according to you, the politics of identity – wherein a “white” man isn’t allowed to criticise something from “black” culture – is more important than deaths.
Or, you’re expressing a logical principle that only insiders can speak on whatever the insider topic is. And if this is the case, follow it to its logical conclusions – men can’t speak about something experienced by women, and vice-versa. The poor can’t talk about the rich. The Spanish can’t talk about the English, and so forth.
Most of the time, though, what it sounds like you’re saying is that this is something you’d simply like to have exempted from any outsider criticism, and that seems inexcusably lazy to me.
As submitted to Daily Maverick
On Sunday, Zama Ndlovu (@jozigoddess) tweeted “I do hope someone will write something about how whiteness should look at that piece of ‘art’. To be fair and stuff.” I’d hope that nobody does, just as nobody should write about how “blackness” should look at Brett Murray’s “The Spear”. Because both approaches would be prescriptive in dictating that it’s race which should determine one’s attitude to dignity, and which sorts of harms should be taken seriously by our courts.
It’s too late, of course – many pieces were published over the weekend by writers of various races, with some of the writers explicitly foregrounding their blackness or the putative blackness of their analysis. More important, perhaps, is that they foregrounded the whiteness of the artist – and the whiteness of thinking that it’s permissible to depict Jacob Zuma with his penis hanging out of his trousers.
This is the crux of the controversy. Not only freedom of artistic expression competing with a Constitutional right to dignity, but the clash of cultural norms that Murray’s painting has highlighted. As with Yiull Damaso’s painting of Mandela’s autopsy, those who think it inappropriate to depict Zuma’s penis talk about disrespect, and appeal to the communitarian perspective that holds that we are responsible for upholding each others’ dignity. Those who think the painting permissible tend towards the more liberal perspective, arguing that we don’t have the right to not be offended.
These responses are not reliably correlated with race – black columnists have been among those arguing that Zuma has presented himself as a philanderer, and therefore that he shouldn’t be surprised if we end up perceiving and depicting him as one. But I haven’t seen a white columnist arguing that The Spear is insensitive enough to merit an urgent interdict for its removal from the Goodman Gallery and the City Press.
The absence of this sort of critique from white writers feeds into the narrative of racism, whereby Murray’s painting becomes emblematic of a colonial gaze, where black men are savages, ruled by their passions rather than by intellect. That sort of reaction, though, is sometimes self-serving and inconsistent. I can’t dispute that it’s sometimes a justified reaction – there are surely instances of artists and writers who have the view that whiteness has some sort of monopoly on sophistication, with blackness representing some form of primitivism.
But the demand for us to respect cultural preference in these matters is self-serving in the sense that it forestalls any possible debate or reflection on the merits of the artwork. Not the merits in terms of quality and originality, which are a separate matter, but the merits in terms of the discomfort and self-reflection the artwork could inspire. The easiest way to justify poor arguments or mistaken ideas is to refuse to discuss them – and if it is a mistaken idea that presidents, parents, or people in general merit protection from these sorts of insults, playing the race card or the culture card serves to rule that discussion out of order.
Then, the reaction is inconsistent because it frequently expresses a prejudice of its own. Instead of defending the dignity of anyone, from an egalitarian anti-racist or anti-sexist perspective, we mostly hear silence when a Jackson Mthembu or Marius Fransman says abusive things about Helen Zille or Lindiwe Mazibuko. Or, for that matter, when Mazibuko is called a “housenigger”, or Zille is threatened with rape on Twitter – both of which occurred last week (but not for the first time) in social media chatter during the march on Cosatu House.
Is this because they can deal with it, where Zuma cannot? Or because they’ve earned it, where he has not? An answer to either question will expose deep prejudice on the part of those who think these things – so, better not to think about it. Or is it simply the case that because Zille and Mazibuko aren’t of a communitarian mindset themselves, this cultural norm of defending each other against insult doesn’t apply in their favour?
If the latter is the unconscious motivation for this inconsistency in what results in outrage and what doesn’t, we can ask a follow-up question: exactly which categories of human does identity politics grant special protection to, and on what grounds is this discrimination justified? I’m not talking about recognising that certain groups of people might have certain sorts of sensitivities – that they do, and sometimes for very good reason – but rather about whether we’re comfortable with certain sensitivities receiving preferential treatment in law or public opinion.
I don’t know how whiteness should look at Murray’s painting. But I do know that I could imagine a person being offended by a similar portrayal of their father. And I do know that a black person might not object in the slightest to Zuma being disrespected by this painting, because of the belief that Zuma has done little to merit that level of respect. Among this range of responses, though, it’s unclear whether we’re acting out of principle, out of prejudice, or out of reaction to prejudice – whether perceived or actual.
Zuma can by all means test, in court, whether Murray’s aesthetics and cultural norms should bow to his. For Zuma to win, though, would require demonstrating that his dignity has actually been impaired, and not just that his feelings were hurt. And I don’t know about you, but I already had the impression that Zuma was a rather sexual creature. Not because of some identity politics claptrap, but simply because he has “four wives, two exes and 22 children by ten different women”, as The Economist succinctly put it.
As for the painting itself, of course it’s disrespectful – I’d imagine that’s the point of the painting. You might think the painting in unacceptably bad taste, but your aesthetic preferences and cultural norms are of no more consequence than anyone else’s – at least in theory. In this case, where the ANC has joined Zuma’s case as second applicant, it seems that theory will soon (and, again) be tested – leaving us with one more reason to respect them both less.
As submitted to the Daily Maverick.
It’s always a surprise to find oneself agreeing with Floyd Shivambu, but if President Jacob Zuma really did say what he’s reported to have said at a church service on Sunday, he should certainly face his day in court. Not only a court involving advocates and charges of corruption, but also the court of public opinion, where he should be found guilty of a gross lack of judgement in using intolerant and divisive rhetoric to divert attention from the ANC Youth League’s criticism of him.
If a Helen Zille tweet speaking of “education refugees” can result in a week of widespread outrage, how is it the case that Zuma can effectively say that the non-religious have no humanity without (at least) equivalent levels of outrage? In fact, he should not only face criticism from the public and censure from the party, but if you support the hate speech provisions in our law, this should perhaps also be a matter for the courts.
“We need to build our nation because presently we have a nation of thugs. This is a task faced by the church. Fear of God has vanished and that means that humanity has vanished”, is what Zuma is reported to have said to the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. We do indeed need to build our nation, but as I’ve previously argued, when it comes to moral leadership Zuma is hardly the man for the job.
The church can certainly play a part – a large and possibly effective part, seeing as the majority of South Africans are members of some church or another. And when the church focuses on respect, love, compassion and other sorts of virtuous qualities, I wish them all possible success. But when the church that our new Chief Justice belongs to endorses the view that homosexuality is a sickness that can be “cured”, it should be immediately clear that churches have no monopoly on morality.
My previous columns have frequently discussed the absence of a positive correlation between religious belief and moral virtue, but this is not the point here. Whether it’s true or not that religion can encourage those virtues, the fact remains that non-believers are in no way handicapped when it comes to discerning right from wrong. We use different standards to do so, yet mostly end up with the same conclusions as the religious do.
This is obviously so, because most of these conclusions are obvious ones that anyone living amongst others would reach. We all have an equal investment in social cohesion and freedom from fear, and shared rules make those goods possible, regardless of how we reason our way to them. In South Africa, as in many poor countries, humanity “vanishes” largely because people are materially insecure, and resort to opportunism to address those insecurities.
If your life is miserable, you’re less invested in the future, and more invested in seizing opportunities where you find them. The narrative of a harmonious “rainbow nation” only gains traction if you have reason to care for the welfare of others, and it’s not always the case that we do. The church can provide reasons of this sort, yes – but stronger and more universally respected reasons are secured when people have jobs and food, perhaps along with a government they can trust to not exploit them.
If it’s only fear of God that keeps religious people from breaking laws or harming others – or even from having humanity – then we should be seeing far worse moral crises in secular countries than we do in religious ones such as ours. And what does lacking humanity mean? Are secular folk simply lacking some moral property, or are we somehow not even human on Zuma’s reckoning? And what does it say about the moral character of the religious when the implicit claim is made that without religion, they’d suddenly discover or rediscover the impulse to rape, rob and murder?
Whether you call it “humanity” or not, President Zuma, many of us don’t do these immoral things due to the belief that it’s wrong to do them. As much as I’m willing to say that your religious beliefs are false, I’ll only start saying that you lack humanity when you act like you lack humanity – not only because you have a different worldview to mine.
Like perhaps now, where you essentially tell me and all other non-believers that we are qualitatively inferior to you and other believers. You – the man who hasn’t gone more than a couple of months without some press coverage on things like rape trials, dodgy arms-deal allegations, shady friends, financial mismanagement, corruption or reckless sexual behaviour.
I get that you need to defend yourself against the current round of attacks from Shivambu and others, and that you’re heading into a delicate situation in Mangaung later this year. You’re entitled, and would be expected to, defend yourself by rallying religious support. But you can do so without calling my humanity into question. Choosing to do so is divisive, inflammatory, and intolerant of any worldview that doesn’t accord with your belief in God.
And it certainly seems to lack humanity to me. But then, perhaps I lack the necessary qualifications to speak as a human at all.
As submitted to Daily Maverick
We’ve read plenty of opinion in Daily Maverick on Premier Zille and HIV in recent weeks. And while encouraging thinking and debate on HIV and Aids is crucial, emotive topics such as this lend themselves quite easily to caricature – perhaps especially when protagonists in the discussion describe opposing views using hyperbolic labels such as “fascist”.
In Sipho Hlongwane’s column linked above, he asks whether Zille’s followers agree with her views on criminalising HIV and if not, why their opposition is mostly silent. While I reject the implicit association of a political party and its policies with one individual’s views (even if that individual is the party’s leader), I’ve expressed my opposition to those views in a previous column.
A broader issue raised by both the idea of criminalising HIV transmission as well as something like the Get Tested campaign is the extent to which scientific knowledge should inform policy. To put the issue that baldly might lead to some shaking of heads, in the sense that it might seem obvious and unworthy of debate that our scientific knowledge should inform policy.
But judgements often need to be made, and regardless of what the facts might be, we know that many – perhaps the majority – of votes are cast on the basis of perception. This is part of the reason that it becomes plausible to accuse a leader of populism, as some critics of Zille have done in this instance, or for her to accuse critics of fascism or “slacktivism” (itself often a grossly unfair charge, in that the only voice most of us have comes from behind our computer monitors, from where we are typically not able to control the budgets of state organs).
What I mean is this: On the one hand, the issue of whether criminalising HIV is a good idea or not could be regarded as a simple one, answerable though data telling us whether doing so results in fewer cases of transmission. With Get Tested, we could ask whether the campaign results in more people knowing their status, thereby potentially entering the treatment and counselling net. (Briefly, on the topic of Get Tested, I must regretfully withdraw some of my previously expressed support for the campaign, now that we know that baseline figures for testing rates pre-Get Tested are not available – meaning that we have no way of knowing how effective the campaign has been.)
On the other hand, the issues can never be this simple, because even if we all agree that control of the HIV epidemic is our most pressing concern, other values can nevertheless limit our pursuit of that goal. But what if the data did show that criminalising HIV transmission actually worked, or that Get Tested resulted in a 10% increase in the number of people who were tested for HIV? Would opposition to these measures cease?
My suspicion is that they will not, because we seem reluctant to trust the data to inform policy above all else, and because we’re unwilling to regard ourselves as one trivial data point in the aggregate. We’re of course not trivial to ourselves, and justifiably fear (for example) the imposition on our time that mandatory HIV testing would entail. At the same time, we might be perfectly happy for our sexual partners to engage in such testing, and to hypocritically insist that they do so.
In other words, we assign individual agency a greater value than we do the collective good. Which is as it should be much or even perhaps most of the time, at least if you subscribe to broadly liberal principles. But liberal-minded folk are still part of that collective, and can sometimes benefit more as individuals by focusing on the good of that collective, seeing as there are so many more of them (capable of doing you harm or good) than there are of you.
One particularly interesting test-case involving this conflict between perceived impositions on individual liberty versus the good of the collective is blood donation; and in particular the question of whether the South African National Blood Service and their international equivalents should accept donations of blood from homosexual men.
Gay men who have had oral or anal sex with another man in the last six months (whether protected sex or not) cannot donate blood in South Africa. In the UK, the deferral period for this category of donor was recently reduced to one year, while a lifetime restriction still applies in the USA for men who have had any sexual encounter with another man since 1977.
The phrase ‘category of donor’ is key to the issue I am raising here: We don’t easily think of ourselves as belonging to a category, no matter how clearly the data shows that people of type X, or who engage in behaviour Y, on aggregate merit treatment Z. This is the curse that actuaries have to bear: Their models that price our insurance premiums or motivate for medical interventions such as those mentioned above are in constant competition with the Pythonesque reality of all of us insisting in unison that “We’re all individuals”.
But laws or insurance premiums can’t be tailored to individuals. As much as we are individuals to ourselves, interventions intended to work on aggregate have to treat us as belonging to a category – and the question then becomes how those categories are defined. And here, we need to start thinking about the least wrong way of doing this, and perhaps being more willing to tolerate principled ways of treating us simply as a number.
Legislation based on one person’s moral viewpoint, in opposition to the available evidence, is far closer to most wrong than to least wrong. And science utterly divorced from morality offers its own nightmares, as a Twitter friend reminded me in a conversation on this topic. I’ll return to the specific case of blood deferrals for homosexual men – and other “categories” of human – in a future column.
For now, though, the concern is this: Seeing as most of us know little about science beyond misleading headlines, and our understanding of morality is largely subjective, perhaps more of us should be willing to respond as that lone voice in the crowd did in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. When Brian told the crowd “You’re all different!”, and they responded “Yes, we are all different!”, his muted response was simply “I’m not”. And neither, most of the time, are the rest of us.