South Africa is in the midst of a political scandal. I’m not talking about the systemic corruption of the ANC leadership or the continued existence of crippling poverty despite the country’s economic growth; I’m talking about Dianne Kohler-Barnard and the fallout from a tweet. Normally I don’t care about stories that on the surface that seem frivolous but this country has a special place in my heart and what she said I believes disqualifies her from her party. What this scandal has shown, however, is that a real democratic deficit exists in South Africa, which is becoming a decay, and it is one which is not especially easy to solve.
Kohler-Barnard, in a tweet she sent out a few days ago, said “please come back PW Botha- you were far more honest than these [ANC] rogues, and you provided a far better service to the public”. There are a number of reasons why this is bad but I’m going to focus on two. Firstly, it should be political suicide because asking for the return of the president of South Africa who is widely regarded to be the most brutal of all the Apartheid leaders, should be a red-flag to the Democratic Alliance’s voters. Also the latter half of the tweet (“you provided a far better service to the public”) is, other than being horribly offensive, just wrong. During Botha’s presidency thousands of people were detained without trials, many of whom were tortured and killed for being political dissidents. In terms of concrete public services, a large majority of the population were subject to racism-induced police brutality. It must be pointed out that Botha did legalise interracial marriage, relaxed the 1966 Group Areas Act and allowed non-white South Africans to live more freely in certain parts of the country, but he also stood firm against granting non-whites full civil rights.
The second point about Kohler-Barnard’s statement is that it exposes the real democratic decay that emerges in any democracy when one party has been in power for a long period of time; the ruling party gets sloppy because they don’t have a credible opposition. Am I saying that everyone in the Democratic Alliance (DA) is racist and wants to return to Apartheid? No, that would be a stupid thing to say. Do actually think that she is racist? Probably not because she identifies as a liberal. What is does show, however, is that there is a certain lack of professionalism that the DA has within in that I would say disqualifies it from government. If she’s racist the DA didn’t act harshly enough and she should fuck off to another party, but if she isn’t then you shouldn’t be in a position of power because she said something racist even though she apparently isn’t.
For example, if in the United States a member of Congress said something along the lines of ‘I miss when I could own a n******. We should bring back slavery’, unsurprisingly the leadership of that party would probably kick them out; if you say off the cuff that the most brutally repressive Apartheid president in South Africa’s history would be better for the entire country than the ANC, you should be kicked out of the party. I don’t like political parties as a concept because the one thing they have to do is get there members to stick to a script they tell voters; if someone in that organisation thinks that that would be a good tweet, and then to tweet it, you’ve clearly gone against party policy unless you’re in the National Party (NP).
To clarify, I will totally support Ms Kohler-Barnard’s right to say whatever she wants, that’s what freedom of expression is all about, but having the freedom to say that PW Botha would be better running the country than the current ANC government also comes with consequences that the party has the right to implement. But this is why the DA should be rejected by the electorate- they aren’t professional enough. What the DA should have done was immediately suspend her from the party because they are an economically liberal party rooted in the political ‘centre’, and therefore isn’t in favour of bringing back Apartheid. What they actually did was start an internal enquiry and have a shadow cabinet reshuffle where she is now Deputy Shadow Minister of Public Works. Not only should she not be a shadow minister, she should have had the party whip withdrawn, at least as a face-saving exercise.
The implications of this is that it allows the ANC to continue in government largely unopposed because if something like this happens the ANC will be able to say that they are the only party that can protect people from another Apartheid government, which is nonsense. I really don’t like the Democratic Alliance because their brand of liberal centrism will do nothing to address the economic inequality present in South African society that I can only be achieved through socialism, but I don’t think they’re secretly the heirs of the NP.
So if the DA is disqualified due to its unprofessionalism then what are the alternatives. Thankfully there are many different options however they are all quite unelectable due to either corruption, ideology or electoral maths. For example the Inkatha Freedom Party is a right-wing group that wants to promote the interests of South Africa’s Zulu minority, which makes them unelectable in a general election because most of South Africa is either not right-wing or not Zulu. There’s also the Pan African Congress which has largely the same ideology of the ANC but none of the iconic leaders associated with it like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko or Oliver Tambo. There’s the Congress of the People which is a centre-left progressive party whose name, COPE, spells the verb the population would have to do if they’re ever in government.
But there is one political party that is on the rise in South Africa that is building up a grassroots movement, is sufficiently left-wing to get my endorsement and is gaining electorally: the Economic Freedom Fighters or EFF. Unfortunately there is one problem: their leader is a corrupt bastard that might actually not be left-wing at all. Julius Malema should be thee kind of person that I like: outspoken, critical of capitalism and angered by the corruption of the ANC. However I don’t like him. I don’t think that Malema is actually left-wing, despite the fact that he has established a very left-wing party. The people that are in the party are radical leftists that oppose capitalism, support the nationalisation of key sectors of the economy and provide quality social housing in a country where millions of people live in townships that are essentially slums among many other policies that are unquestionably left-wing.
On the other hand Malema has also been accused of acting like a demagogue, promoting militarism (he insists on being called the EFF’s Commander in Chief), and inciting violence. Also he, much like Jacob Zuma, lives a lavish lifestyle despite railing against capitalism and has been convicted of committing tax violations; I’m not trotting out the right-wing label of ‘champaign socialism’ because objects are not inherently left-wing or right-wing, for example both me and Richard Nixon are fans of whiskey despite ideological differences, but seeking out material possessions and personal financial gain doesn’t sound like the attitude of someone opposed to capitalism.
Thus is the democratic dilemma for South Africa. The ANC need a credible opposition so that they clean up their act and start doing more social programmes to lift people out of poverty or else be voted out of office. Unfortunately such an opposition doesn’t exist and the only party that I would currently vote for, the EFF, is led by an authoritarian militarist that, if he came out as a fascist, wouldn’t surprise me. This is why democracy in South Africa is decaying because the corrupt ANC are most likely to continue governing the country, and the most credible electoral alternative is full of people who mistakenly say racist stuff even though they probably aren’t. I do not envy the South African electorate who will have to reconcile wanting rid of Jacob Zuma and knowing that the alternative is unprofessional neo-liberals that appear to have the political nouse of a desk-lamp.