Locally and globally, the turn to the right is cause for concern. In the United States the resurgence of racism in the form of inhumane immigration policies, with President Donald Trump’s wall on the country’s border with Mexico as its central metaphor, as well as seemingly random acts of racist violence and harassment, have commanded media attention.
Likewise, the underlying subtext of racism and anti-immigration sentiments in European Union countries’ responses to the refugee crisis, as well as arguments in favour of Brexit, are clear enough to discern.
Locally, it is apparent that systemic racism sustains racialised inequalities and, more importantly, it really puts the sting into acts of interpersonal racism.
But, this goes beyond periodic media outrage against racism on the beach, in the classroom or on the streets. Something more insidious has made its way into public discourse in South Africa.
Critics of the ruling party have accused it of speaking left, while acting right. Its adoption of neoliberal economics, which enables systemic racism, is one key example. At the launch of the ANC government’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) economic policy in 1996, former president Thabo Mbeki reportedly said: “Just call me a Thatcherite.” A truer word could not have been spoken in (I presume) jest.
The party’s left credentials have been cover for its turn to the right in terms of economic policy. But this went beyond acting as cover for the adoption of Gear. The rise of Jacob Zuma rode the wave of struggle nostalgia and left-speak as state institutions were being captured for private gain.
The phrase “speak left, act right” resonates in more than one sense. Left-speak has assisted in securing consensus for policies that were far from social democratic in orientation, despite the promise of the Freedom Charter. The land does not belong to all who live in it; instead, free market fundamentalism ensures that the majority of citizens battle for safe and affordable housing and decent living standards.
Aside from the key problems produced by macroeconomic policy, the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture is making it clear just how widespread corruption is in the country. Social media responses to coverage of the commission is revealing, as are the responses to news about the true identity of @AdvBarryRoux.
(A News24 investigation named a Zambian blogger, Csho Chilala, as the person behind the tweets, but he denied this. The real Barry Roux is best known for defending paralympian Oscar Pistorius in his murder trial and does not have a Twitter account.)
A recent tweet by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema point to some consistencies in the ways in which those who position themselves as left engage journalists. Malema recently tweeted: Parody Acc of @AdvBarryRoux threatens Stratcom to the point of commissioning an investigation, hayi. Kill them Papa, go deeper.
Parody Acc of @AdvBarryRoux threatens Stratcom to the point of commissioning an investigation, hayi. Kill them Papa, go deeper.
— Julius Sello Malema (@Julius_S_Malema) January 18, 2019
This tweet is not unlike remarks made by Zuma loyalists, nor those made by Black First Land First (BLF).
Below is a breakdown of these interest groups’ engagement with investigative journalists in particular.
They attack journalists for acting on their mandate as the fourth estate
The separation of powers is a cornerstone of our democracy; the judiciary, legislature and executive serve three independent estates in the interest of transparency and accountability. News media are meant to serve as a fourth independent estate that holds the three estates accountable.
We can debate the effectiveness of this model, particularly when it comes to thinking critically about the extent to which commercial interests shape the agenda of news media and potentially undermine their effectiveness. We can also debate whether unbiased reporting is possible or desirable. But, we cannot throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
Attacking journalists and making it dangerous for them to deliver on their mandate undermines key constitutional rights to free speech and free media.
They invoke racist binaries that make true dialogue about decolonisation difficult
Malema’s Stratcom reference in his tweet attempts to muddy the waters by pushing the now-familiar argument that any white journalist doing their job is automatically an apartheid spy. Any critical voice is automatically the white, racist enemy. Likewise, any conscientious black journalist is a sell-out.
Apart from the obvious racism that underlies such assertions, such claims egg on the many racists among us who so easily talk about people “pulling out the race card” in efforts to dismiss legitimate attempts to address actual racism that people experience on a daily basis. In recent times, I have had to listen to men — especially white heterosexuals — opine about “the dangers of identity politics” by pointing to remarks made by the EFF or BLF — notwithstanding the fact that a particular kind of identity politics kept white male, heterosexual men in power for a long time. Likewise, proponents of the “white genocide” narrative find renewed immunity from verifiable facts each time such racial binaries are employed.
The racist tropes invoked by Malema in this tweet make actual dialogue about how to imagine decolonial futures difficult precisely because they distract us from the nuanced work of activists and scholars who are trying to undo our colonial legacy.
They employ rhetoric that encourages racialised violence, violating constitutional rights
Incitement to violence, even when it takes the form of rhetorical violence that does not directly call for acts of violence, pose a threat citizens’ constitutionally enshrined rights.
Journalists are the canary in the coal mine. If the national climate steadily became hostile to the operation of a free press, citizens would be in the dark about what their leaders are doing in their name.
More alarming, to echo a comment made by University of the Witwatersrand Professor Shireen Hassim, is Malema’s invocation of “Papa”, a reference to a controversial drunk-driving public service announcement, which told the story of a drunk driver who ended up in prison. In the final shot, a coloured felon speaks to camera, saying: “Papa wag vir jou.”
Malema managed to compress homophobia, rape culture and racism into one compact tweet — an intersectional threat levelled at journalists: they will get their “just desserts” when they end up in prison and get raped by a coloured gangster named Papa. In his view, gangsters are coloured, mos.
They redirect attention from questions about their own accountability to citizens
Deflection is the name of the game. The EFF would be happy to have the media focus on the ANC’s complicity in state capture, but perhaps not so much on their own involvement in the VBS Mutual Bank heist. In this sense, they are not so different from Zuma loyalists.
It matters whether @BarryRoux is tweeting the truth or patently untrue information. It matters that we ask whose interests he is serving. It matters whether the public is able to discern between verifiable information and disinformation.
Malema’s tweet reveals a striking parallel with the ways in which Trump and his supporters work with the news media. Anything produced by news media is denounced as “fake news”, journalists are subjected to ad hominem attacks, statements that amount to incitements to violence are directed at critics, and racist speech and actions are directed at Mexicans, Arabs, Muslims or anyone mistaken for Mexican, Arab or Muslim. Meanwhile, all of this talk about a racist and hopelessly ineffective wall appears to have Trump supporters distracted from reports of human rights violations allegedly being committed by the country’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement or from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
People who attempt to challenge the ways in which racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, queerphobia or transphobia marginalise them are dismissed as “snowflakes” — in effect, identity politics is denigrated to retain the status quo. But, the uproar against the latest Gillette advertisement that addresses toxic masculinity reveals a level of thin-skinned sensitivity that is stereotypically associated with “snowflakes”. It seems that those who dish it out cannot take it.
Likewise, if Malema and his colleagues are willing to dish it out, they should be able to take it. Accountability is for every person holding public office and the public trust, regardless of political affiliation or “revolutionary” stance.
It is time for the left to start acting left before we slide into something decidedly more fascist.
Adam Haupt is professor of media studies at the Centre for Film & Media Studies at the University of Cape Town. These are his own views