Of racists and heroes: the return of tricameral politics
The Phoenix poster debacle shows how the DA consults the apartheid playbook to divide and conquer
To say the DA has sunk to a new low by capitalising on a tragedy to secure votes would be an understatement.
The crude race-baiting in the now infamous “racists” vs “heroes” campaign posters have left a bitter taste, as have the DA’s crocodile tears and hollow remonstrations that the messaging was “unsanctioned” but not necessarily denounced as racist by the leadership.
After an outcry, the posters have been taken down but their offending memory lives on. Wounds are wide open.
The unmistakable inference to be drawn from the posters that read “The ANC called you racists” and “The DA calls you heroes” is that a registered political party, in this democratic country founded on the rule of law, tacitly approves of people taking the law into their own hands.
We know that the July unrest was, at its core, an organic uprising for wider access to the consumer goods taken for granted by the privileged classes, black and white. We know that criminals and opportunists preyed on the fears of the Phoenix community and joined law-abiding citizens in neighbourhood patrols that became vigilante squads. We know that in many cases the law was flagrantly disregarded, and that human rights violations took place. We know that people were racially profiled, beaten, humiliated and killed.
It is also a matter of court record that the majority of those who died in Phoenix were African and that the majority of those charged with the murders are of Indian origin.
The “heroes” were protecting their property in their “community”, which, as the Group Areas Act prescribed, is exclusive to a particular racial group.
We also know that in many other suburban communities there was widespread racial profiling as Africans were relegated to being suspects in a geography that they “weren’t supposed to be in”, re-enacting the Group Areas Act.
Knowing what we know, for any self-respecting political party to engage in divide et impera by praising one racial or geographic community and denouncing another to get votes is at best shortsighted and at worst grossly offensive.
Political messaging is as much about voter persuasion as it is a deeper reflection of a political party’s DNA. Political campaigns, more so during elections, are a barometer that reveals (or masks) the ideological orientation of a political party.
Knowing what we know, for any self-respecting political party to engage in divide et impera by praising one racial or geographic community and denouncing another to get votes is at best shortsighted and at worst grossly offensive
In SA, with its history of exploiting racial identity and economic geography as a ladder for accessing opportunities and perpetuating deprivation, political campaigning and messaging carries immense responsibility.
This responsibility is legitimately placed on political parties in a post-apartheid dispensation, as elaborated in the Electoral Code of Conduct of the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC). It enjoins parties to consciously endeavour to avoid “using language which provokes violence”.
The intention behind this prohibition by the IEC is self-evident in a country where political violence, killings and malevolent jostling for power and opportunities becomes pronounced during elections.
That there should be respect for this prohibition is significant, especially when considering the underlying material reasons for, and aftermath of, the July unrest in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
When political messaging stokes instead of calms racial and ethnic tensions, it reifies and concretises the malignant effects of the Group Areas Act.
The act was designed and implemented in its minutiae by linking racial identity to geography and access to economic opportunities. Such divide and rule tactics are further reminiscent of the tricameral parliament, a short-lived attempt at racial co-option and bulwarking against enfranchising the African majority.
What we have seen on the part of the DA is a dropping of the mask. Its ideological orientation is barely disguised “tricameralism”. It is not far-fetched to infer that the DA shrewdly wanted to increase its share of the “Indian vote”, a tactic it has mastered over the years in the Western Cape with the “coloured vote”, thus building a hierarchy of resistance against Africans — a poor replicate of the tricameral system, a hierarchy of resistance against Africans.
Though the DA would no doubt balk at the comparison, these tactics conjure up the spirit of one HF Verwoerd, who in 1962 railed against a multiracial state as “a recipe for race suicide for all minority groups”, and infamously declared that “coloureds and Indians must not think that the colour of their skins will protect them”.
In 1981 the activist Ambalavaner Sivanandan warned that what gives race a bad name “is not the racial differences it implies, but the racist ideology that grades these differences in a hierarchy of power in order to rationalise and justify exploitation”.
When this exploitation is conceived and mobilised for political power, as we have seen in the poster saga, we are sensing the smouldering of a powder keg that should be put out at all cost.
The question then remains: what should inform and drive the political messaging expected from all progressive formations?
A quick diversion would suggest that, through its own misdoings, the liberation movement has delegitimated the revolutionary project, thereby emboldening all the reactionary and right-wing forces that, in the face of the ascendant democratic, nonracial moral climate, had gone to ground after the 1994 political breakthrough. Theseforces are now regrouping to raise their voices, passing off their discredited agendas as alternative moral visions in the current amoral conjuncture.
We would do well to remember the 1994 RDP advisory that “no political democracy can survive and flourish if the mass of our people remain in poverty”.
This policy recommendation also finds strategic expression in the National Development Plan, which we all have to strive to achieve, across and beyond our diverse identity and ideological orientations, to “create a home where everybody feels free yet bounded to others” and where we are, in essence, a people “proud to be a community that cares”.
To ask for and do anything different and counter to these founding values underpinning national unity betrays a cynical determination to preserve inherited racial privilege and its attendant economic power.
As citizens and communities from diverse class and racial backgrounds, we have demonstrated a willingness to come together in times of strife, as we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic
As Maslow's hierarchy of needs informs us, it is incumbent on all of us to support public policies and programmes intended to deliver — for the many — basic needs (food, water, rest) and physiological needs (safety, security), just as any government is obligated to ensure people attain self-fulfilment and transcendent needs (creative activities, prestige). After all, Nelson Mandela did say there must be bread, jobs and water for all.
Perhaps there is merit in the analysis of Kwame Anthony Appiah that what gives the “edge” to some societies, even those with diverse racial and ethnic fissures, is the united vision of its leaders to avoid exaggerating differences with others and similarities within one’s own kin and kith.
Fortunately, we have within us as a country and across diverse communities the ability to see material unity in our diversity, just as we did when we chose a negotiated settlement instead of protracted conflict.
As citizens and communities from diverse class and racial backgrounds, we have demonstrated a willingness to come together in times of strife, as we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.
More so, this communitarian spirit — what scholar Zilungisele Tembe calls an “Isintu ethic” — was evident in the very same July unrest when the majority of people called for calm, shared their limited resources and assisted with the cleanup campaign.
The living legacy of Mandela’s decolonial humanist ethics of liberation, nonracialism and servant leadership finds resonance in the sage counsel of Desmond Tutu when he says that “we grow in kindness when our kindness is tested”, as it is during the pandemic and in unrest of all sorts. Our present economic challenges, instead of being a convenient rallying call by politicians to manufacture and exploit the politics of difference in order to gain votes, should unite us to lasting solutions.
We should call out the race-baiters and merchants of tricameralism and the Group Areas Act who are trying to divide communities, and instead promote the motto of our land: !ke e: /xarra //ke — diverse people unite.
• Ngcaweni is principal of the National School of Government and Sehume is a researcher in the presidency. They write in their personal capacity