South Africans will tell you that unless you have lived in South Africa, you will never be able to understand its politics.
Well, I lived in South Africa for twenty years – I didn’t understand its politics then, and having observed it from afar for the last twenty one years, I can honestly say I still don’t fully understand it now.
Of course, that didn’t stop me wading into a debate on Facebook about the planned protests against Jacob Zuma’s recent cabinet reshuffle.
A bit of background for those who are unfamiliar with the situation. Jacob Zuma has recently sacked his highly-respected Finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, along with Gordhan’s deputy minister, Mcebisi Jonas. They have been replaced by a minister and deputy minister with no background in the Finance ministry, whose only real qualification for the roles appears to be an unswerving loyalty to Zuma. It is widely believed that the reason for the sacking of Gordhan and Jonas is because they were refusing to sign off on a number of highly questionable deals that Zuma is keen to push through, which will benefit the Indian-born Gupta family and their business empire.
The ministers of energy and police, similarly, have been replaced with new ministers who are expected to do Zuma’s bidding, including passing a highly controversial nuclear deal with Russia, which many South Africans believe will come at too great a cost to South Africa’s economy.
But the key reason for the reshuffle, according to political analysts, is Zuma choosing to cement his political position by surrounding himself with loyal party members who will back his proposal to install his ex-wife as his successor when he is forced to step down at the end of his second term in office. Others speculate that he may even try to change the constitution to enable him to serve a third term.
As a result of the cabinet reshuffle, the rand has fallen in value against the pound and the dollar, and South Africa’s debt rating has been downgraded to junk status.
Middle class South Africans (predominantly white) are particularly up-in-arms about this turn of events and are calling for protests across the country in an aim to gain support for a vote of no confidence in Jacob Zuma. They are calling for all South Africans, regardless of race, to recognise the negative impact that President Zuma’s leadership is having on the country and to call on the ANC to replace him.
This appeal for solidarity has drawn scorn from many in the black community (as well as a number of privileged white people who clearly consider themselves more enlightened than those calling for Zuma’s impeachment). They point out that the only reason white people are protesting is because their “white privilege” is under threat – and that given those white people never joined in any previous protests over the last few years (such as the recent “Fees Must Fall” student protests, or the protests held over the Marikana massacre in 2012), they should not expect “solidarity” from other races for “their protest”.
To some extent these are valid points. White middle class South Africans didn’t turn out in protest after the Marikana massacre, in which 35 striking miners were killed by security forces. They did not protest at the failure of the subsequent government investigation to hold anybody to account for it. Nor did they join in with the “Fees Must Fall” student protests. Though the argument that they didn’t join in the protests because the issues didn’t impact them, is slightly flawed.
Admittedly, white middle class South Africans could not be expected to understand the frustrations that led miners to strike at Marikana. And they would not have had family members who were caught up in the strikes. But then, the same can be said for any middle class South African, regardless of race.
As to the tuition fee protests, white South Africans are just as interested in tuition fees as black South Africans. But they quite rightly did not want to be associated with protests which involved violence, intimidation, fire-bombing of lecture halls and an overall property damage bill of over R600 million (about 37.5m GBP). Quite frankly, many black, coloured and Asian South Africans were equally horrified at the behaviour of many of the protesters. So it seems a bit unfair to point the finger at the white middle class for not joining in.
I was informed today by one black South African, university-educated person, that he “genuinely doesn’t care” about the fact that Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle has resulted in South Africa being downgraded to junk status or about the impact that will have on foreign investment in the UK. According to this man, “the poor will always be poor” and so it doesn’t matter if the president wishes to plunder the national purse for his own interests and those of his political cronies. Having survived slavery and a white supremacist government, in this man’s opinion, blacks can survive this too, and under no circumstances would he be prepared to join any protest that was initiated by “white people”.
When I expressed my dismay at this attitude, which to me was a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, a young white South African lady stepped in to try to explain to silly little me, why I had completely misread the situation. According to her, the majority of poor black South Africans, living in townships, getting up at 3.30am to shower in cold water before making the long journey into work, would be completely unaffected by the cabinet reshuffle. Their lives will not change in any way. So why should white South Africans expect them to care?
But this is exactly the point! They should care exactly because their lives will not change in any way. Because in the 23 years since the ANC has been in power, their lives have not changed. And if they continue to fail to hold their government to account over its mismanagement of the country’s resources, their lives will never change. At some point, South Africans of all races have to stop blaming apartheid for the continuing inequality in society, and look to the current government’s failure to address it. Yes, apartheid will always be largely to blame, but it can no longer be cited as the only cause of the continuing inequality.
So my message to my white South African friends is – get out and protest. Continue to call for solidarity from all races – keep explaining to them, until you are blue in the face, why this is an issue they, too, should care about. If they wish to berate you for your white privilege, let them – and then point out to them that replacing white privilege with the privilege of a dictator and his cronies will not erase the ills of the past, nor will it make the country better for them or for future generations.
And finally, an apology. I’m sorry that I am not there to join in the protests. That I am writing this from my position of comfort and security, safe in the UK with its AA credit rating (though admittedly, we also got downgraded after the Brexit vote). I may no longer live in South Africa, and I may never fully understand its politics, but having just returned from an incredible visit to this wonderful country in which I grew up, I will always be hopeful for its future. And if the only way I can add my voice to the protest is by wading into arguments on Facebook, and writing blog posts about why this is an issue that all South Africans should care about it, then that is what I will continue to do.