How a journalist's apology fuels a new tribalism – Rand Daily Mail, 26 January 2016

Neither Du Plessis nor her use of pantypreneurs in its particular context was remotely racist.

By Cilliers Brink 

If we’re going to have a meaningful debate about race and identity in the Beloved Country, we ought to revisit the curious case of Carien du Plessis and the “pantypreneurs”. Du Plessis, a political reporter, introduced the dreaded phrase to Twitter to describe an anticipated phenomenon at the African National Congress' January 8 shindig. And so she attracted one of the more dubious accusations of racism in the great race twar of 2016.

There was nothing extraordinary about the accusation itself. Despite having all the features of a modern political party, everyone knows that the ANC sometimes conducts politics like a bush war. Like any good Marxist-Leninist, Viet Cong-trained revolutionary movement it quickly dispenses with reasoned debate. It zeroes in on the weakness of a detractor, and then strikes with devastating force.

And so Du Plessis’ racial identity was the weakest thing about her. She admitted as much, offering an almost defenceless apology, and seeking the warm redemption of the liberation movement. That is what saved her. Not only was she spared the career-limiting fate of other prominent Tweeps accused of racism, her banishment from all ANC events was also lifted.

Du Plessis explains herself in a Mail & Guardian piece called ‘Why using pantypreneurs in a tweet was wrong’. The piece is important, because it reveals a rather warped worldview about identity, empathy and solidarity that seems to be widely held, if only among our chattering classes. That worldview is tribalism.

Of course neither Du Plessis nor her use of pantypreneurs in its particular context was remotely racist. She didn’t even coin the dreaded phrase. It has, it would seem, been widely spoken, albeit in hushed tones, since the ANC’s 2012 national conference in Manguang.

Du Plessis explains that pantypreneurs are much like tenderpreneurs (the one phrase to which the ANC tellingly didn't take offense). They are political and economic outsiders desperate to share in the tax-funded spoils of the ANC elite. Big ANC events like the party January 8 statement give some women entrée to the Big Men who control our politics.

This then is one of the sad consequences of having a ruling elite who sees no difference between itself and the state.

So Du Plessis did have a convincing defence. She could have argued that calling pantypreneurship by its ugly name was justified, because such steely-eyed candor was the best way of attacking a patriarchal taboo: the sexual currency of male-dominated politics. Instead she capitulated to the ANC’s racism charge. She confessed her white privilege, and the rest is history.

One cannot hold Du Plessis’ self-awareness against her, except that in this particular instance her own racial identity was the lesser issue. Admitting that racial identity can ever be the lesser issue may seem like sacrilege to some. But unless feminists, humanists and just about everyone else enjoy being hustled by the likes of Zizi Kodwa, we better stand our ground. Du Plessis retreated, and in so doing she probably lost all moral authority to critique pantypreneurship in future.

It was no easy decision on her part. Evident in her M&G piece is an agonising conflict of loyalties, between racial deference on the one hand and human solidarity on the other. “The question”, she writes, “is how do you talk about this valid issue of the painful commodification of (black) women’s bodies at the party of a party that has committed itself to women’s empowerment and upliftment from poverty, and a 50-50 sharing of power. We don’t want to end up in a society where women should give their bodies to get jobs.

Du Plessis’ ideas may come from deep ANC sympathy, but they also contain traces of critical race theory. Whatever the merits of this academic creed, its proponents can hardly deny that their politics is powered by a far older and stronger impulse in our society and in the ANC. This impulse goes by the far less fashionable name of tribalism. It is in compliance with the rules of tribalism that Du Plessis hushed herself about “the painful commodification of (black) women’s bodies”.

The thing about tribalism is that it’s not just about Zulus versus Xhosas or some other form of black-on-black conflict, as the term is parochially understood. It is equally about whites versus blacks, or blacks versus whites, and even locals versus foreigners. Racial nationalism and xenophobia are weapons in the same tribalistic armory. The insistence that these mutations of prejudice are somehow fundamentally different from each other is itself a delusion of the tribalistic mind.

Tribalism is a code of values, and it does two things to those under its sway. First it compels you to have one group affiliation, forsaking all others. Then it prevents you from expressing genuine empathy beyond that group. Invoking a sense of racial superiority is sometimes just a way of protecting tribal “own affairs” from outside interference; of stressing the inseparable experiences, interests and destiny of members of a tribe. And nothing reinforces the power of a tribal elite, or covers-up its abuses, like the myth of inseparability.

But people do belong to different groups simultaneously. Each of us has more than one tribal identity. Without denying any of our differences, we are therefore capable of expressing cross-tribal solidarity. A white feminist can, for instance, make common cause with oppressed black women based on a shared repugnance of patriarchy. So what if this disrupts the racial solidarity of the ANC, or any other tribal hierarchy for that matter? Such individual audacity is exactly what makes an open society a kinder, safer, more inclusive and more prosperous place.

Those who believe in such a society must speak up for the individual, and against the compassion-killing tribalism articulated by Du Plessis and others. If we abandon all belief in human solidarity, the kind that transcends tribal identity, we also abandon each other to the mercy of self-anointed tribal chieftains like the Big Men of the ANC. A more senseless response to the legacy of apartheid is hard to imagine.

Cilliers Bring is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica

Read the article on the Rand Daily Mail here