Beware race-baiters wedging open the GNU - Politicsweb

The Government of National Unity is an eventuality that many of us had hoped would be avoided. As dire as governance under the ANC had become, it was at least familiar and so, after a fashion, predictable.

Terence Corrigan 
The Government of National Unity is an eventuality that many of us had hoped would be avoided. As dire as governance under the ANC had become, it was at least familiar and so, after a fashion, predictable.

A coalition involving the ANC and DA put together two parties with sharply different ideological orientations and decades of mutual animosity. Whether this can hold together is uncertain, and the possible consequences of its failure will be serious indeed.

In some ways, the GNU represents a form of negative politics: unpropitious electoral mathematics and keeping the Economic Freedom Fighters and uMkhonto weSizwe out of power were the only real drivers of the arrangement. It is the old story of being against, rather than in favour of. This was the warning made about various attempts to combine opposition groups against the ANC.

It is also clear that there are sizeable constituencies that are for one reason or another deeply hostile to this deal. The key matter of contention is the presence of the DA.

For Cosatu Secretary General Solly Phetoe, the DA has a history of “harbouring racists”. Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, NUMSA spokesperson, attacks the DA as the “party of the oppressors” and the appointment to the basic education portfolio of a minister from that party as this would give it “the keys to the minds of our children”.

One Mphumzi Mdekazi, described as a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University, penned a lengthy opinion piece on IOL, claiming that “the DA is driven solely by the group interest of white people, its interest is diametrically opposed to the historical mission of the ANC and of African people,” and damning as “native traitors” those accommodating them in government.

Kenny Kunene of the Patriotic Alliance (nominally a coalition partner) calls the DA “a problem in the coalition”. They are, he says “a white supremacist party, driven by racist tendencies”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters issued a statement lashing out at the “racist DA”, whose political programme “comes from the Oppenheimers and Ruperts.” It went on: “We call on all South Africans, the continent, and our allies in the globe to appreciate that South Africa has become a right-wing enclave in the continent, that is unable to commit to meaningful change or challenge global capital, imperialism, and ethnic genocide, because they are in bed with the perpetrators of injustice.”

There is a great deal going on here, but the overall contours are clear.

This is a narrative that should be familiar to South Africa. It has been assiduously cultivated by the ANC since the 1990s: the idea that politics in South Africa was less a contest between political factions representing the choices of equal citizens than an existential fight to the finish – as a series of articles in ANC Today darkly cautioned back in 2007, “the enemy manoeuvres but it remains the enemy”.

This was the nightmare world of “counter-revolution”, of racial supremacism, of imperialist plotting, and of the blending of legal and illegal strategies to sabotage the country.

In this worldview, the DA was explicitly central to this nefarious agenda. It was the avatar of “whiteness” and all that implies, and thus inimical to the revolution, if not wholly illegitimate in South Africa.

Race and racism have been at the discursive centre of this mode of politics. They have a large and painful place in the country’s history, the after-effects of which are very much in evidence. They provide an easy and visible framework around which to understand the country, and on which to build alliances. The ANC’s putative commitment to non-racism notwithstanding, the lure of appealing to a solidarity around an immutable characteristic has proven powerful indeed.

Whether for ideological or opportunistic reasons, race-coded (if not race essentialist) politics have a strong presence in the ANC and in the organisations operating within its orbit. Indeed, a recent analysis by Gareth van Onselen showed that its support base is largely mono-racial, a very sad change from what it managed in the early years of its incumbency.

Independently, racial thinking has arguably gained intellectual momentum since the mid-1990s. If the ANC could discard non-racialism in practice, a good many academics, journalists and activists (not to mention a very lucrative “diversity” industry) have done so as a matter of principle. As one “diversity specialist” said of non-racism: “that thing is dead and tired now.”

For all of these, and for a variety of motivations, DA participation in the GNU represents something deeply unpalatable. Within the ANC, figures like Lindiwe Sisulu have vociferously opposed it, calling instead for a “black pact of progressive forces”, a very revealing turn of phrase and elucidation of worldview. The DA, she avers, drawing on a long-standing perspective with the ANC, “is the epitome of what the previous government represents.”

Expect this message to be amplified from the EFF and MK – both of whom might welcome an opportunity to step into government and attempt a sideways takeover of the ANC – as well as from business groups invested in racial and political preferencing, and from ideologues and activists committed to racial politics for its own sake.

Expect that the ingrained suspicion between the ANC and DA to mean that there may well be receptive minds to this messaging. The dangers this poses should not be underestimated.

Should the racial invective fall on fertile ground, it would be deeply unfortunate. Tenuous though its prospects may be, the GNU does at least raise the possibilities of building a cooperative politics. If it can successfully navigate its differences, help to reconcile the interests of divergent constituencies, and centre constitutionalism in government and the imperative of growth in the economy, the GNU will have done the country a great service. These would be the foundations for sustainable progress, necessary though not sufficient.

Whether it can do so remains to be seen. Perhaps the policy positions are simply too far apart, and mistrust too entrenched. If this is the case, South Africa will pay a steep price. For that reason, the country would be well advised to be vigilant against the deliberate fostering and weaponisation of emotive racial animosity.

Terence Corrigan is projects and publications manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR)