Mistaking the ‘Malema’ risk: A reply to Martin van Staden - Politicsweb

This is really a reflection on the virtue of being less than wholly convincing, or convinced, and thus avoiding the penalty of bringing the argument to a close.

Michael Morris

This is really a reflection on the virtue of being less than wholly convincing, or convinced, and thus avoiding the penalty of bringing the argument to a close.

What is much more important – and I would suggest the only thing that’s really important to a liberal – is that the argument does not end.

Martin van Staden wrote last week (Flags and threats: a liberal rumination on the limits of free expression) that Malema has deathly intent when he sings or leads the singing of the song Dubul’ ibhunu, translated, according to Wikipedia (in what seems a fair and comprehensive entry), as ‘shoot the Boer’ or ‘kill the Boer’, but which is also now interpreted to mean ‘kill the farmer’ and suggested to mean ‘kill the white farmer’, or perhaps even ‘kill the whites’.

In conclusion, Van Staden argues:

‘The guy [Malema] is unequivocal – there is no real room for theoretical deliberations about what the “actual” meaning of his words [kill the Boer] are. No South African needs to wait for Malema or the political climate to reach that point. The threat of aggressive force has already been made, and multiple victims already lie dead at the hands of those who undoubtedly heard the call to action. What is left is for Malema to be neutralised as an assailant… The common law has long recognised the unlawful nature of threats of force, but like so many other institutions has made irrational and arbitrary exceptions for political speech. It is time to tidy up the contradictions of common law and restore the sanctity of individual freedom and property. Julius Malema belongs in prison.’

 *         *         *

 As likely as not, you’ll find the words, ‘Where there’s law there’s injustice,’ attributed to Leo Tolstoy, which is not entirely – or technically – incorrect, just unsubtle. It means we are likely to think less about them, the phrase becoming just another clever literary aphorism, memorable enough for that odd occasion when a pithy maxim with some associated grandeur might come in handy.

‘Where there is law there is injustice’ are, in fact, the words of peasant – and, at this moment, prisoner of the invading French – Platon Karataev, a lesser character in War and Peace, which he utters to fellow prisoner Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of Petersburg’s wealthy Count Bezukhov, by way of acknowledging and trying to make sense of Pierre’s outraged alarm at what now seems his inevitable mortal fate before a firing squad, having himself been, as he naturally insists, arbitrarily arrested.

Our unresting yearning

I am sure Platon and Pierre embody the internal arguments of their creator; I think both embody the thoughts and impulses of the rest of us, too – our unresting yearning to be treated fairly, and, when not, to easily identify great truths about unfair fate.

I have always liked Platon’s somewhat resigned levelling with his and Pierre’s condition for the perplexity it injects into contemplating the one thing we would truly like to depend on – and more often than not are compelled to – which is the law.

It is obvious enough that bad law will produce injustice. Apartheid proves it, as does a great deal of colonial law before it, and a lot of ANC law since. Nazism, and Soviet and Chinese communism, were the arguably the nadir. But we probably don’t even need to name regions of geography or history; we could say that, across them all, in both successful and in failing societies, bad law has for one or another reason been made, and injustice has followed.

But what about good law? Surely good law doesn’t deliver injustice?

We don’t, of course, need to pay the slightest attention to a mere figment of an albeit mammoth literary imagination, but it is true, isn’t it, that Platon Karataev’s insight at least triggers the sense that we might want to pause and reflect cautiously before unquestioningly investing our approval in the authority and power of law to define the limits of our action and our thinking, to set an example, to compel us towards what is good and away from what is bad.

An excellent recent demonstration of the virtue of preserving room for argumentation and second thoughts is Adrian Wooldridge’s Nigel Farage Ups the Ante on Corporate Wokery. He writes of the UKIP leader that ‘Farage has done the cause of liberalism much harm by engineering Brexit and inflaming fears of immigration. But his current war on woke corporations may yet do something to advance the liberal cause.’

‘Live with disagreements’

Wooldridge goes on: ‘One of liberalism’s central aims is to reduce the scope of politics by simultaneously lowering our sights (liberals believe that we must live with disagreements rather than try to create a perfect society) and sealing off many activities from political buffeting.’

It’s worth reading that sentence more than once.

It seems to me that the only way it’s truly possible to ‘live with disagreements’ is to be not only tolerant of but an active contributor to an atmosphere of doubt.

Here, at first glance, is a procedure that may risk seeming to be merely a sort of unmoored way of thinking, betraying intellectual drift and the doubtful objective of an indeterminate destination.

But the supposed absence of conviction is only apparent.

As a newspaper leader writer at the time, it fell to me in January 2015 – in the days after the killing of several cartoonists and others at the Paris offices of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo – to dwell on the importance of abhorring what I described as ‘the tyranny of any single claim to truth’.

Recalling the observation of John Milton in his seminal defence of free speech of 1644, the Areopagitica, that ‘that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary’, I wrote that ‘(this) is a difficult idea for many – especially for those who are so self-convinced that they cannot tolerate an idea that is not wholly their own’.

At the extremes of free speech, preserving an atmosphere doubt is a testing ambition.

In the case of the Charlie Hebdo killings, I recognised that ‘(many) are torn between supporting an idea they take to be virtuous – the importance of free speech – and rejecting material that is so obviously intended to offend and inflame. But this is not the question the gunmen have posed for us. That question is whether we contend with – or just kill off – opinion we disagree with.’

‘In the contest between cartoons and Kalashnikovs,’ I concluded, ‘the cartoons win hands down every time, if only because, where the gun permits only one idea, the death of thought itself, the pen is the fount of limitless imagining.’

Not trivial

Which is not to say I don’t see the risks Van Staden raises. They are not trivial. But perhaps it is the absence of doubt that I missed most in his argument.

Van Staden writes: ‘The line between permissible and impermissible expression lies exclusively in the question of coercion – does the expression amount to a sincere threat of aggressive force? If it does, then the expression is impermissible, and defensive force – for example, arrest and imprisonment – becomes justifiable.’

I can see that, depending on the circumstances, he may be right. But it is in this determination to examine the circumstances where I believe the liberal wishes to exert a strenuous effort to preserve the room for argument.

Surely we must ask, is the ‘aggressive force’, whatever its sincerity, really an imminent threat that only the punitive repertoire of the state can adequately address?

If a rich man, addressing a residents’ association, leaps to his feet and, out of enmity or resentment or rage or even conviction, shouts, ‘Every wretched beggar on the streets deserves to die. They’re a drain on society … I’d like to kill them all!’, and is unquestionably sincere in the moment, a fundamental, prefatory, test must surely be: does he mean to act on his threat? And are the circumstances such that he has the means to act, or is likely to influence others to act? If he does act, of course, defensive force is justifiable.

But I think the issue in the meeting – even when some vocal supporters cheer him on – is not in any sense the nature of the recommended action, or the sincerity of the recommendation itself, but the scale of the threat, the likelihood or not that it might result in action. 

Which is why everything changes should the man tell the meeting, ‘I have some armed men outside, and we intend, right now, hunting down every last beggar that plagues this suburb!’ The ‘defensive force’ of immediately summoning the police, or even acting preemptively in some other way, would almost certainly be justified.

(In either case, the fact that it was common knowledge that this otherwise peaceable man was known to have been burgled twice recently, and to have lost a close friend in another city to an armed robbery, and that in all three cases insufficient evidence or botched policing meant no convictions were secured, would perhaps add another layer to the task of assessing the import of his statements.)

Lost opportunity

But I don’t think there’s any need to complicate the matter: I can’t see that, on its own, the sincerity of a threat qualifies as a sufficient reason to silence it (and the dangerous idea it might well from), for, surely, the first cost is the lost opportunity of calling its author to account, challenging the validity or basis of the threat, and so actively thwarting whatever risk it might pose. The other cost – and arguably the greater risk of proceeding with such certainty – lies in simultaneously undermining the rest of society’s freedom and agency to think and speak and decide.

Van Staden reinforces this certainty in another way, too, referring to a ‘sincere threat of aggressive force’ (such as Malema’s) as warranting ‘arrest and imprisonment’, and concluding unequivocally in his final line: ‘Julius Malema belongs in prison’.

He may not have meant it, but it is striking that both exclude the critical intermediate phase which, I presume, he does foresee preceding, or being the condition of, the punitive gesture he says is warranted, and that is the trial, the weighing of facts and interpretations, of evidence, and of the long record of judicial reasoning.

As it stands, what Van Staden calls for is quite different from ‘arrest and prosecution’, or ‘Julius Malema belongs in the dock’.

I, for one, disagree that Malema belongs in prison, and I would even disagree with the quite different proposition that Malema belongs in the dock.

In his letter in Business Day this week, colleague and fellow Daily Friend writer Terence Corrigan cites the redoubtable H L Mencken’s observation: ‘The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.’

It is tiresome always having to sally forth in defence of the free speech rights of people we’d likely not have in our homes, and who’d probably detest us, too. But it remains a critically important thing to do.

‘Strange it is …’

As John Stuart Mill remarked: ‘Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being “pushed to an extreme”, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.’

I’ve already mentioned John Milton’s Areopagitica, long a favourite touchstone. A lesser-known contributor to free-speech thinking is Cushrow Irani, the managing editor of India’s The Statesman newspaper in the 1970s, who, in challenging Indira Gandhi’s ‘national interest’ justification for curbing civil liberties, warned the prime minister: ‘There are no freedoms so dangerous as those that are not exercised.’

And, from earlier in the century, US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who cast the challenge in especially vivid terms when he wrote in a dissenting judgment that ‘if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate’.

All these sentiments confront us with the same essential difficulty of how to live with the risks of freedom rather than succumbing to the much greater risks of imagining that denying people freedom to express dangerous thoughts will be safer.

I began by saying that perhaps most important of all is that the argument does not end.

Arguments never really do. But there is at least one place where an argument can be said to have reached a terminus, and ceases, and that is a courtroom. In a sense, the court’s handing down a sentence is the last word, and is intended to be. And this surely is true for the words ‘Julius Malema belongs in prison’.

Of course, where the argument is a compelling one, there is no question of its ceasing – but as it is no longer entertained, as an argument, the last word having been uttered and heard, it must and does take a different form. This, too, we have seen playing out in every society and every age. Ideas, no longer contestable, become actions, points of dispute become stones, bullets, missiles. Contest becomes conflict, and contestants, combatants. The idea will out.

Implacable and hostile

We have been there before, with virtually all of society bitterly rivalrous, implacable and hostile, often eventually barely capable of coherent argumentation, and then almost always unwilling even to attempt it.

To draw on fellow Daily Friend writer Andrew Kenny’s phrasing, it is because ‘Malema matters and so does his song of hatred’, that he, and it, should be held constantly in public judgement.

I agree that Malema’s using this ‘song of hatred’ is a risk, but here’s another thing: part of that risk is precisely that the horror and fear it invokes get all the attention, and very little – far too little – goes to reckoning with conditions that continue to give meaning to what ought to be the outdated precepts and hoped-to-be-forgotten stirrings of the Struggle, but which, despite 30 years of constitutional democracy, continue to seep into society’s sub-terranean reservoir of resentment and anger.

I managed to watch Leo Kearse’s ultimately annoying ‘Julius Malema cries “Kill the Boer” at rally: Could South Africa end up going the way of Zimbabwe?’ on GBNews only by skipping several chunks in the middle. But I am glad I caught the end, where Kearse warns, in all earnestness by the looks of it, that South Africa today is a country that is ‘fertile ground for a vicious demagogue like Julius Malema to bring about white genocide and reduce his country to dust and bones’.

In the cold light of day, this ‘warning’ does raise some quite basic questions. For instance, Malema and who else? Are we to be persuaded that, under Malema’s influence, millions of South Africans will rise up and fall upon their compatriots? Does Kearse think so little of black South Africans that he imagines them not only to be wholly incapable of resisting the EFF leader’s now familiar – almost passé – rhetoric of racial violence, but somehow more than ordinarily prone to it? In other words, has he bothered to acquaint himself with the real (and I do mean both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’) nature of our society?

A racial fraction

More importantly by far, however, is this: does it not occur to him – and everyone else who tries to make this case – that to talk of white genocide in South Africa in 2023 means isolating a racial fraction of murder victims, and so contriving to brush reality aside, and be willing to overlook the real, frightening scale of violent crime in the country in the service of, well, of what? A racially superior claim to life and liberty?

I don’t believe there are any ‘racial’ solutions to South Africa’s very considerable difficulties, and I don’t believe there is merit, today, in trying to assign ‘racial’ blame, either. It goes without saying that I see no validity in whatever twisted logic Malema may imagine vindicates his anachronistic Struggle-era appeals to a strategy of violence.

But the genocide narrative is not harmless or innocent, for it risks obscuring the undoubted animus fed daily by the appearance of things, the seeming reality in which, while poverty and vulnerability still align so stubbornly with skin colour, it is from among the ranks of the most prosperous and secure that the claim is made for a special status as ‘at risk’ citizens requiring the special attention of the law, and any danger arising from subaltern grievance or indignation is explained away as the design of a reckless rabble-rouser.

As an aside, I only discovered at the weekend that Kearse is actually a comedian. What he’s doing in the news analysis business is anyone’s guess, though it’s true his effort on GBNews was risible. Yet, as a comedian, he’s pretty funny, and for all the best reasons: he’s irreverent, caustically indifferent to giving offence, wholly unprissy, independent-minded, and not unintelligent. I think anything under the sun should be available to comedic scrutiny.

Which is why, in fact, I did laugh when I saw the tease concocted by Richard Poplak and Pierre de Vos about the whole palaver of, if you like, making a meal of the genocide narrative. (For those who missed it, Poplak asked on social media: ‘What wine pairs best with white genocide?’ and De Vos replied: ‘Allesverloren blanc de blanc’.)

Unerringly comical

I think precisely the same sensibility is revealed in the outrage over this as in the wokist loathing Kearse (and he’s not alone) earns for examining other elements of the unerringly comical human condition (above all, perhaps, the will to purity) with unprejudiced humour.

It’s true, though, that murder is not very funny, and neither is the rhetoric of racial violence.

So, even though I think Elon Musk was silly to use the g-word (and so managed to make only an unserious point) – I do agree that Malema’s dangerous efforts to generate race hatred by cynically contriving to reheat Struggle-era resentments can’t be lightly brushed aside by, for instance, the ruling party or its leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, without cost.

The most troubling risk is that the cost of the moral indifference of the ANC and its sleepwalking leader, who appears unwilling even to repudiate the language of racial violence, may ultimately be paid by innocent victims.

As Kenny warns: ‘We have all seen horrible racial atrocities committed by deranged people for who knows what motives but open to hateful influence.’

I am perfectly willing to see the ‘song’ put in the context of history (and it is, we often seem to need reminding, an unpretty history). It is worth bearing in mind ANC veteran Gwede Mantashe’s quoted statement of 2010 that ‘(when) we talk (about) amabhunu, we were not talking (about) whites, we were talking about the system (of apartheid). It represented the system. (The song) is not a new invention’. He is reported to have added: ‘The biggest problem I have is when journalists interpret (dubul’ ibhunu) as “Kill the boer, kill the farmer”, which is a vulgarised interpretation of the song. And in my view that journalist who vulgarised the interpretation is inciting conflict.’

Not an instruction

I am reminded of Van Staden’s writing that ‘we have now multiple times heard [Malema] give the instruction: “Kill the Boer”’. Well, I don’t think that’s correct; the words are contained in a song, and, for all his apparent fondness for it, and heedless repetition of its performance, Malema did not write this song, the words are not his, and, even if he’s implicitly recommending this action, it’s not an instruction. Nor is the EFF a battalion. What’s more, how can we be sure that, as Van Staden writes (with a certainty that can surely only be founded on proof), ‘multiple victims already lie dead at the hands of those who undoubtedly heard the call to action’?

Yet, on the other hand, if, as Mantashe argues, ‘amabhunu’ was and could only have been relevant pre-1994, how does it fit today’s circumstances? And if ‘kill the boer, kill the farmer’ is a vulgarised interpretation, why does Malema keep using it, and why do Mantashe and his fellow Struggle grandees say nothing about that?

Equally, I think it must be asked whether, much as one might pray for it to be so, a plausible case could really be made that were Dubul’ ibhunu no longer to be sung, or heard, or its most notorious performer were to be jailed, murder would decline in South Africa, or the murder of white people, or of farmers, or that the farming community would thereby achieve a hitherto unattainable amity?

We could, perhaps, agree that there are many troubling reasons why far too often the impulse to violence is something of a South African reflex.

Once, many years ago, when I’d insisted to an interlocutor that it was historically inevitable that South Africa would ultimately embrace what to most white people at that time was the horrifying prospect of ‘one-man-one-vote’ government, his impulsive response was a revealing threat. ‘Morris,’ he blurted, ‘don’t talk kak … I’ll moer you!’

Our conversation was over

I laughed. Perhaps he did, too. I can’t remember. It did seem funny in a way, and he wasn’t a bad bloke. But I also knew that it was tragic, and unfunny for that. What effectively happened was that our conversation was over; history would happen, with or without us. I do often wonder what became of him, how he reconciled himself with what must have been the horror story to come – though, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t really be surprised if he’s thrived in the tumultuous decades since.

But, at the time, I do remember puzzling over that seeming truth, that moering someone was akin to winning.

Just the other day, I wrote a short response to a not unreasonable suggestion that, because of the energy wasted on them (and the ‘likes’ they earn), the Daily Friend should summarily ban purveyors of ‘soft and hard racism’ from the comments section. ‘We are acutely conscious of it, and it does jar,’ I began. ‘However, we steel ourselves to recognise that what would jar much more would be the surely deceiving relief of banishing those who express such ideas and letting them get away with deluding themselves into thinking that we had no argument strong enough to defeat them. I think being or at least trying to be unafraid of bad ideas – that is, unafraid of engaging them, and doing it publicly – does not just set a good example of what a free society (of many contending opinions) can and ought to be, but in fact embodies this freedom. We hope that, in the process, ugly ideas can change. They don’t always, or not in time to save societies from awful errors. Racists, soft or hard, are probably always likely to resist persuasion, fearful as they invariably are. But once they are compelled to engage, they cannot help but expose their ideas to reason.’

It may gall some to hear it said, but it may not be amiss to ask whether the enquiry into the real risks facing South Africans would be far better directed less towards tuning out ‘songs of hatred’ or punishing those who keep singing them than towards confronting the insufficiency of our collective response to the great sum of immiseration that is the lot of many millions, the seeds of which were sown by apartheid, the dread crop only nourished by ANC misrule since.

Unembarrassed racism

Those who revel in their unembarrassed racism might want to ponder why it should be that in 2023 such significant percentages of black South Africans don’t quite have the faith to abandon parties like the ANC and the EFF for fear of putting apartheid apologists back into positions of influence over them.

Even so, as scurrilous and trivial as so much of the ‘soft and hard racism’ in the comments section is, passed off as ‘argument’, this also is ‘thought that we hate’, which we steel ourselves to engage with and keep visible, trusting that its exposure to light will ultimately prove fatal to its bacterial potency.

Let’s not forget that censorship is always an unsunny condition, and prisons are closed and musty places.

That youngster who once wanted to moer me did have one thing right, though probably for unpalatable reasons: he understood the danger of freedom. And I think it’s true for all of us that there are moments when we inwardly beg for some intercession on our behalf, to contend with a risk that we sense is greater than our resources can adequately meet.

But as long as we remind ourselves of it enough, we will know that it is only by fostering the habits of a free society that a free society is made, and remade. As long as this matters to us, Milton’s ringing challenge will remain as fresh as it was in 1644 when he wrote: ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.’

Freedom is never a guaranteed condition, which is why we can never stop arguing for it, this being, in a fundamental way, inseparable from practising it.

Knife attack

Reflecting on last year’s knife attack on Salman Rushdie in the United States, I wrote in Business Day almost exactly a year ago of a piece the novelist, newly settled in New York, had written a month after 9/11, in which he sought to answer the question: how should we respond to terror?

‘Invoking Walt Whitman’s imagery of his new home as that “mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!” and “bright capital of the visible”, Rushdie reminded his readers: “The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his worldview, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong”.

‘The novelist added: “Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.” That such living — living in freedom — is a risky business was lately demonstrated in the grim attack on Rushdie at New York state’s Chautauqua Institution, a reminder that there can be no complacency about liberty, or about living up to its demands.’

Above all, the most pressing demand must surely be that the argument cannot be allowed to end.

Michael Morris is the IRR Head of Media. He was a newspaper journalist from 1979 to 2017, covering, among other things, the international campaign against apartheid, from London, and, as a political correspondent in Cape Town, South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has written three books, the last being Apartheid, An Illustrated History, and has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. He writes a fortnightly column in Business Day.

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.