WHILST reflecting on the impact of the EFF “national shutdown”, my attention was drawn to a media statement on the use of the army to suppress legitimate protests in eSwatini released by the ANC in 2021. In it, the ANC emphatically scolded the eSwatini junta by stating, in part, that “the use of security forces to quell political dissent and the failure to address legitimate civilian concerns complicates the conflict and adds fuel to the fire”.
It is therefore incomprehensible that more than a year thereafter, the ANC fails to take cue from its “advice” but seems to suffer from a bout of the EFF shutdown-induced amnesia and paranoia that forced government to act irrationally to the detriment of its reputation as a champion of human rights and democracy, the different contexts notwithstanding.
The comparison, that is prompted by its over-the-top response to the EFF mass action, that is being made between the apartheid regime and the current government has brought to the fore the fragility of our limited democracy and how perceptions are so fickle. Instead of discrediting and/or dissuading people from participating in the EFF-organised national shutdown, the hullabaloo that preceded that action had an unintended consequence of laying bare the despicable duplicity of some elements within the South African society.
How unfortunate that the script that was carefully crafted and choreographed and then recited by, amongst others, President Cyril Ramaphosa and other government officials whilst parroted by the sycophantic local media, read like a chapter from the apartheid regime’s “rooi and “swart gevaar” dirty tricks book? Watching them bellowing out threats cast my mind back to the dark days of the “groot krokodil” (former apartheid SA President Pieter Willem “P.W” Botha) and other so-called apartheid securocrats who tried their damndest to intimidate and dissuade people from participating in planned boycotts and other popular struggles in the 1980s.
It was heart-breaking to see how what is professed as a democratic government adopted a tone, posture and even tactics of a regime that enforced apartheid – a system that was declared a crime against humanity. The aim seems to have been to conceal its glaring missteps whilst bastardising our country’s constitution in a clumsy attempt to justify its tyrannical stance and idiotic, if not outrageous utterances that bordered on violating the very constitution they were pretending to uphold.
The government’s fear-mongering and militarisation have left society traumatised but also alienated from it. We can ill-afford to pretend to not still be feeling the devastating effects of Sharpeville, Langa and other massacres during the apartheid era and the recent massacres in Marikana, Phoenix, amongst others. As President Nelson Mandela would say: “Never again!”
Indeed, rights go with responsibilities. As such, anyone who embarks on a protest for whatever reason should ensure that the exercise of that sacrosanct right does not infringe the right(s) of others. That being said, overreaction to a planned action is a serious indictment on the government of the day. The need to uphold safety and security (not law and order as this is a terminology inherited from apartheid warlords) cannot be emphasised. However, the government should not go over the top, as it happened during the recent EFF action, in its overzealousness to uphold the law.
That overreaction brings to the fore the question: have the “hawks/securocrats” of the apartheid past reincarnated themselves and executed a palace coup? It is common course that the “hawks” within the racist, dictatorial and blood-thirsty junta successfully executed a bloodless coup whilst trigger-happy gangsters masquerading as police and army were unleashed on unarmed civilian natives.
The reckless utterances and show of force, let alone actions of some of the security forces, should get South Africans very worried. Enforcing the law is one thing but being bellicose, especially on the part of government, is completely another matter. The unintended consequences of a government’s belligerent posture of heavy-handedness, ludicrous claims and descent to tyranny are too dire to contemplate as they might either be perceived as a desperate attempt at closing the narrow political space that has opened or inflame the situation. Either way, the outcomes are undesirable for our limited freedom that emerges from a cruel past of bannings, imprisonment, massacres and other state-sponsored and orchestrated crimes.
The EFF shutdown-induced panic and paranoia where government officials run helter-skelter and incoherently defend the indefensible, speaks ill of the ANC. Worse still, the idiocy served to lay bare the political bankruptcy and intellectual dearth that are prevalent within the current ANC. Clearly, the existential crisis is suffocating the ANC with intellectual hemorrhaging running too deep. Something has to be urgently done to arrest the descent into political oblivion.
As Xolani Dube of the Xubera Institute for Research and Development alluded to, it’s a power relations discourse that our country experienced as pertaining to the EFF shutdown. According to the dominant, colonial narrative, natives cannot demonstrate without resorting to violence. Regrettably, this is also a racist notion and construct that ANC leaders have allowed themselves to perpetuate, for reasons best known to themselves.
On the flip side, the over-the-top government response is propelling a sentiment that the government has the resources to fight crime and police our porous borders. Hence, it can swiftly deploy the police and soldiers when it suits them. That perception extends to people believing that the elites are self-centred and will only act when their narrow, selfish interests are threatened. Unfortunately, this perception, real or imagined, is taking root and is gaining traction and this doesn’t augur well for what is left of the government’s battered reputation.
The prevailing trust deficit that has developed over time as a consequence of broken promises, at best and utter lies at worst, cannot be ignored or denied. Why then act surprised when natives do not trust the government and political leaders? Inconsistencies and being unprincipled in our outrage and condemnation only add to mistrust. The so-called “Zumamustfall” activities and the farmer road blockages were not only ignored but were actively encouraged and supported by a number of ANC leaders, opposition parties and business alike. There were no concerns about the devastating effects on our ailing economy and all such gobbledegook. In fact, workers were given off days to join the marches. That’s the highest form of hypocrisy and this duplicity causes incalculable reputational damage that leads to trust deficit if not total mistrust.
Over-the-top response that resembles apartheid tactics further eroded the little trust that was left whilst it gave the EFF free but unwarranted publicity. Mind Boggling stuff that only points to a governing party and government devoid of strategic thinking and moral fortitude.
In Public Relations, it is said that the “medium is the message”. Looking at most if not all those who have been lecturing us about the nebulous constitution, the rule of law and the infamous law and order, it becomes apparent that the message could not have been credible, believable and effective as the messengers were mainly beneficiaries of the appalling status quo of rolling blackouts, constitutional delinquency and allergy to accountability.
The system came out guns blazing. Unfortunately, its response was mainly miscalculated considering the fact that the EFF never intended to shut down the country in the first place. This was war psychosis on the EFF part and the government fell into the trap by overreacting with the establishment media not helping the situation with its sycophancy.
Even if the state’s reaction and response were based on any form of intelligence, this was embarrassingly mismanaged. This is yet another demonstration of poor, if not lack of, leadership with own goals galore. Now that the dust has settled, we need a national conversation on what is a “national shutdown” and what actions are usually associated with shutdown versus what is mass action, as all these actions have different meaning, impact and implications. Hopefully, hard lessons in perception and political management have been learned and the national conversation will go a long way in enriching that learning exercise.
Mogodiri is an ANC member, former political detainee, ex-MK combatant and media specialist.