As the clock struck twelve on Thursday last week, South Africans received an early April Fool’s action that turned into a nightmare. President Jacob Zuma, for the second time during his ruinous term of office, implemented a cabinet reshuffle that had “Screw you, South Africa” written all over it. Finance minister Pravin Gordhan, along with his deputy Mncebisi Jonas, was axed, quite literally, at the eleventh hour – just in time for Malusi Gigaba, former minister of Home Affairs aka Mr. Best-dressed-in-parliament, to step in to take the job. Another highlight – or perhaps lowlight – of the reshuffle, was putting Fikile Mbalula in the position of Minister of Police. In the words of EFF leader Julius Malema, we now have the Minister of Instagram and the Minister of Twitter in charge of money and security respectively in this country.
Let’s be honest though; we had to see it coming. We’re talking about a man who has evaded 700-odd charges of corruption against him, who has played with his cabinet like a deck of cards, who has flouted a Constitutional Court ruling against him, and who has sold his soul to the devil (read “Guptas”). The rand plummeted. The country reeled. The people shook their heads in disgust. The white liberals frothed at their mouths. The expats rushed to their nearest forex branch.
And then we had #BlackMonday; a day of solidarity and protest against Zuma’s actions marked by the wearing of black. Immediately, this was met with backlash and bitter criticism. The Twitterati were out, vocal and proud, with a litany of just about every other issue in South Africa that supposedly affects only the black majority. Where were the protests when Marikana happened? Where was the black garb when mental patients died at the hands of incompetents? When students demanded free, decolonised education? When 17 million people were on the brink of not receiving their grants? Admittedly, the way these protests were marketed is unfortunate. “Black” Monday – really, they couldn’t come up with anything better? The question underlying all the criticism was, “Is it culturally appropriate to be protesting at all?”
Divide and Conquer
The greatest triumph of divisive politics in this country is its ability to alienate people from one another, even when unity is in their best interests. It politically and physically paralyses us from ever stepping into action, because we will always find a reason why the fight ought to be different, better; why it ought not to be ours. There will always be a reason – to be fair, an often valid one, at that – why our differences should continue to separate us. There should have been protests when Marikana happened. But there weren’t. The reason we didn’t have protests during the student uprisings last year is because #FeesMustFall is still seen in the public eye as a movement largely only encompassing free tertiary education and quite simply, not everyone supports it.
But to use these instances as a reason not to act now – when it is so clear that the actions of our president have flouted the law and public interest, and – what is more concerning – set a precedent for this to be tolerated in the future – is short sighted at best; counterintuitive at worst. Here was the one instance where there was mutual interest across racial lines.
"Zuma can continue to laugh to his “Thixo waseGeorge Koch” because he now knows full well that our passivity and inability to mobilise is our final surrender to the hijacking of this nation."
These protests are NOT about protecting white interest. They are not simply about one man losing his job. They are NOT about the value of our currency. Anyone who believes otherwise is being disingenuous about the situation at hand. In fact, critics have so successfully reduced and redefined #BlackMonday that it is now perceived to be one dimensional – and given the nature of social media and the way that it is used in politics today, what is perceived to be something, must be so.
Social media vastly distorts representation. It’s safe to say that most South Africans are pretty sick and tired of our president’s shenanigans. We all feel that something needs to be done. Thus ordinary citizens who would have supported the idea of standing in solidarity against our president were discouraged from doing so when #BlackMonday became racialised. We can now expect to see this kind of automatic response for all issues in the foreseeable future. They will all be characterised by us fighting against one another instead of fighting the things that hurt us all.
What is ironic about mainstream social media’s reaction to #BlackMonday was how its opponents essentially took a campaign that ultimately belonged to them in the first place and rejected that ownership on the grounds of race, never giving themselves the opportunity to define the black narrative within such campaigns. Relevant question: assuming but not conceding that Zuma’s actions pertained only to economic stability, why is it that economic stability is seen to be only a white person’s problem? The rhetoric we saw essentially implied that if it hasn’t got to do with poverty, land reform, or free education, then it isn’t the black person’s problem.
A large reason for all the criticism we saw on social media was this problem of redefining the narrative. What should have been a protest by all South Africans against the hijacking of the state was portrayed as a protest protecting white interest. Thus in this portrayal, black people went from standing up for themselves and their country, to attaching themselves and “helping” whites get their voices heard. The politics of perception is a dangerous tool, and it was used effectively to discourage black people from believing that this was their fight, too. They rejected it before they allowed it to become theirs.
Then there was the issue of timing. Sure, we can establish that we were all affected by what happened last week, but why all the hype now? It’s the same criticism of the #ZumaMustGo campaign two years ago, when it seemed that white people were only willing to take action when their investments were threatened. My issue with these arguments is that they raise relevant concerns, but do little to prove why we should not still act now. They search hindsight for grievances we’ve had in the past and find reasons why our divisions should continue to separate us. But what does this achieve? We point out very well the double standards in white interest, but what does it do for us as a people? When we surrender our own responsibility to stand up for ourselves because of the double standards in the responses of others, we do nothing to further our own cause. In fact, we pull it back.
The opponents of #BlackMonday did a good job of articulating the inequalities in our society while adding their purposeful silence to the growing buffer of passiveness surrounding our president’s actions. Do we not see how this divisiveness plays right into our politicians’ hands? Attention was immediately directed away from the actual problem and conveniently focused on the dialogue that confirmed only one thing: South Africans have effectively lost the ability to mobilise.
Why it Matters
These protests are about South Africa falling by the wayside before our very eyes as we bicker about who deserves our support. We ALL deserve better than this contemptuous, arrogant, selfish “leadership”. If we aren’t going to show our unified rejection of this conduct, we send a very clear message: “it’s a’ight”.
We’ll stand back passively as our president protects the likes of Bathabile Dlamini whose incompetence nearly cost 17 million people their livelihoods. Foreign-owned companies like CPS will continue to exploit the poorest of the poor with their shady tenders and “white minority capital”. Do the marginalised not deserve #BlackMonday? Zuma will continue to give a slap on the wrist to the Cyrils of this world who make bad decisions that result in the loss of lives. Do the miners not deserve #BlackMonday? And he will continue to quietly (or, in the case of last week – stealthily, in the dead of night) remove the people who work tirelessly to improve this country for all South Africans. Last time I checked, we should all be interested in protecting our country from being hijacked.
It is pertinent to question whether it is culturally appropriate to protest only now. But it is not an acceptable excuse. If the opponents of the likes of #BlackMonday are adamant that they too are reviled by the actions of our president, then we all believe it; and we all need to act, somehow. If this is the starting point, then perhaps critics ought simply to ask themselves the reverse, “Are these reasons enough NOT to do anything?”
The moment South Africans refuse to stand together on issues such as these is the moment we lose all hope of EVER standing up for ourselves as a nation. There can be no consensus on land, education, or any other issue if we cannot even agree to act when our president so blatantly sells his country into the hands of the elite.
We can seethe on radio, we can write our columns, we can hold our conversations, but we all know that we’re past the point of being able to talk these things away. We need mass action right now. We need to show that we can rise above our divisions to fight for what is ours: this country. If we cannot even do this, then we have truly slipped past the point of no return. Zuma can continue to laugh to his “Thixo waseGeorge Koch” because he now knows full well that our passivity and inability to mobilise is our final surrender to the hijacking of this nation.