On the ANC, refugees and offence

by The Editor

FEATURE: Helen Zille’s tweet about Eastern Cape refugees has caused much outcry, least of all from the ANC, which, as per usual, has used the opportunity not to talk about the problem at hand but the word itself. Ironically, given the ANC’s sudden worry about “negative feelings”, a look at its own track record reveals a party that routinely throws around deeply offensive ideas all the time. In the piece below I set some of them out and make the case: if the ANC is worried about offence, a good place to start would be by taking a look in the mirror.

On the ANC, refugees and offence

By: Gareth van Onselen

22 March 2012


On 20 March DA Leader Helen Zille tweeted the following:

“While ECape education collapsed, WC built 30 schools – 22 new, 8 replacement mainly 4 ECape edu refugees. 26 MORE new schools coming.”

The tweet was a reference to the massive influx of people from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape. According to Stats SA’s 2011 Mid-Year Population Estimates, 329 714 people have migrated from the Eastern Cape between 2006 and 2011 – more than have migrated away from any other province. Of those, 104 215 moved from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape. In the other direction, over the same period, just 29 899 moved from the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape. Clearly then, there are an enormous number of people leaving the Eastern Cape and, of those, 1 in 3 move to the Western Cape.

The reasons for the trend are not difficult to understand. The quality of life in the Eastern Cape under an ANC administration is seriously compromised by poor service delivery and equally poor governance. No one area typifies this better than the state of the education in that province.

The situation is so dire, even recent attempts by the national government to place the Eastern Cape education department under administration have failed because, to quote Education Minister Angie Motshekga, the province “created a state of paralysis by just not cooperating with the national department”. Behind the scenes and in public the problems facing the department are acute: an inability to spend funds, maladministration, teacher and union disputes and, ultimately poor outcomes. The Eastern Cape was the worst-performing province with regard to the 2011 matric pass rate results with a 58.1 % pass rate in 2011, down from the 58.3 % it managed the previous year.

By contrast, the Western Cape excelled. Announcing its results, Western Cape Education MEC Donald Grant, put it like this: “[the province achieved] a percentage pass rate of 82.9 % in the 2011 NSC examinations. This is an increase of 6. 1 % over the percentage pass rate attained in 2010. The matric pass rate in this province has improved from 75.7% in 2009 to 76.8 % in 2010 and 82.9 % in 2011. This makes the Western Cape the top performing province in the country.”

In almost every other area, the Western Cape outperforms the Eastern Cape (as do many other provinces). Simply put, it offers a better quality of life, more opportunity and an improved chance of any one person being able to realise their potential. This, no doubt, is the source of massive embarrassment to the ANC. Apart from the obvious fact that the Western Cape is the only province where it is not in power, the Eastern Cape is the ANC’s political heartland. And its inability to delivery the most basic services to Eastern Cape citizens effectively constitutes a direct assault on one of its core constituencies.

It makes perfect sense, then, to refer to those people who have fled the province – as their enthusiasm for the promise of a better future has slowly had the life sucked out of it by the ANC’s ability to deliver – as refugees. More to the point, it is hardly a pejorative term. Merely a description of the desperate situation these people face and the choice they have made as a result. One could just as easily say they have fled. Or they have escaped. Or they have deserted. Or, even, they have given up hope and, faced with no realistic prospect of a better life, chosen what appears to them a better option. Call them what you want – refugees, migrants, exiles – the fact of the matter is they want to get as far away from the Eastern Cape, as soon as possible.

And, whatever way you phrase it, their decision to leave in such large numbers is clearly an indictment of the ANC’s administration in that province and the degree to which it is able to cater for its greatest historical support base.

The ANC’s response

Nevertheless, as is the ad hominem nature of the ANC’s approach to debate, its response has been to deride Zille for using the term ‘refugee’ – as if that alone has something to do with the nature of the problem at hand. In an ironically extremely poorly-written statement on the matter, it argued:

“This is typical of the erstwhile apartheid government’s mentality that resorted to influx control measures to restrict black people from the so-called white areas. Hellen Zille’s racist statement underpins the DA’s policy of exclusionism of blacks.”

Then, as if to willingly reveal its bigotry, this line:

“To reduce South Africans who have free movement in their own country as refugees is tantamount to instigating against them by labeling them with a tag associated with foreigners.”

Sorry, but what exactly is wrong with “foreigners”?

It ended off the hyperbolic statement:

“Such utterances must not be tolerated as they generate a negative feeling in those who suffered under colonial and apartheid rule.”

Actually, no. The Western Cape has for years welcomed these “refugees” with open arms and, committed as it is to offering a better life – and, indeed, to delivering on that promise as opposed to just waxing lyrical about it – it will pick up the ANC’s slack and, no doubt, do exactly that for everyone who chooses to live in the province. And no, there are no “measures” in place. These are people who have left of their own volition, all more reason why the inherent indictment of the ANC is greater still.

So why the ANC’s outrage at the term?

Professional offence-takers

To understand the answer, one needs to understand the ANC’s revolutionary mindset and the language it employs as a result of it. The term ‘refugee’, a perfectly objective description of someone fleeing a dire situation is, in the ANC’s mind, a revolutionary idea. It suggests an illegitimacy on the part of the administration being fled or, at the very least, a fundamental and profoundly problematic issue with it.

On the evidence, the fact is there are a wide range of profoundly problematic issues with the Eastern Cape. As a result, many people living there feel the government they voted for is not delivering on its mandate – that it has broken its contract with them. That violation can quite rightly be understood as dishonest and as it reneging on its commitment. Likewise, it makes sense for those affected by that breach of electoral contract to look elsewhere.

But evidence and rationality are not what the ANC is concerned about. It has been trapped in a rhetorical corner of its own construction and, when reason and logic are against it, as is its want, it turns to irrationality and vitriol in response.

For the ANC the term refugee had nothing to do with its dire performance in government and everything to do with the idea that it alone is the sole representative of people’s interests – black people’s interests in particular. Any suggestion their interests might be better met by someone else is to delegitimise its very existance. Its actual incapacity does not constitute any offence to it, merely the suggestion people are abandoning it. True on not, that is where the real offence lies for the ANC. And so it has turned its attention to the word itself, as if to suggest it is the problem. In doing so, it has suggested it is concerned about good will and pejorative language.

But don’t for a moment think the ANC actually cares about offence or “negative feelings” – it thrives on the stuff. The ANC are professional offense-takers but never offensive-givers.

If it really was concerned about ‘offensive’, it need look not further than the attitude of those thousands of people who have fled its own administration. Trust me, they are offended; offended that the trust they placed in that government has been met by little more than contempt for their own well-being. If anything, that alone is worth an apology from the ANC.

And if its truly offensive language you are after, well, let’s have a look at the kinds of things the ANC says and I shall let the reader determine whether or not they are truly offensive.

A long record of offensive vitriol

Let’s start with the term ‘coconut’ – a perennial racist ANC slur, designed to denigrate those Coloured people – particularly in the Western Cape, who vote DA. Not only is it a word deemed fit to throw around in the National Assembly, as Trevor Manuel and Ngconde Balfour have done, but, indeed, to advertise in the newspaper.

Anyone remember this ANC advert from 17 October 2001:

Written and paid for the ANC in the Western Cape, it would eventually and after much public outcry illicit the following grovelling, if not qualified apology from then-ANC Western Cape Leader Ebrahim Rasool:

“In this province the buck stops with me. I really want to apologise. I believe that everything I have said about the ANC’s long and noble fight against racism is undermined by the use of the word coconut. Although we have not used it to refer to anyone except servile DA members, the use of the word is still unfortunate.”

Notice too, apart from the derogatory language, the Hitler-like moustache drawn on Tony Leon. Comparisons to Nazi mass murders, offensive? Not to the ANC.

And don’t think that is mild beer.

In the run-up to the 2000 local government elections a pamphlet issued by the African National Congress in the Western Cape depicted a uniformed ‘apartheid general’ giving a Nazi-type salute to Tony Leon while thanking the Democratic Party leader for shielding him from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Next to him, a strongly built man wearing an armband with the swastika-like, triple-seven emblem of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging emblazoned on it carried a banner proclaiming that the newly-formed Democratic Alliance “protects us against the kaffirs”. Sandwiched between the two was Helen Zille, then-provincial minister of education in the Western Cape government, her arm raised toward Leon in what might be a Nazi-style salute (see Focus 50 for more).

But why stop at DA politicians? The ANC has extended its disturbed rhetoric even further. In 2004, ANC MPL in the Western Cape legislature, Yousuf Gabru, would stand up and say: “I have a feeling that Mr Tony Leon’s wife was found for him by the secret service of Israel. I think that was a match made by the Secret Service of Israel.”

Treason is another word the ANC uses regularly. And, if you find the word refugee offensive, well, treason is a far more serious insult – a crime punishable by death. Desmond Tutu was called treasonous when he dared to disagree with the ANC and Thabo Mbeki, likewise and on numerous occasions, the Democratic Alliance.

But even on a more general level, the ANC’s profound inability to understand or appreciate some of the worst atrocities committed in human history see it regularly evoking the most offensive ideas with complete abandon.

Take the phrase “let a thousand flowers bloom”, for example. A statement originally made by Chairman Mao Zedong, the former leader of Communist China, ostensibly to suggest that all debate should be encouraged and contending ideas allowed to compete.

The ANC uses it all the time, with scant regard for its true meaning. President Mbeki, for example, has, ironically, said: “In this regard, I support the call once made in China – let a hundred flowers bloom: let a hundred schools of thought contend!” In November 2009, writing for the Sowetan, the then-Deputy Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula wrote: “We welcome a national dialogue on these measures and every South African must be part of this public discourse. Borrowing from the first chairperson of the Communist Party of China , Mao Tse-Tung, we say: ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend.” And so on.

Mao Zedong was a brutal and ruthless dictator who relentlessly persecuted, punished and murdered millions of innocent people; and particularly those he considered to be critical of him personally or the Communist Party’s cause more generally.

Clive James, in his book ‘Cultural Amnesia’, puts it like this:

“The full evil of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is continually being rediscovered, because it is continually being forgotten. In 2005 it was rediscovered all over again when Jung Chang, previously the author of Wild Swans, the book that blew the gaff on the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, brought out, together with her husband, and account of Mao’s career that pitched the body count of innocent civilians where it belonged, far beyond the total achieved by Hitler and Stalin put together.”

Rather sardonically he captures the full impact of the ‘thousand flowers’ statement like this:

“The pretty rubric looks so harmless even today, now that we have some idea of what it cost. Halfway between a poem and a slogan, it is a small thought that would fit on a big T-shirt. It doesn’t even sound wrong. Mao designed it to sound right. For the trick to work, millions of people had to believe the words meant what they said, even though the Party, within long memory, had never rewarded a contentious voice with anything except torture and death. Anyway, the suckers fell for it. The flowers bloomed, the schools of thought contended, and Mao’s executioners went to work.”

What is beyond contention are the consequences, whether part of an initial grand scheme to identify and brutalise those that oppose him, or not, that is exactly what happened. Survivors of the assault, in a petition to the Communist Party in 2005, estimate that over 550 000 people identified as a consequence of the hundred flowers campaign were humiliated, imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

Which brings us back to the various ways in which that statement is used in South Africa today – to cite that particular statement as representative of the suggestion that public debate be encouraged demonstrates a profound ignorance of breathtaking proportions. Mao’s call represents the very antithesis of any call for public debate, its encouragement or its protection; a guise for a far more sinister agenda.

Its use by the ANC is embarrassing.

And, offensive.

I am tempted to list a great many other insults the ANC has thrown around – President Zuma’s suggestion that “Same sex marriage is a disgrace to the nation and to God”, Julius Malema’s use of the word “tea lady” or the ANC’s suggestion that Coloureds line up at the back of the employment equity queue, for example. The list goes on and on.

The long and the short of it is the ANC wouldn’t know what ‘offensive’ was if someone hit the party over the head with it. It routinely evokes the most objectively offensive terms – labelling its opponents treasonous; demonstrating a profound and callous historical ignorance about mass atrocities; evoking comparisons with Hitler; using derogatory terms like ‘coconut’, maligning homosexuals and slandering anyone it deems to be a political threat. But it has a problem with the word refugee, because it evokes a “negative feeling”?



If the ANC really was concerned about offence, a good place to start would be an apology to the people of the Eastern Cape, for the disgraceful way in which it has managed that province since 1994. The people of the Eastern Cape placed their faith in the ANC and it has reneged on that deal. Rather than focusing on the word used, why not try dealing with the problem that underlies it. No one else is responsible for that situation but the ANC itself.

And, if it is offence itself the ANC is worried about, perhaps some sort of commitment to reigning in its own racially loaded rhetoric. At the very least, take a few history lessons.

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