Ivo Vegter: In defence of Donald Trump
The outrage about an American billionaire, Donald Trump, who took to Twitter to air an unsolicited "I like Mandela but..." opinion, was terrifying to watch. Terrifying, but also deeply troubling on many levels. Emotive outrage and smug judgmentalism are no substitute for rational thought and pragmatic policy.
Thus opined Donald Trump, the famous American property mogul and host of The Apprentice, under the Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump. Not famed for his subtle and elegant tastes, Trump immediately sparked outrage among South Africans on the influential social network.
"What Donald Trump needs is a new toupee and someone to keep his idiotic mouth shut up," opined well-known spin doctor Victor Dlamini.
"Your hair sir, is the real crime here. A crime against humanity," retorted writer Khaya Dlanga.
"I really like @realDonaldTrump but his wig is a lice ridden mess that is begging to be washed - not a good situation for him," replied the comedian known as Deep Fried Man.
In a rare departure from classy quips about the fellow's hair, television producer Joanne Lurie added: "A beautiful reminder that money can't buy you class."
Vusi Thembekwayo, a popular public speaker, added a scientific analysis, placing Einstein on one end and Trump on the other end of an intelligence scale.
It is not the first time Trump unburdened himself on the subject of Nelson Mandela's death. As soon as the man was too dead to dispute the claim, Trump announced he had enjoyed a "wonderful relationship" with Madiba.
Read: "Like many rich and famous people, my public relations drones once scored me a photo-op with him. If they hadn't, they'd have been fired!"
My first instinct was that there really weren't any redeeming features in his latest comment. It was ill-timed and crass. Trump has no business lecturing South Africa at a time of deep national mourning. That likely played a big part in the anger he evoked. Gracious tolerance is an uncommon reaction to the fellow who interrupts grief with a snide comment.
So, he had it coming. But when I expressed the same kneejerk reaction, a friend replied: "Well, he's right, isn't he? And it's rich for us to complain about decorum when we booed president Zuma during Mandela's memorial."
I remain convinced that the weekend of Madiba's funeral was not the time for such a remark, that Trump is not the person to make it, and that Mandela's legacy is the wrong context for it. Of all our leaders he is least to blame for the problems in today's South Africa.
Still, my muse had a point. Why should we expect more solemnity and dignity from a foreigner than we could muster ourselves, with the eyes of the world upon us?
Let's break Trumps's statement down.
"I really like Nelson Mandela but..."
That's a very bad way to start a sentence, on any day, ranking right up there with: "I'm not a racist but..."
Otherwise, however, it is uncontroversial. Donald Trump claims to like Nelson Mandela. Good for him. I'm not as convinced as he appears to be that it was reciprocated, but veneration of the late Madiba is hardly unique. If he had consulted his public relations staff before opening his yap, professional advice might have been that really liking Nelson Mandela is good for business.
"South Africa is a crime-ridden mess..."
It is unclear to what extent this has anything to do with Nelson Mandela, but as a statement of opinion, it is at worst a mild exaggeration.
If official statistics are to be believed, considerable progress has been made against many types of crime in recent years, but life, liberty and property continue to be far from safe in South Africa.
Deep-seated corruption is wide-spread throughout government, and even within the law enforcement authorities themselves. The same is true about the private sector, which cut its teeth in sanctions-busting days, and is now living it up on tenders, protectionism and sometimes outright fraud.
South Africa's murder rate has more than halved since 1994, but it remains infamously high, ranked 15th in the world. The prevalence of serious crimes have made private security one of the country's boom industries, employing almost three times as many guards as the state employs police officers.
Ironically, crime made a particularly high-profile appearance at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Day at FNB Stadium. The official sign language interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, at first was challenged merely for signing "gibberish".
Upon investigation, an altogether darker picture emerged. Jantjie, who stood alongside world leaders including president Jacob Zuma and US president Barack Obama, admitted to suffering from schizophrenia and seeing hallucinations during the event. Amid inept defences raised by government officials, it was soon discovered that he had been charged with a lengthy list of crimes, both financial and violent.
He served time in prison for theft, and has been charged with murder, attempted murder, rape, kidnapping, housebreaking, and malicious damage to property. He has been investigated for fraud to the tune of R1.7 million. He also was a patient at Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital, but neglected to present himself for treatment in order to be part of the memorial service. As if the irony isn't thick enough, he had worked for four years as an interpreter for the Department of Justice, which gives the term "blind justice" a whole new meaning.
For what it's worth, Trump also had an opinion on Jantjie: "President Obama and other world leaders don't know how close they were to being seriously injured (or worse) standing next to psycho in SA."
I got lambasted by Dave Meldrum, an Anglican vicar, for insensitivity to the mentally ill when I described Jantjies as "schizo", an abbreviation for the condition he admitted to himself. Imagine the clergy's outrage at confusing his psychiatric diagnosis altogether.
Jantjies aside, that South Africa is a "crime-ridden mess" is a view that has much support in fact.
But back to Trump. He added, "...that is just waiting to explode."
This is more a matter of opinion, and depends on how you define "explode". There is certainly a great deal of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and it is reflected on both ends of the political spectrum.
On the left, Julius Malema's new party, the deceptively-named Economic Freedom Fighters, is promising populist opposition to the ruling ANC, calling for an end to the corrupt tender system. When faced with the considerable irony of Malema's pending court case on charges of fraud and corruption, his supporters burnt ANC flags.
The party's launch in October prominently featured banners that read: "Honeymoon is over for whites," "To be a revolutionary you have to be inspired by hatred and bloodshed," and "A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hatred."
The anger on the left is very real. I've been writing about it for years. It is fuelled by legitimate concerns about anaemic growth that isn't sufficient to trickle much beyond the financial sector, stubbornly high unemployment as a result, and persistent poverty only somewhat relieved by the government's various welfare and service delivery programmes.
The solutions are not as simple as the left would have you believe, having more to do with the dead hand of the state than the invisible hand of the market, but the dissatisfaction is genuine and dangerous.
On the right, we recently witnessed a campaign labelled Red October, featuring mostly white South Africans, some carrying the flags of Apartheid South Africa and the historic Boer Republics. They aimed to call attention to the plight of whites in South Africa, although their "white genocide" rhetoric, recently reignited by the death of Nelson Mandela, has been roundly discredited by comparison with the facts.
The march was organised by Afrikaans singer Sunette Bridges, with celebrity support from the "Boere Bono", Steve Hofmeyr. It elicited a range of reactions, from full-throated support on the part of white supremacist movements, to ominous political analysis recalling the rise of Nazism in Germany, to ironic sneers that their right to march was guaranteed by a black policeman, to genuine outrage at the explicit racism of many of its participants.
However, as veteran journalist Andrew Donaldson pointed out, the misguided right does have legitimate concerns, not only about high crime levels in general, but about racially-motivated farm murders in particular. The white right's analysis might be as short-sighted, hate-filled, racist and unproductive as the black left's analysis of economic conditions, but the dissatisfaction is real and dangerous.
Is any of this "waiting to explode," as Trump claims? That is an opinion I do not share, but it is an entirely reasonable position to hold. Grievances on both the left and the right have the potential to escalate into violent revolution or vicious retribution. Were they to collide, things could get very messy indeed.
During the tense transition years, a spiral of violence into civil war was repeatedly warded off by the cool heads of leaders like Mandela, FW de Klerk and Desmond Tutu. South Africa is capable of handling provocation from either side of the political spectrum. One can hardly blame a foreigner for thinking otherwise, but Trump gets the context all wrong. A key message of Nelson Mandela's legacy is that such an explosion is not inevitable in South Africa.
And finally, Trump said: "...not a good situation for the people!"
Again, this is a matter of opinion, but it is a trivial truism that living in "a crime-ridden mess" isn't good for the people, and were the political situation in South Africa to explode, that wouldn't be good either.
Did Donald Trump's comment offend me? Absolutely. Its timing was insenstive, and its context crude. But, upon reflection, we booed our president during a memorial for the father of the nation. We insulted the deaf and endangered visiting heads of state by letting a mentally ill ex-convict mime his way through a fraudulent translation.
It is rich for us to be jumping down the throat of some foreign billionaire who shot his mouth off. And can't we do better than petty attacks on the man's physical appearance?
Think about that, the next time you pen a bullying comment, safely hidden behind your screen. Class cuts both ways.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.