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JUDITH FEBRUARY: The politics of burning & violence in SA

Post-apartheid South Africa has had its fair share of burning. In May 2008, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, a 35-year-old Mozambican was burnt alive during xenophobic violence which flared up on the East Rand. He was to become known as ‘the burning man’. Justice never came for Ernesto Nhamuave. An inquest found that no one could be held accountable for his death. Nhamuave and every other foreigner killed in xenophobic violence remains South Africa’s shame, while our government mostly struggles to even speak the word ‘xenophobia’.

This past week in Alexandra residents persistently threatened to bring wealthy neighbouring Sandton ‘to a standstill’. As DA and ANC politicians argued about who was to blame for the failure to provide decent services, images of Alexandra residents burning some of their own possessions were beamed across televisions screens. Rising levels of inequality and in particular high youth unemployment create an environment ripe for violence to foment. Everywhere, everyone is competing for scarce resources and so resentment and anger build. Destruction of property is sadly routine in South Africa and very seldom is anyone held to account for the burning often associated with it.

Ahead of the 2016 local government elections, Tshwane burnt as Luthuli House sought to impose its own mayoral candidate Thoko Didiza despite community resistance. Homes, schools and tyres burnt. At the time in Vuwani a demarcation dispute turned violent and we watched powerlessly as 23 schools burnt. Frustration and anger boiled over for days. In countless pieces of research on local government and conflict in municipalities, the same mantra is heard over and over again. "They only come when we start to burn things". 'They' would refer to the media but especially the politicians who have the power to change things, yet often are unwilling or unable to listen.

In 2016 students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal burnt part of their law library in anger. Law students burning books, let that sink in for a minute, just as UCT students burnt artwork during the #FeesMustFall protests. At the time it was justified as a reasonable means of speaking truth to power regarding free higher education and ensuring that colonial artworks were destroyed in the UCT instance. Both incidents left many understandably outraged and uncomfortable.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the way in which we ‘do politics’ in South Africa if burning is seen as the only language with which one can be heard. But equally, there must be something fundamentally wrong in a society where young people believe that destruction can pave any way to a meaningful and better future. The nihilism displayed in the burning of a library and historic artwork also tells us something about the careless way in which the preservation of knowledge is viewed. It seems that those students responsible for those acts of violence inhabit a world in which there are no boundaries to their conduct and in which democracy and deliberation become casualties of their collective rage and the urgency of the moment.

Much ink was spilt at the time about whether burning books and torching a library is justifiable in a democratic South Africa. Ironically, the sight of burning books takes one back to apartheid days where houses where raided and books burnt by the security police because of their ‘subversive content’. It also takes one back to Germany circa 1933. The lessons of history should not be lost on us.

But there is more to this. We know only too well that violence has always been a part of the South African landscape; physical violence, the violence of language and name-calling and the violence of dispossession. From Peter Mokaba’s cry to ‘Kill the boer! Kill the farmer!’ to former President Zuma’s ‘Bring me my machine gun!’ violent imagery is regularly invoked in our politics. This past week ANC NEC member Tony Yengeni tweeted a picture of three tyres allegedly waiting for Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba. His tweet read, in part, ‘those tyres are clean and nicely polished waiting for the mayor’ (sic). Many interpreted this as a thinly disguised reference to the violent act of ‘necklacing’. And so another day passes where an ANC member undermines our democratic values without any form of censure. For this contradictory hotchpotch is what the party has become. It no longer speaks as one but as factions of the whole, it would appear.

Julius Malema’s recent comment that "we (EFF) are not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least for now" is yet another example of the violence of public discourse in South Africa. The SA Human Rights Commission bizarrely claimed this was ‘hurtful’ but not ‘hate speech’. That seemed to be a contortionist act in an attempt to spare a fiery politician from judgment and penalty. When we turn a blind eye to such speech, we do so at our peril. For every politician who abuses a journalist - think Jessie Duarte’s recent attack on journalist Samkele Maseko or the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu’s roughing up a cameraman outside the National Assembly - our democracy is diminished.

And so it was on Tuesday night.

Members of the ANC Youth League disrupted the launch of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture, the author fled the scene, books were ripped up and general thuggery ensued. The book details allegations against ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and his deep links to the state capture project. The ANC itself has been wishy-washy in dealing with the allegations. In fact, it has issued so many statements it’s hard to know what its stance is. The latest statement seemed to suggest that Magashule needed to battle these allegations in his private capacity and not use the ANC to issue statements defending himself.

The video clips of the disrupted launch are painful to watch for the brazenness of the ANCYL members disrupting the launch in full view of cameras. One might ask whether the law and its consequences deter anyone in our society? It seems not. Needless to say, the ANCYL members act in this way with the imprimatur of those it defends. It’s the only conclusion one could draw as these protesters held up pictures with ‘Ace’ written all over them.

Interested only in the patronage network, the ANCYL said the burning of books would take place to defend Magashule. The ANC issued a statement condemning the disruption of the launch and Parliament, through its presiding officers, issued what was probably the most strongly worded statement condemning the ANCYL’s conduct. Similarly, individual ANC members like Jackson Mthembu and Derek Hanekom issued statements of condemnation. Magashule himself added that he did not condone the acts of disruption or book burning.

It seems easy for Magashule to issue this statement ex post facto. Has he as secretary-general of the ANC called for the disciplinary hearings of those engaged in the disruption? How is it that they felt so emboldened? It is only because the internal climate of skullduggery within the ANC creates a vacuum for unethical and violent opportunists. Subsequently the ANCYL has abandoned its bonfire gathering to burn the book. We should not be relieved or even surprised. The damage has been done.

The ANC is in such an almighty mess that unity uber alles seems to be preventing any form of sanction or censure ahead of deeply contested elections.

Ramaphosa needs to watch his back and tread carefully lest his reform project is completely jeopardised by those corrupt actors within the ANC. And so, his seeming reluctance to take on members of his own party is part of this painstaking ‘long game’ the president needs to play to ensure his electoral victory provides him with enough clout to deal more decisively with the corrupt Zumarites post 8 May.

Yet, there are some moments that require more, especially in a week commemorating the 26th anniversary of the assassination of Chris Hani. We all lived through that moment which took our country to the edge of the abyss. Then Nelson Mandela showed leadership that only he could.

One cannot help but feel that this is another moment that requires astute leadership. For it is not enough for the ANC to say that it disapproves of the ANCYL actions, even as the ANCYL Free State continued to say that they would burn copies of the Myburgh book. It is also not enough for individual members of the ANC to take to social media and condemn the acts of violence. The ANCYL members should be disciplined immediately and dealt with severely.

More than that, however, this is a moment for Ramaphosa as President of the Republic, to condemn the ANCYL’s actions for what they are - an attack on our democracy. Ramaphosa is the president of a constitutional democracy. He either condemns the burning of books and defends all of our right to say and write what we like, or he sides with those who seek to make this an authoritarian state.

There can be no equivocation on this. Ramaphosa cannot and should not hide behind the ANC’s statement. This is not merely an internal party matter better dealt with by his silence. It is about our fundamental rights as South Africans.

Burning has become a potent symbol of South African rage. Only destruction appears necessary and sufficient in the politics of now. But what replaces burnt libraries, communities, burnt schools and burnt books? If we are prepared to burn down the edifice, what will be left?

The president should therefore provide clarity which goes above and beyond the anti-democratic tendencies within his own party.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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