Tito declares war! Oh dear, SA, here we go again
We no longer bat an eyelid at all the war talk by politicians who can’t, or are unwilling to, think of proper solutions
The three tweets threatening war against the media in SA were pompous and melodramatic, the liberal use of capital letters and double exclamation marks suggesting whoever was writing them was probably not very bright and was floating in a bubble of angry, dissentient reaction. Except this wasn’t a furious illiterate hammering away in his mom’s basement. This was the finance minister of the Republic of South Africa.
“Wars start in different ways,” Tito Mboweni tweeted on Thursday night. “Spears and shields, gun powder, bullets and now through media: printed and electronic…and then Social media!! Well, the SA Editors must be Editors!! If needs be, we will be forced into the fight, WAR.”
A minute later, perhaps remembering the reading abilities of people on Twitter, he clarified: “The problem is that there will be COLLATERAL DAMAGE!”
Finally, after a 40-minute break during which I assume he punched the air and yelled: “Who the man?” at his alarmed dog, he returned to Twitter just to make sure we understood that he was in a militant mood. “The time to be gentle is OVER,” he wrote. “The line has been drawn on the sand! This far and no further. Maku lwiwe maqawe!!”
For a country whose nerves seem to be grafted to the fortunes of finance ministers, the reaction to Mboweni’s tweets was extraordinarily muted. The South African National Editors’ Forum protested, as one might when threatened by someone who has access to an air force, but for the rest, there was a collective shrug.
I suspect one reason for this response is an unconscious decision by many cautiously optimistic pundits to give Cyril Ramaphosa and his lieutenants a freer pass than they gave the Zuptas. Some who might have climbed into a Zuma appointee for similar tweets perhaps persuaded themselves that this was just Tito being Tito, or being, er, tired and emotional. And as for all that war stuff, well, perhaps the minister meant it in a limply metaphorical way, the same way the ANC is always declaring war on poverty and unemployment before continuing to do nothing about them.
Another reason, however, might be more worrying: it’s possible that we’re getting used to war talk.
Indeed, nobody even blinked last week when alleged somebody Andile Mngxitama announced a war was inevitable in SA.
Then again, the only people who listen to Mngxitama (who once accused me of having “a monopoly of stuff”) are his 16 followers and junior subeditors who need clickbait for page 9. Those of us who remember Andile fleeing from a handful of EFF supporters through the streets of Cape Town have a fairly good idea of how he would cope in a war.
The trouble is, however, that the rhetoric of organised mass murder is no longer restricted to Twitter or the frantic attempts of political footnotes to stay in the public eye.
Instead, it has become normalised in our democracy’s parliament as a legitimate political expression.
Mboweni’s tweets were a perfect demonstration of the current trend. Adopting the self-righteous, aggrieved tone of those who start wars, he tries to convince us wars simply “start”, and that once they do, good people are forced into them. It’s the same sort of victim blaming that allows Big Men with big armies to claim they were compelled, against their pacifist natures, to annex Czechoslovakia or Crimea.
Of course, Mboweni only did it once. For Julius Malema and the EFF it is official policy, now that the departure of Jacob Zuma has robbed them of their political sugar daddy.
Not a month goes by that we don’t hear some “fighter” warning us that war – always started by someone else – is a real possibility. And because it might happen, the EFF needs to stay warlike. Don’t you see? It has no choice but to dress up in military costumes and refer to members as “ground forces”, its committees as “war councils” and its leader as “commander-in-chief”. It has to do all that to protect its “fighters” from all those people who want to start wars. You know. Them. Those ones who don’t dress in uniforms or talk about war all the time.
There is a certain basic – or base – logic in a party choosing war talk as its political vernacular. To people with no clue of what war actually is, it can make politicians sound strong and iconoclastic.
For the rest of us, however, rattling spears reveal only one thing about the politicians rattling them: that they’ve run out of ideas.
War is what happens when you are unable or unwilling to think or to talk. To appeal to its spectacle or to invoke its threat is to admit that you aren’t qualified to run a modern democracy. Or that you don’t want to.