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Sense and sensitivities: how SA has become a sensitive nation

Ideas

Sense and sensitivities: how SA has become a sensitive nation

Yes Lindiwe Sisulu is inarticulately advertising for the ANC leadership but she raises uncomfortable though relevant issues

Editor: TimesLIVE
In her roundabout way, Lindiwe Sisulu has perhaps forced us to confront the fact that we have not progressed since Thabo Mbeki correctly told us of our economic divisions more than two decades ago.
STRONG OPINIONS In her roundabout way, Lindiwe Sisulu has perhaps forced us to confront the fact that we have not progressed since Thabo Mbeki correctly told us of our economic divisions more than two decades ago.
Image: Trevor Samson

Allow me to dispense with a few disclaimers before I make my point about Lindiwe Sisulu, the stirrer, and the sensitive nation we have become. 

There are a few things she says in her now infamous article that she can’t possibly defend. One of these is that she says “in the high echelons of our judicial system are these mentally colonised Africans ... happy to lick the spittle of those who falsely claim superiority”. The other is her reference to judges as “the most dangerous ... mentally colonised African ...” who “are worse than your oppressor” because they have “no African or Pan African inspired ideological grounding”. 

I may have missed other things but, largely, that’s really it for me. On this score, Sisulu fails because, as acting chief justice Raymond Zondo puts it, her general assertions are not supported by facts or research. I doubt she too will argue against this.

To the extent that we view Sisulu’s contribution as a lazy attempt to draw attention to the potential spectre of “house n*****s” within the court system, it should be welcomed. We should not be bogged down by the fact that she didn’t, as Zondo correctly points out, support her caustic criticism with facts or researched information. Her intellectual laziness must also not surprise us (without necessarily encouraging it). She is, after all, a politician. Her tribe is so lazy they sleep in parliament even when they should be debating how best to improve our lot. 

And, in any case, would the fact that there isn’t research to support her point mean there are absolutely no “house n*****s” in our court system, or corporate SA? Absolutely not. Many people, inside and outside the ANC, have written copious amounts of letters about a lack of transformation in our judiciary, the same judiciary that, decades ago, was used to persecute freedom fighters. So when she makes a point that the mere presence of Africans does not automatically translate to transformation, she makes a correct though banal point. In fact, the ANC’s “Strategy and Tactics” document of December 1997 (yes, that long ago) cautions about the same thing — content and form of transformation.

When Sisulu says Africans manage poverty while others manage wealth, how substantially different do we think this is to Mbeki saying SA is a country of two nations?

Sisulu, in her decidedly provocative piece, is simply raising her hand with the hope that Africanists and radicals within the ANC, and these are broader than just so-called RET forces, will take note of her ahead of the start of nominations for leadership in the party. 

If she is to be schooled on the errors of her ways, it’s not through a press conference by a sensitive acting chief justice who is “horrified” and hoping for an apology. We, normal people, can see that she is wrong and should apologise without the chief justice descending into the muddy arena of politics.

He clouds the environment because he creates an impression of a jurist who needs no encouragement to pick up arms against an ANC leader who is to contest another ANC leader (Cyril Ramaphosa) who must, shortly, make a pronouncement from which he (Zondo) stands to benefit. Let me be clear: Zondo entering the arena provides Sisulu’s backers, even if it’s just two of them for now, an opportunity to attack him by saying he is simply singing for his supper.

The EFF has already said Zondo is campaigning to become chief justice, implying his actions are meant to please the appointing authority that is Ramaphosa. This is so needless. The calls for action against Sisulu are a political trap for Ramaphosa to make her a victim in the same way former president Jacob Zuma was Thabo Mbeki’s supposed victim.

When Sisulu says Africans manage poverty while others manage wealth, how substantially different do we think this is to Mbeki saying SA is a country of two nations?

Mbeki put it thus: “One nation is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed (economy). The second and larger nation of SA is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas ... This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure.” 

It may have been lost in articulation. Sisulu is, after all, not Mbeki. The obvious point she seems to be making is that we have not progressed since Mbeki correctly told us of our economic divisions. We have chosen not to discuss that because these divisions force us to confront difficult questions. 

We are up in arms against Sisulu largely because we have become a sensitive nation. We even make officials who say “no magwinya and archaar eating Sadtu person will teach my children ...” apologise. Eating magwinya and archaar is not scandalous, but the sensitive teacher union representatives have been needlessly frothing at the mouth. I digress, though.

It is easy, and perhaps also lazy, in our political environment to just dismiss Sisulu outright. I argue that we must read her for meaning, rather than judge her on the basis of false ANC factional dichotomies. We should take out the emotions and ask, honestly, if the issues she raises, albeit not as studiously as people of letters ought to, are not deserving of national discourse. It is the nonsense about the good guys and bad guys of the ANC that makes us listen to her with an intention to dismiss her quickly. Our history of struggle, our collective pain as a people, must force us always to be fair, even to people we fundamentally disagree with. 

In our efforts to end exclusion and oppression, we certainly would be mistaken to throw the baby out with the bath water. I know, I know, it would make her an old baby.

But when she says the constitution does not work for masses of Africans, do we want to punish her or think deeply about whether our constitution does not require amendments that could help speed up transformation that could benefit the masses of Africans who remain on the periphery of economic activity? The US constitution, for example, has been amended almost 30 times since the first amendment in 1791. So, it can’t be correct that we are so sensitive when Sisulu says the constitution must be relooked at to see if it’s not holding back transformation.

Minister in the presidency Mondli Gungubele responded thus: “It (Sisulu’s piece) has the potential to undermine the credibility and the weight of the rule of law in this country, especially when it is done by an individual who took an oath of office to protect the law, because once you take the oath, you accept being a champion of that law.” By this logic, then, Gungubele will never question anything about the constitution because “once you take an oath, you accept being a champion of that law” even if you later become of the view that this constitution could be contributing to the continued impoverishment of Africans.

Being African does not mean one is progressive. Sisulu’s point about potential for assimilation could have been appropriately phrased, but it’s not fatally flawed. It’s too plain a point that there are many executives appointed on JSE-listed firms whose presence and Africanness make no difference.

We are loud because we have become too sensitive and are not sure what to do. We read or listen to Sisulu and just see Jacob Zuma incarnate. 

There are many others, like Steve Biko, who have been harsher than Sisulu in their assessments of these sorts of black people. This is why being black, Biko says, is not merely about the level of melanin in your body. It is a mental attitude. And so we can be harsh and condemn Sisulu until she loses her bid in December, but we must not deceive ourselves into a frenzy, as if she’s the first to make an imperfect point about the reality of house n*****s, in court and elsewhere. 

As Mbeki taught us, that we must “answer the question honestly as to whether we are making the requisite progress to create a nonracial society; non-sexist country; heal the divisions of the past ... and whether our actions have been and are based on the recognition of the injustices of our past...” 

We can jump up and down in our protection of the constitution as if changing it makes us the first and the very act is unforgivable. We can become emotional and sensitive when people like Sisulu raise difficult issues, but fail to raise them in ways that meet our intellectual and academic expectations. We can disingenuously shift our focus from what is core and limit us to her imperfections and naked ambition to lead the ANC. 

This, sadly, will take us nowhere.

In April, we will “celebrate” 28 years of freedom in the midst of the poverty to which Sisulu refers. We can shut her down because she wasn’t methodical in her criticism of the judiciary and the constitution and feel good about ourselves. Another 28 years later, the issues to which she imperfectly referred, the poverty, the inequality, house n******s in every sphere of society will remain. 

Our response to her ought to be how we are succeeding in eliminating poverty, how the economy is growing and creating jobs, how our justice system is incrementally becoming just, how the shacklands before us are disappearing because the previously dispossessed are getting land and that our democracy can’t conceivably be considered some form of dictatorship of the former proletarians. The truth is that we are not succeeding in these. We are loud because we have become too sensitive and are not sure what to do. We read or listen to Sisulu and just see Jacob Zuma incarnate. 

Sisulu has erred and should most probably apologise. The bigger truth is that we will not progress beyond being the two nations Mbeki described in 1998 if we remain blind to the uncomfortable issues she and her ilk will raise because we are blinded by our transient comfort. 

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