Politics, we are told, makes for strange bedfellows. It is unlikely that Adam Habib, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, and BDlive columnist Gareth van Onselen would ordinarily see one another as political consorts.
Yet, in separate contributions in recent weeks, they have sounded remarkably similar, and slightly hysterical — alarms about the state of racial and social activism in contemporary SA.
Their treatment of students, academics and analysts who are concerned about race and the politics of reconciliation has been curiously antagonistic. Habib’s piece, published two weeks ago, railed against the “vanguardist” tendencies of students who have “the temerity to call Nelson Mandela a sellout”. In a similar vein, Van Onselen’s column suggested that “postapartheid analysts”, in concert with “demagogic movements inside and outside the political arena”, are “obsessed” with race.
Both writers suggest that there is some “danger” involved in the current moment. Habib worries that, for some student activists, “theatrics replace principled politics”, while Van Onselen suggests that, for this new group of “anti-intellectual” social actors, “feelings rule the roost”.
Habib’s and Van Onselen’s critiques are consistent with those made by others who have suggested that race has played too central a role in our national discussions of late, and that the tactics of students are crude and not in keeping with democratic principles.
With his contribution last week, however, Van Onselen upped the ante. Though his column is ostensibly about the dangers inherent in what he sees as being overly concerned with race, one senses that there is something more fundamental at stake. Behind all the talk about racial obsessiveness and “demagoguery”, there is a much deeper fear that Van Onselen shares with other conservative commentators. Many are concerned that the entire post-1994 political project hangs in the balance.
In fretting in such an overweening manner about the purported obsessions of our racialised discourse, Van Onselen channels a broader set of catastrophic apprehensions about The Collapse of Everything and The End of Life in SA As We Know It.
The conservative backlash is all the more intriguing given the fact that, in all societies, young people push boundaries and create new spaces for debate and activism. They ask questions others dare not ask and employ tactics that are roundly condemned even as they are recognised as having pushed forward crucial conversations.
In this sense then, the student movements we have seen flourishing across the country this year are remarkable because they have taken so long to challenge the post-1994 orthodoxy of social progress, which has been deeply reliant on not challenging the racial and economic hierarchies that were in place during apartheid.
The outrage of those who benefited from the creation of a new elite has been nothing if not dramatic and overblown. The rhetoric has been breathtaking. We should be concerned when a vice-chancellor likens the culture inside some elements of student politics today to that of the “Cultural Revolution in China or … the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia”, which “led to the murder of millions of outsiders”. And we should certainly pause to wonder what is really going on when a former member of the South African Human Rights Commission speaks of students at the University of Cape Town as “grim fanatacists” and likens them to no less than the Islamic State, as Rhoda Kadalie did a few months ago.
Clearly the emotion generated by the activism and race talk has hit a nerve among those who were once outside power and now find themselves defending the new status quo. This applies to liberals of all races, like Van Onselen, as well as those who are now vested with institutional power, like Habib. It is this group, which now occupies establishment positions, that has been most vociferous in its critique of student movements and the upsurge in racial analysis.
In part, their defence of the status quo is based on the fact that so many of them were seduced by the complexity of our founding moment — 1994 held within it both the promise of disruption and the potential for co-option. Those who hold senior institutional positions — university administrators, corporate leaders, media decision-makers — sought to be part of a set of broken systems even as they tried to rise above them.
Facing bold challenges by a generation that does not feel any obligation to buy into the logic of 1994 is clearly messy and emotionally difficult. Today’s activists refuse to be as accommodating as their political forebears. They are not afraid that SA will erupt in violence in large part because they have grown up in a stable political system. They have witnessed much political chicanery but they have also watched successive free and fair elections. As a result, they have a sort of intellectual fearlessness that has thus far been missing in our politics.
While there is a freshness to the current activism of young South Africans, the themes that continue to haunt our country are archetypal. None of the challenges that defined SA 20 years ago — gender, racial and class inequality, violence, corruption and economic stagnation — have been addressed.
Why, then, should those born in the past 20 years accept the terms and constraints acceded to in 1994? What is so wrong with going back to first principles, now that we have 20 years of democratic engagement under our belts?
These questions are unsettling for those of us who grew up believing that our founding moment would define SA forever. Indeed, it almost sounds like heresy. Many people who once considered themselves agents of revolutionary change now insist that the past was so dark that we cannot risk dredging up racial injustice. We were on the brink of violence, they assert. The implication is clear: There are some aspects of the status quo that are so sacrosanct that they should not be broached.
I am not convinced. The arguments for this tentative and fearful approach are thin, and they say more about the anxieties of members of the establishment than they do about the resilience and maturity of our citizenry. They represent the triumph of fear over hope and of pessimism and angst over optimism and confidence.
There should be nothing we cannot discuss in a democracy that so many people died to produce. Indeed, the primary contribution of this new generation of activists to the future must involve raucous debates about the Constitution and the utility of some of its clauses in a still-unequal society. Instead of adopting a sneering tone, those who fought for freedom ought to be grateful that “postapartheid” citizens are insisting on honest racial dialogue. Those who claim to be committed to democracy must be pleased that new voices are questioning the faulty economic approaches the country has taken thus far.
We are witnessing a moment of profound ideological disagreement about how we move forward. While it is easy to dismiss it as such, this is not simply a clash of generations, a conflict between the passion of youth and the pragmatism of old age. Our ability to move beyond the idiosyncrasies of our founding moment is being tested.
Those at the forefront of today’s movements owe no allegiance to the compacts of the past. They feel no obligation to privilege class over race in order to make whites more comfortable. Further, the self-indulgent leaders and analysts Van Onselen points to, who covet “identity politics” over structural racism, are yet to reveal themselves.
Rather than the hysteria and condescension we have seen from the likes of Habib and Van Onselen, this moment requires careful and respectful engagement. I am hopeful that the conservative vitriol will soon abate and that the work of fashioning a new country will begin.
*This article first appeared in Business Day Live.