Sticks and stones for xenophobes, words for politicians

2015-05-06

Speech matters: although perhaps not to the government ministers who don’t seem to fully understand the fall-out of the comments they make. Recently the South African Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, visited a camp in Isipingo, close to Durban, for those displaced in the xenophobic violence.

Unfortunately the minister arrived while Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader and African National Congress (ANC) nemesis Julius Malema was also visiting the camp to distribute food parcels and aid.

So enraged was Dlamini that she turned on the migrants and, according to those present, threatened them saying it was a ‘problem’ that they seemed to support Malema and accept aid from the EFF.

The furious minister also turned on journalists, asking them to leave the area and refusing to be photographed. Needless to say, the presidency has remained silent on the matter and one doubts very much whether Dlamini’s comments will be investigated.

In South African politics, mouthing off something inappropriate has become the new normal

One could make several observations about Dlamini’s conduct, not least of all how thin-skinned some in the ANC are about Julius Malema and the EFF. No matter what one thinks of Malema’s politics, he has been democratically elected to Parliament and had as much right as Dlamini to be in Isipingo, representing government. It also tells us a little of the kind of campaign we will see ahead of the 2016 local government elections.

The incident speaks of Dlamini’s political immaturity but also government’s attitude towards the media – as an enemy or a threat. One wonders what Dlamini’s other cabinet colleagues think of her conduct. What does the president think? We are never likely to find out, because in the greater scheme of things, it’s just another day in South African politics where often ‘mouthing off’ something inappropriate has become the new normal. Can we forget Minister of Small Business, Lindiwe Zulu, almost coming to fisticuffs with an EFF member of Parliament last year? Zulu shamelessly continued in her position without so much as a mea culpa.

It is the same attitude that initially led King Goodwill Zwelithini to blame the media for inaccuracy in quoting his inciteful comments against foreigners. Even more worrying is the intimidation by supporters against the South African Human Rights’ Commission (SAHRC), with threats to burn down its offices.

Yet, the chair of the SAHRC, Lawrence Mushwana, seems reluctant to deal with the matter decisively. This past week Mushwana said that the investigation into the king’s comments was proceeding slowly since the full transcript was not yet available. Perhaps he would care to go online and find several recordings of the king’s speech? Mushwana, not known for his independence, might well be stalling. After all, it was he who gave us possibly the most outlandish explanation for the ‘oilgate’ scandal.

Why is it that the king enjoys such special protection when we live in a constitutional democracy?

His deputy at the SAHRC, Pregs Govender, will no doubt be pushing for an outcome in line with the constitution and in the spirit of promoting a human rights culture. She might have to push much harder since Mathole Motshekga, chair of the justice portfolio committee, expressed a view in Parliament that the Human Rights Commission ought to withdraw its investigation into the king’s comments. Motshekga offered the opinion while Mushwana was briefing the justice committee, saying it should ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ as the investigation may have ‘unintended consequences’.

That Motshekga has shown himself to be a blatantly biased chair of that committee and unable to stop his party slip from showing was also clear in an attack on Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, in Parliament last week – but surely his intervention during Mushwana’s briefing to Parliament must rank as highly inappropriate? Is he suggesting giving instructions to an independent, constitutional body such as the Commission? On what basis does he do that other than to seek to protect the king, as the president and minister of police also appear to be doing?

And why is it that the king enjoys such special protection when we live in a constitutional democracy, the rules of which apply to Zwelithini too? Is the ANC so dependent on the king’s support during the forthcoming local government elections in 2016 that it cannot see how damaging his xenophobic comments have been?

What is said by those in authority or leaders who hold sway over large groups of citizens, as the king does, matters. So, as we celebrate 21 years of freedom this year, it is clear that we still have a long way to go when it comes to learning how to ‘be’ in a democracy; that our freedom is indivisible, but also that with our rights come duties. As citizens in a democracy it means that all of us – especially the powerful and those elected to represent us – have a duty to uphold the values of the constitution in what we say and do.

Judith February, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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