“What do you think?” she asked. Her gaze moved over each student’s contemplative face.
A hand went up. She nodded. Heads craned to follow her gaze.
“After Julius Malema fell from grace, the first thing he did was remind people that the ANC had been pro-nationalization,” the boy explained. The class digested this interpretation. “He made it appear that the ANC’s failure to lump State, Capital and Labour together was responsible for unemployment.”
Another hand went up.
The girl looked at the teacher and the other boy in turns.
“Didn’t he mention the corruption? The skewed tenderpreneurship? The mismanagement of resources? The policies that needed further polishing?”
Another voice piped up.
“Seeing as he was still burping after his binge on illicitly gained wealth, Malema would not finger those factors. He’d get implicated too. So, no.”
“So he created a red herring instead,” said the first boy. “And he presented the EFF as his solution.”
“Did he get away with it?” another voice asked.
“What do you think?” the teacher asked serenely.
There was a dazed silence in the room, the magnificent absurdity of it sinking in.
The next slide flashed onto the projector. A woman in Xhosa gear appeared. She was in mid-speech and mid-gesture, flanked by dignitaries. A stylized world map glowed in the backdrop and illuminated her headdress.
The teacher’s voice broke the silence.
“Tell me your thoughts on Agang.”
“It’s another example,” a soft voice stated. “This party could have also openly criticized the DA on the grounds of documented policies and actions. They could have called them to debates when that merger was announced.”
“But very few of the DA’s political opponents sustained that tactic,” someone else interjected.
“Are you saying this because of that 3rd Feb 2014 episode of Justice Factor that we embezzled from the classified archives?” the teacher asked.
“It’s so typical of South African political discourse at that time,” a petite girl in the corner commented. Heads turned.
“What do you mean?” the teacher asked her.
“Here’s a theory: in the absence of serious rational resistance against its policies and actions, the DA had no choice but to toss the country a black face,” the girl said. There were murmurs across the room.
“Let her explain,” the teacher said.
“Whether the DA was a ‘white party’ or not, they did have to go to great lengths for the black vote. The astonishing thing isn’t that they snared a black presidential candidate: it’s that they had to do it. I’ve looked at a lot of news pieces and radio transcripts from those years. Few people would seriously test the DA’s substance or seek out legitimate inconsistencies. And the most serious misgivings about the DA were secondary, I think, to the task of reviving democracy itself. For that, no sane person could dispute the necessity of the DA’s presence and voice.”
“But the South African public would not engage the DA on the same terms and grounds as it did every other party,” a boy at another corner said.
“What do you mean?” the teacher asked.
“When the DA said anything, others turned it into a race issue, effectively closing off the possibility of engagement. Rationalism was shoved to the realm of whites and ‘clever blacks’. It seems the Constitution we had then had become a trap that the DA used to argue for its own existence and function.”
“So then the DA was justified in trying to draw a black electorate through a black presidential candidate,” said the student who had caused consternation. There were more murmurs even now.
“’I would be insulted – I would feel patronized – that the DA could think that my vote could be that easy to attract’,” the teacher said. “What would you have said to someone who said that?”
“I would have said that people choose the level at which they will be engaged; the DA merely followed their lead. Of course the DA would stoop that low. The people accepted outright theft and rape from the highest State offices, and then waited on ANC and presidential spokespersons to relieve that nagging feeling with a lie. The people relied on lies in order to feel comfortable with the government they knew was abusing them. In view of how good they’d become at being treated like dirt, I don’t know why the DA’s brazen move to get a black presidential candidate move was particularly scandalous. Playing dumb makes playing coy redundant, but if you try to do both at once you can’t be surprised if others insult your intelligence as they try to figure out exactly which level you will be engaged at. If the government was lying to the people, it’s because the people wanted it to. If the DA was baiting them through black presidential candidates, it’s because they pushed it to.”
“She has a point,” a boy said, sitting up in his chair. “Agang’s members themselves quickly turned to race as an excuse for building ‘a home’ away from the DA. By arguing about race instead of principles, they justified the DA’s choice of black politicians. This proved that Agang’s was a watered-down version of Nelson Mandela’s vision for South Africa, if not a distortion of it. The party could have proven itself a strong alternative to the DA. Instead, Agang proved, ‘once and for all’ that they did not have the best interests of South Africa in its totality; they cared only for self-preservation. It’s not freedom that the people wanted; it was just anything except that they perceived as white. Because white was equated to racist, which, ironically, was a racist generalization; even then, white at all costs had to be denied a voice in the democratic New South Africa. In my opinion, such a narrow view of what was best for South Africa failed to see what was at stake. Nelson Mandela probably turned in his grave when she,” he pointed to the woman in the picture, “accepted that particular feedback from Agang instead of demanding that they improve their arguments. Because proper arguments against joining the DA could have been put together. The arguments they put forward proved and proved again that the DA’s voice was a necessary evil, and that the DA was justified in taking the risk it did, even at the risk of insulting black voters.”
Hands shot up. The teacher moved on to her next question anyway.
“What do you think about the voters’ need to see Struggle credentials in presidential candidates?”
A boy with glassed answered from the back, raising his voice above the fray.
“A lot of South Africans would ask, ‘Did this particular person fight for freedom before 1994?’ when the better question was, ‘Has this particular person been fighting for people’s freedom from before 1994 until this moment?’ Some politicians stopped fighting for the people and started robbing and raping people after 1994 – and that’s the plain truth. And those politicians happened to be black. The lesson? Skin colour will only tell us what we choose for it to tell us.”
“But by that reasoning,” the teacher said innocently, “Helen Zille herself could have been president.”
A chorus of “No!”s and “Never!”s “She was white!” “White people would bring apartheid!” erupted as suddenly as a thunderclap across the room.
The teacher flashed the next slide anyway. It was a collage of protesting and rioting scenes, fires burning, and soldiers running amongst people. The voices died down as they tried to tell the difference between these scenes and pre-1994 apartheid.
“As you all know, the ANC won the 2014 elections with a majority. Now listen carefully to this historian’s narration of what happened next because I’ll want your feedback on it tomorrow, either refuting or substantiating. The title of the book is The Zimbabwefication of South Africa: how the miracle country threw democracy away in less than three decades.
Various organs of state had become beholden to the ANC’s through the ANC’s participation in portfolios that could give the ruling party uncontested power both over State and the private sector. The various ministers who were supposed to oversee the State’s functioning, in turn, were beholden to Jacob Zuma, whose influence had even reached the courts. Jacob Zuma, in turn, was entangled with powerful international funders who saw in South Africa a wealth of cheap labour and economic possibilities. Senior-most white-collar labourers had fled the country, anticipating crisis; they took with them skills and abilities. As the Constitution mattered less and less, people found themselves working for less than they deserved under deteriorating circumstances. Resources were never optimized on the people’s behalf, but on the State’s and the international billionares.
ANC supporters knew that the ANC was corrupt; what they’d never imagined was that through its corruption, it could end up selling the country out to exploitative people. They had dismissed the idea as conspiracy-theorist fear-mongering, though all the signs were there. The international community’s hands were tied, and where they weren’t tied, they were too busy shaking the hands of those exploitative billionares. There have been uprisings and protests ever since”
The teacher looked up at the students as she tucked that book away.
“That’s what I want you guys to think about, and what we’ll discuss tomorrow. But you all know that your written essay is going to be about how longevity increased in South Africa when the ANC-led government rolled out ART so that HIV-positive people could be treated, amongst other wonderful things. If you say a word about me teaching you things beyond the prescribed syllabus, we’ll all be in deep trouble.”
She paused, looking at their faces.