Thursday, April 22, 2010

Left, right, and the not-so-silent middle

The last few weeks have been tumultuous in South Africa.  Two events triggered the storm.  First, in a wave that has been building over the past month or so, Julius Molema, head of the youth league of the ruling African National Congress (ANCYL) has snubbed his party and the courts by continuing to sing a freedom song, Aw dubul'ibhunu (“Shoot the Boer”).  The second event took place around the same time.  Eugène Terre'Blanche, the head of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging or AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) – a far-right-wing Afrikaner group – was brutally murdered by two of his Black employees.  
The country was suddenly convulsed.  Nervous Whites considered whether it was time to flee the country, and many Blacks regarded Terre’Blanche’s death as overdue.  And the media had a wonderful time.
Today, however, the storm has passed – largely due to the silent majority, who favor a peaceful, non-racist South Africa, finding its voice both collectively and individually.
Julius Molema is a lightening rod in South African politics.  He is extremely vocal – a firebrand, some would say – and is widely despised by the White, Colored (mixed race), and Indian communities.  They regard him as promoting and fostering racism.  They feel that if he got his way, South Africa would be an all-Black country, with other race groups not welcome.  Many Blacks are wary of him because his rhetoric does not mesh with their generally conservative view of the world in which stability and some prosperity is paramount.  However, there is a large group of Blacks, which rightly feels that it has improved little since the current, democratic government took power after apartheid in 1994, that supports Molema’s inflammatory oratory.  It is this group that the Whites are nervous about.
Last year Molema started singing an old freedom song that talks of killing the “boers”.  The word “boer” means farmer in Afrikaans, but is often used to mean anyone who is White and Afrikaans speaking.  Of course, it is not difficult to extrapolate further for the word to include all Whites.  You can listen to the song at, where it is being sung at the funeral of a black activist.  
Earlier this year, a human rights group asked the courts to ban the song on the grounds it constituted hate speech.  The court ruled with the group and directed Molema to stop singing the song.  Molema and the ANC have challenged the ruling on the basis that freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution.  However, the ANC ledership realized the damage that Molema was doing and also forbade him from singing the song.
On a recent visit to Zimbabwe, where he indicated his support for President Robert Mugabe and his farm-grabbing policies, he again sang the “Kill the Boers” song.  Of course, he argued that since he was outside South Africa, he could do what he wanted.  The ANC leadership was not pleased and is in the process of holding a disciplinary hearing. 
But the extent of Molema’s rhetoric, his blatant defiance of both ANC leadership and the courts, and his strong support of Mugabe, started to spook a lot of White South Africans.  It was common to hear statements like “I told you so.  Blacks can’t govern.  South Africa is going the way of Zimbabwe!”
It was poor timing that Eugène Terre'Blanche, the leader of South Africa’s extreme right wing AWB group, was murdered as this furor over the song was taking place.  Terre'Blanche was beaten to death by two of his Black employees, one older and one a mere 15-years old.  They turned themselves into the police and have been charged with murder.  It appears that they had tried on a number of occasions to get the pay that had been due to them since December, but Terre'Blanche kept refusing.  There are also allegations that Terre'Blanche was abusing them sexually, although I think this is more likely to be part of the hysteria and hyperbole that followed the murder.  In reading about the unfortunate event I did find one statement that caught my attention.
“Andre Visagie, secretary-general of the AWB, said that Mr Terre’Blanche, 69, had not had the energy to rape someone as he had not taken his heart medication on the day of his death.” (  I can only wonder where that came from.
Terre’Blanche was a nasty piece of work.  During the run up to the change of government in 1994, he was involved in a number of attacks (World Trade Centre in Johannesburg and a bombing in his home town of Ventersdorp) aimed to stop democracy that resulted in several deaths.  For these he was formally forgiven by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998.  He was also convicted to 6 years in prison for assaulting a farm worker in 1996 and attempting to murder a security guard.  He was released after 3 years.
So on April 3rd, the day Terre’Blanche was murdered, the waves from these two firebrands, one on the right and one on the left, come together to form a storm.  And for two weeks, what a storm it was.  And many were fearful that it would undo everything good that has happened in South Africa since 1994.  That it would ruin the Rainbow Nation.
But it did not take long for the middle to stir.  The middle comprises people of all colors, generally not involved in politics, who want decent lives for themselves, and a promising future for their kids. 
For example, an unknown 22-year old man, Christoff Smuts, from Wellington, a town near Cape Town, felt things were getting out of hand, that the majority were not being heard.  During a break at work, he put in a few minutes and started a Facebook initiative, called the Green Skin Initiative, which has become one of the most prominent outlets for ‘middle ground’ South Africans.  The aim was “to calm everybody down, to show that there are still good people, and that we can all be united for a moral goal - the eradication of racism in South Africa”.
The group encourages South Africans to take a stand against racism, and plans to organize nationwide rallies where people will paint themselves green to show that - despite different cultures and races - South Africans can be united against racism.
The amazing thing is that the group had 38 000 members in less than six days, before being shut down by Facebook – without apparent reason.  Although this was a blow to the momentum they had built up, Smuts says the initiative is still growing, and he is still inundated with messages from people offering their skills and resources to the cause. 
I checked Facebook this morning, and it appears the initiative is alive again with over 13,000 members.  See!/pages/The-Green-Skin-Initiative/116023658414082?ref=ts
Other groups have also been formed – South-Africa-Neutral with over 2000 members in a week or two, and Let’s Destroy Racism in South Africa with nearly 7000 members.
So perhaps the two storms that caused the turmoil may have resulted in good.  South Africans in the middle are beginning to make their opinions known and hopefully felt. 
Long live the un-silent middle.

Stan - Thursday


  1. And may the un-silent middle win. I assume from the post that Nelson Mandela is no longer a uniting force.

    Did Mr. Terre Blanche have enough energy to rape on the days he did take his heart medication? What an extraordinary comment.

    Freedom of speech may be the most important freedom but it is the most misused. At what point does it cross over into hate speech? There is the saying that your freedom of action ends when your fist hits my nose. But speech is so much more dangerous. The right to interpret a statement is given to each person who hears it. Hate speech to some is telling it like it is to others.

    For so many years, we, who were born after WWII, believed that the greatest enemies of our countries were the members of the Communist Bloc who had pledged to destroy our way of life. But the greatest enemy of a nation is the hatred of one American or South African toward another because of a particular piece of DNA.

    Communism has failed in most of the world but Nikita Khruschev, the leader of the Soviet Union, predicted 50 years ago that the United States would not have to be attacked, it would fall from within. He may yet be proved correct.

    Racism has crawled out from under the rocks and is alive and getting stronger. We have a leader, a man who carries his responsibilities and his gifts with grace, a man who thinks before he speaks and when he speaks, he is eloquent and clear. He is the focus of a hate that hasn't been seen in this country in nearly a generation.

    The Green Skin Initiative is clever and perhaps it will serve to give people a way to talk without reference to race. Kermit the Frog sang that "it's not easy being green" but maybe the world would have been better off if all humans had been created that color.


  2. It was a week or two earlier, but let us honor Dr. Jonathan Jansen of the University of the Free State who, in the spirit of reconciliation, terminated the school's legal action against four arrogant white students who humiliated and then doctored the food of five black janitors. I don't speak Afrikaans, but the video demonstrated the students supercilious superiority beyond any language barrier. I hope they learn something from the remarkable Dr. Jansen.

  3. Dr. Jansen is an inspiring person. I got to know him when he was at the University of Pretoria. He certainly isn't afraid of speaking his mind.


  4. Wow. Horror and triumph. Death and re-birth.

    I hope truth comes from all of this.

    Southern City Mysteries