The dangerous nationalism of Julius Malema
It’s ironic that Julius Malema, in his first speech in parliament yesterday, would reference Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Here is what Mr Malema had to say about Botha:
This elite pact is reflected by the fact that the most prominent statue in this Parliament, is a statue of Louis Botha, and the one of Nelson Mandela is very small and is hidden behind the statue of Louis Botha. Louis Botha is not our Hero and cannot be a Hero of a democratic South Africa. He is a colonial warmonger, who fought for the exclusion of black and indigenous people from running their own country and affairs. Its people like this who made white South Africans think they are superior and if we continue celebrating them, we are equally perpetuating white supremacy. The statue of Botha outside this Parliament must go down, because it represents nothing of what a democratic South Africa stands for.
That statue represents backwardness and apartheid and therefore it belongs to the dustbin of history and to be replaced with a bigger statue of seaparankwe Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela. We will never have true friendship and peace if white minority still behaves like they are superior and we should remain inferior in our country. All black people continue to learn the languages of white minorities as part of our attempt to reach out to them and create friendship but with very little attempt from their side to at least learn one of our African languages because they have a wrong mentality that we must suck up to them.
These are some of the legacies people like Louis Botha have left us and it must be crushed,we must not celebrate anything that perpetuates white supremacy. As part of nation building maybe we need to harsh steps by not celebrating any white person who doesn’t at least know or make an effort to at least know one of our African languages because by not knowing our languages or our culture they are effectively perpetuating the stereotypes of white supremacy. If you have a white friend as black person and he/she doesn’t know your language or not taking initiative to learn your language that person is no friend at all.
Perhaps it would surprise Mr Malema to know that, almost exactly a century ago, one of the big debates in our country was about what it is to be South African. The Second South Africa War at the start of the century, which saw the savagery of concentration camps and scorched-earth tactics, was still fresh in the minds of South Africans. One political group, lead by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts under the banner of the South African Party, claimed that the two white races – as the Afrikaners and British were generally referred to – should reconcile and build a unified country. Their definition of South African was ‘inclusive’, at least in terms of their world view: it included whites from opposing sides of the War and, in the Cape, Coloured South Africans. (Because of the pseudo-science of race hierarchies at the start of the twentieth century, blacks, in South Africa, elsewhere in Africa, and in the Americas, were not allowed to vote.)
In contrast to this message of unification, a small group of Afrikaans-speaking whites began to assert that the only ‘true’ South Africans were those that distanced themselves from the British Empire, that wanted to see a South Africa independent from the British throne. These ‘true’ South Africans also had to have another trait: they could speak the emerging language of the locals that we would later call Afrikaans. Only by speaking Afrikaans did one show true loyalty to the country. The National Party would emerge from this second grouping, and even though their leader, JBM Hertzog, also favoured the more inclusive definition of what it is to be South African, the nationalist tendencies would finally win out, with the formation of the ‘Purified’ National Party, which, as we all now, gave us the policy of apartheid. Nationalism, in this case white nationalism, would have devastating consequences for the country. It is difficult not to draw historical parallels: a message of unification after an intense period of racial confrontation (the 1910s/1990s). The rise of organised labour against monopoly capital (1920s/2000s). The impetus to solve the social and economic difficulties of a depression (1930s/2010s). A rise of nationalism and the defeat of the moderates (the 1940s/2020s?). And then?
Just as the message of the white nationalists appealed to white voters in the 1940s, there is a reason Mr Malema’s message appeals to black voters. There is a common enemy (for Afrikaner nationalists, it was the British Empire, and when that turned out to not be scary enough, black South Africans; for Mr Malema and his nationalists, it is arguably white South Africans). And there is economic disenfranchisement (for Afrikaner nationalists, it was the ‘poor white problem’; for Malema, it is inequality). Much like the nationalist leaders of African countries that gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, Malema speaks directly to the hopes and aspirations of millions of people frustrated by the current economic stagnation. Even his speech is clothed in the same rhetoric. Here is Mr Malema last night: We “acknowledge and greet the millions of South African workers, the poor, and downtrodden and dejected masses of our people”. Here is Kwame Krumah, elected as the first president of an independent Ghana in March 1957: I am the “Hope of Millions of down-trodden Blacks, Deliverer of Ghana, Iron Boy, Great Leader of Street Boys”. Idi Amin called himself the “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”, Malema calls for the “political, social and economical (sic) liberation of blacks in general and Africans in particular”. Yet both Kwame Krumah and Idi Amin caused tremendous hurt to their economies. Krumah nationalised key industries. He heavily taxed (black) export farmers. His idea of African socialism failed to deliver his followers from the perils of poverty. Ghana is now, with a working democracy and market reforms, finally realising its potential, the black star of Africa. Amin, in his attempt to rid Uganda of the ‘external forces’ (sound familiar?), expropriated land and assets from all whites and Asians, and forced them to leave the country. The economy collapsed and Uganda, one of the most beautiful countries on earth, has never really recovered.
There is a reason the statues of Louis Botha and Nelson Mandela stand outside our parliament. Both men fought for the reconciliation of different race groups. Both wanted South Africa to participate in the global economy. Both believed that education is the key to a better life for all. That should be enough reason to keep them in their place. But there is another reason for those statues: it is that we should learn from history never to open our society to the poison that is nationalism. Perhaps that is why Mr Malema wants us to forget the past.