31 July, 2011
Earlier this week the ANC Youth League sent out a statement alerting the media to its president Julius Malema's visit to the Eastern Cape.
The purpose of the visit, the bold headline said, would be "to attend the court hearing of a white man who shot an ordinary African gentleman".
The body of the statement told us that Malema would attend "the bail application hearing of a white man who shot an innocent defenceless gentleman". It further stated that Siyabonga Ndabe had been shot by his "white neighbour" and remained in a critical condition in hospital.
That was three angry references to whites in a short two-paragraph statement.
Malema did indeed turn up at the bail application with a singing entourage of youth league supporters. When he addressed them outside court, he used the opportunity to slam the "willing buyer, willing seller" model of land reform, saying whites should "pay for making us slaves".
"We must punish them. And now they must pay. If we don't, we are paying them for calling us kaffirs ...
"They must appreciate the fact that we have forgiven them, but must know we will never forget," Malema thundered.
Earlier in the week, the youth league had accused agents of "white supremacy" of being behind recent corruption allegations against Malema.
Extreme anti-white rhetoric has become a recurrent theme in youth league speech in the past year or so. It reached a crescendo in the run-up to the elections when Malema labelled whites as criminals who "must be treated as such".
Now this talk is coming from an organisation which is a key component of the ANC, a party which has for nearly 100 years championed the principle of non-racialism. Not even black consciousness and Africanist parties would dare mouth such crass racism. They simply do not preach anti-whiteness.
Yet the ANC, the standard bearer of non-racialism, tolerates this within its ranks.
There are always the predictable defences. They range from the claim that these utterances should not be taken seriously because it is only the youth league and not the mother body that is making them.
This argument goes on to say that youngsters are expected to say outrageous things and they will become rational with age.
There are three fundamental flaws in this argument.
The main one is that this is not just any bunch of youngsters. The leaders of the ANC Youth League are hugely influential and their message carries through society.
If they were peripheral players, why would the league's nationalisation drive be causing such havoc within the ANC's policy-making machinery, the government and the mining sector domestically and internationally? If it was not for the youth league, we may not have had the regime change that we saw in Polokwane in 2007.
The second one is that his rhetoric undoes the gains we have made in creating a non-racial society. As this column has stated previously, Malema and the youth league's racial rhetoric have the same polarising effect as the antics of the prehistoric creatures who call themselves AfriForum.
The third and most critical flaw is that because the league's voice is powerful, it has the potential to stoke fires in the tinderbox that is our unequal society.
There are angry, restless youths roaming the streets of our country with hopelessness written on their foreheads. The more you drum it into their consciousness that a certain racial group is responsible for their miserable state of affairs the more you increase chances of racial enmity. It is anyone's guess what the consequences of this will be.
Like all demagogues, Malema and his comrades play on very real concerns. The legacy of apartheid is still with us and it is most stark in the racially skewed distribution of wealth.
Corporate South Africa has been a half-hearted and cynical implementer of legislated employment equity and empowerment policies. And as long as the face of wealth is largely pale, you are bound to get questions about the value of political power.
Although we have done reasonably well in forging a sense of nationhood, there are still unacceptable levels of racism in our everyday lives - both overt and covert. Many farmers still treat their workers like medieval serfs.
The ground is therefore lush and welcoming for a demagogue to plant hatred.
If this nation - and the party that leads it - is still committed to the non-racialism project, we cannot ignore the caustic acid spewing from Malema's mouth. The ANC leadership should be whipping the youth league into line on the principle of non-racialism. That is not an area in which the league can claim autonomy and independence of thought.
The ANC cannot afford to let one of its own organs take the country on a backward and destructive route.