Jerm, Helen Zille and The Grand Ideological Inquisition

The world is replete with sights which are sublimely terrifying to behold. The wildest heartlands of South Africa are famous for such displays of “Nature red in tooth and claw,” yet few of these rival the fearful spectacle of ideological machinery devouring its prey.  Over...

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The world is replete with sights which are sublimely terrifying to behold. The wildest heartlands of South Africa are famous for such displays of “Nature red in tooth and claw,” yet few of these rival the fearful spectacle of ideological machinery devouring its prey.  Over the past few days, the manufactured outrage surrounding Helen Zille’s tweeting of a satirical cartoon by the cartoonist known as Jerm has revealed a number of extremely disquieting facts about the ideology which reigns unchecked over the South African psyche.

A particularly concerning aspect of this debacle has been the lack of reasoned commentary by ostensible thought-leaders in the media and academia, which leaves the majority of South Africans even more vulnerable to the disastrous politics of drift playing out within the country.  False accusations of racism towards both Zille and Jerm have dominated the conversation about the meaning of the cartoon, an all too familiar feature of contemporary political discourse.  This repeated recourse to racialisation is an ideologically driven ritual, the functions of which are the subject of this article.

Like many psychosocial phenomena, ideology is impossible to observe empirically and therefore any attempt to define it is fraught with difficulty.  At its most basic level, an ideology is a set of ideas, norms and values that generally form the basis of political or economic theory, and which in practice are used to guide policy.  An extremely significant characteristic of ideology is that its assumptions do not always stem from empirically observable facts, meaning that an ideological representation of reality does not necessarily align with reality as it truly is.  One of the prevailing views of ideology was elucidated by Marx and Engels, who saw ideology as the “superstructure” of a society, which comprises the dominant ideas of the culture at a particular point in time.  Given their preoccupation with the class struggle, it is no surprise that Marx and Engels believed that the dominant ideas of a society were necessarily those of the ruling class, which ultimately serve to legitimise their hegemony.

The left-wing philosopher and intellectual rock-star Slavoj Zizek synthesises Marx and Engel’s thoughts on ideology with some rather obscure psychoanalytic theory, the result of which is a more complicated definition which highlights the manner in which ideology functions unconsciously to guide our thinking and behaviour.  Drawing from the work of Lacan, Zizek notes how rather than interacting with reality as it is, human beings instead represent reality symbolically through language, and subsequently interact only with our linguistic representations thereof.  The space in between the world as it is and our representations thereof is the space occupied by ideology; it thus forms part of our conceptual framework of social reality at the pre-symbolic stage of cognition.  This particular quality of ideology can help us understand why people may sincerely perceive the same stimulus in entirely different ways,  as is clearly the case in the Jerm cartoon saga.  While some understood the fact that the cartoon satirises racial generalisations, as Zille stated in her tweet, others who are possessed by (or are custodians of) the dominant ideology viewed the tweet as a racist attack on black people. The latter group subsequently went on to enact what I have termed the Grand Ideological Inquisition, a ritual which has become about as South African as biltong and braaivleis.  This ritual involves a demonstrably false or tenuous accusation of racism, alongside the demand that the accused is castigated or excised for their transgression.  An analysis of this ritual can reveal much about the nature of the beliefs underpinning it; it is to this subject we now turn.

The esteemed sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that rituals function as a bridge between the sacred and the profane; they are thus prescribed ways of acting in the realm of the profane which express a symbolic relationship to the realm of the sacred.  On the subject of ideologically driven rituals, Zizek also writes that “[w]hen we subject ourselves to the machine of a religious ritual, we already believe without knowing it; our belief is already materialised in the external ritual.”  In effect, this means that through our ritualised interactions with the world, we simultaneously participate in and perpetuate ideology, whether we realise it or not.  Given the fact that ritual encompasses an element of action in relation to a belief, any analysis of a ritual requires one to examine both the functions of the ritual in action as well as what the ritual reveals about the underlying belief system.  In the context of ideological rituals, it is important to bear in mind that these rituals always serve the interests of the ruling elite by reinforcing the belief in the legitimacy of their position in society.  When analysing the Grand Ideological Inquisition, it is clear that the most obvious function of this ritual is to paint the accused as an amoral individual, deserving of severe punishment.

In demonising the accused, the inquisitors simultaneously elevate themselves to the role of legitimate arbitrators of morality, which parallels how the ruling elite in the ANC set themselves up as the “Sole authentic representative of black South Africa.”  It is notable that Jerm was deplatformed by Facebook in the wake of this controversy, a fact which does not bode well for freedom of speech in South Africa.   Whilst certain individuals celebrated Jerm’s deplatforming as a victory against “racism,” this will not result in an improvement in the material conditions of poor people in South Africa.  While the inquisitors may believe they have righted a historical wrong, their participation in the Grand Ideological Inquisition is nothing more than a demonstration of fealty towards those who Jerm lampoons in the fateful cartoon; the political elite whose hegemony is such that they are able to make sweeping racist statements in order to further entrench resources in the hands of an incapable, corrupt state.  It is telling that inquisitors are often members of the media and the academy; institutions which have come to rely on their proximity to the ruling elite for their continued survival.

In order to explore the ideological beliefs underpinning the Grand Ideological Inquisition, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to a statement made by Prof. Johnathan Jansen, one of the foremost academics in the country:

Prof. Jansen’s analysis is wrong in a manner characteristic of contemporary academia; partial truths juxtaposed with a heavy dose of ruling ideology.  His statement serves to perfectly illustrate the ideological assumptions of the inquisitor; chief among these is the notion that white racism is a uniquely damaging force in South Africa, which needs to be “urgently” repaired for the sake of the country.  Ironically, those who speak in the language of “lived experiences” are rather out of touch with reality, as research clearly demonstrates.  While it is true that decades of Apartheid exacerbated poverty among my black, coloured and Indian countrymen, it is undoubtedly an ideological position to suggest that the racially charged rhetoric around the “land question” is a legitimate repudiation of Apartheid ideology.

Another element of the ideology revealed in this statement is more subtle, but no less enduring: in the realm of discourse, every critical statement made by a white person about the ideas held by a black person must be motivated by racism.  At the same time, almost anything is permissible when critiquing ideas held by a white person, including the apportionment of collective guilt for historical injustice.  Once again, it is clear that the only people who benefit from this ideology are the ruling elite; having sold out the “Rainbow Nation” ideals of non-racialism they stand to profit most by increased state control of institutions and resources.  In practice, the policies and practices based on this ideology, such as BEE and “Transformation,” have demonstrably failed to alleviate poverty while enabling State Capture and corruption.  Unfortunately for the majority of South Africans of all races, it is difficult to recognise ones complicity in the Grand Ideological Inquisition, particularly considering how most people believe that decrying racism (whether real or imagined) will lead to a freer, fairer society.  Fortunately, we can learn some very valuable lessons about the nature of state power from observing how it functioned in relation to the inquisition of Jerm and Helen Zille.

The clearest indication that Jerm and Zille have presented an unwelcome challenge to the ruling ideology is the vehemence of the vitriol against them.  Jerm’s role as a political satirist makes him a prime target for inquisition, while his irreverent style makes his art stand out among his peers and evidently enrages and entertains the public in equal measure.  In Jerm’s case, his willingness to flout political correctness makes him an obvious enemy of the state, but the fact that he has been attacked on several occasions by members of the media reveals the true manner in which ideologically derived power functions.

Zizek writes that, “The ‘machine’ of State Apparatuses exercises its force only in so far as it is experienced [by the subject]…as a traumatic, senseless injunction.”  The definitive characteristic of this type of power is it’s Kafkaesque nature; it is truly absurd that members of the media, who stand to lose the most from restrictions on free expression, would engage in smear campaigns against a satirist.  One may marvel at the lack of perspicacity by certain members of the press, unless one understands whose interests are served by such blatant propaganda.  Helen Zille’s case is even more illustrative of the manner in which the ideological machine functions.  Her record of anti-Apartheid activism speaks volumes about her character and her beliefs, and she is one of the few active politicians who have not forsaken the Liberal principle of non-racialism.  However, if one were to uncritically imbibe the more recent “analysis” of Zille’s behaviour, one may be left with the impression that she is among the worst racists in the country, the quintessential “Unrepentant white.”  In reality, it requires very little political acumen to understand that Zille’s principled stance on non-racialism stands in direct opposition to the ruling ideology, and the fact that she endures such frequent and acerbic attacks from the ruling elite is a testament to this fact.  Indeed, much like the interplay between Christ and the Grand Inquisitor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” Zille’s inquisitors no longer follow “The Word,” but instead the “Dread spirit of death and destruction.”  I submit that all those who participate in The Grand Ideological Inquisition do exactly the same.

In closing, it is often difficult to identify when one is an unwitting participant in an ideological ritual, but an understanding of how ideology functions at a psychological level can help to free us from perpetuating that which serves only to maintain the political status quo.  The Grand Ideological Inquisition will undoubtedly continue to play out in the South African context, but armed with an understanding of the ideological nature of this ritual, it is my hope that the reader will recognise their role in furthering the interests of the ruling elite.  The Jerm/Zille saga perfectly illustrates the manner in which true ideologically derived power functions.  If you believe that the real threat to progress in South Africa is a lack of “transformation” or an abundance of “white racism,” I urge you to consider Voltaire’s maxim, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”


Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology Part One, with Selections from Parts Two and Three, together with Marx’s “Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy.”

Žižek, S. (1989). The sublime object of ideology.

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