‘Professional Blacks’ Are Perfect For Populist Politics 

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Written by: Wiseman T Zondi

Race-based echo chambers are all but part of our socio-political discourse in South Africa. Comment sections on social media are replete with talk of “White Monopoly Capital” and the apparent evil of the Oppenheimers, among other things.

Equally tiring is the phenomenon where, apparently, specific black individuals having a monopoly on articulating the problems and their solutions for fellow black people – let’s call them ‘professional blacks’ – and lambasting those who differ from their perspective. They do this by calling these dissenters ‘anti-black’ or, in a charming hat-tip to Steve Biko, ‘non-white’, if the interlocutor is black as well.

The crux of the professional blacks’ non-argument is that black people have one singular narrative; one way of being and perceiving the world. That way is usually premised on a mistrust of white people, an unjustified hatred of Nelson Mandela, a wave of support for Jacob Zuma and/or Julius Malema, and an obsession with the word ‘sell-out.’ This brew, they imply, will only simmer once black people are in possession of land and “the entire system is changed”.

To be fair, there is a lot to admire and commend about ending poverty among the most destitute. However, when disagreements occur over how this is best done (because nobody is always right), the professional blacks place a premium on the identifier known as ‘blackness’, and see it as their duty to ‘strip’ people of their blackness and affirm others’, as a counter-argument. Not only is this laughably asinine, but it stunts the discussion on how to change the very system that is perceived to be problematic.

Firstly, an identity – especially a racial identity – cannot be revoked at will by any stranger on the Internet. Blackness is not limited to a certain socio-economic class, accent, or region. Much like any other social group, black people are individuals who have varied experiences and who would scoff at being reduced to their race. Being black can never be monolithic. Blackness is a social construction that still exists for a myriad of reasons. Most of these are personal. That renders the idea of any black person who will attempt to police this as idiotic.

Secondly, it is an outright lie to suggest that anything introduced by the ANC government will be the panacea for black South Africans’ fortunes. Some of the party’s leaders are directly involved in the state recapture saga, one that looted billions worth of potential infrastructure and job-creation opportunities. Black ANC leaders have screwed over their predominantly-black electorate over and over. Why would the very same party, consisting of mostly of the same individuals, now call itself a party that centres black people?

This then makes the conclusion irresistible: because our identities are so central to us and they pit us as being disillusioned with the way democracy “ought to” have went, we now are at the mercy of populist politicians. The ANC (fearing a sharp decline in votes) and the EFF (resident fascists-in-chief), have embarked on a campaign to win the hearts of the black poor and working-class. By any means necessary.

The newest ideological craze is the proposed implementation of expropriation of property without compensation. Because the two parties who supposedly speak for the entire black experience have decided on a certain position, any black person who deviates from the script is said to be a ‘clever black’, and serving the interests of the West. This attitude of casually dismissing all debate and dissent always gives way to suppression and violence. Studying the history of any dictatorship around the world will affirm this.

The argument tends to quickly shift from land expropriation as a benefit, to land expropriation as a way of sticking it to the white man, economy be damned. After all, Nomvula Mokonyane once said that if the rand fell, we’d always be there to pick it back up. This is the sort of race-baiting that limits our capacity to think of solutions that do not feature the government (any government) as a feeder of the nation.

Race, like any other identity marker, is certain to invoke a number of disagreements. This is likely inevitable in a country with a history of race-based politics such as South Africa.

The professional blacks’ tendency to limit people’s autonomy and confining them to the narrow apertures of their skin colour, however, is antithetical to rational thought. Worst of all, it is the perfect breeding ground for anti-intellectualism and cheap populism to run amok. And if the past decade or so under Zuma has taught us anything, it is that disaster is the natural outcome.

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Author: Wiseman T Zondi is a student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) where he is studying towards a BA in philosophy, politics and law. He enjoys reading politically-themed books in his spare time and occasionally writes self-help articles.