When Julius Malema denigrates blacks, he doesn’t think he’s being racist because “blacks can’t be racist”.

Talk in the South African public arena, like ‘most every place that power and language intersect, is Orwellian. “Empowerment” means increased dependence on the state; “reform” means holding the course; and “being black” increasingly means “being powerless”. When Malema calls black critics “house n*gg*rs” he thinks he is anything but racist because, in his words, “blacks can’t be racist”. This categorical claim is based on the twin slowly normalising claims a) that racism’s precondition is power and b) black people are powerless.

Mcebisi Dlamini, #FeesMustFall ‘activist’, introduced many to this doctrine which categorises black people as powerless and therefore innocent (including Amin and Mugabe) in his public professions of love for Hitler back in 2015. 

I got a taste of the doctrinal form of this claim during an episode of Madam Speaker (eNCA) earlier this year. Several polite and PhD-ed panellists (black and white) insisted that to be black is to be powerless. To best analyse said “powerlessness”, you need to ask what is power?

Power is getting other people to do your will. There are other kinds of power, but that’s not what those who equate  “black” with the “powerless” mean. 

To better focus on what they might have in mind, it is worth noting three basic social desires: for power, property and prestige (esteem). This trichotomy, derived from Princeton Political Theorist Philip Pettit, is useful because it homes in on something expressed in the social web of human interfaces. It also clarifies that, within the power interface, being rich or famous does not equate to being powerful. To be sure, having a lot of power often makes it easy to accumulate property and prestige and vice versa. But power, property and prestige are not the same thing. Property is a relation of ownership that you have due to social norms (underwritten by law); prestige is the involuntary attitudes of positive (and negative) regard others have of you; and power is other people doing your will.

There are only two ways to achieve power; one is to make it more attractive to the other person to do your will. The other is to make it less attractive to the other person to do anything else. Stick and carrot.

The carrot option is best achieved by connecting power and property. If I have lots of money and I want you to do something, I can get you to do my will by giving you money in return for your doing something. Now I have power over you. But in the case of free exchange you have power over me too. You want me to, say, perform a job of work. Your will is for me to hand lots of money over to you to attract you into doing the work. In free exchange, both parties have power over one another. A well-regulated market forces people to trade up, playing for a “win-win”.

Esteem can also be translated into power via this “win-win” formula without any material exchange. A friend wants a friend to do something. The latter does the former’s will in order to maintain the mutual, positive regard (esteem) each friend has for the other. This is Pettit’s compacts of equal respect. 

“It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both”. That was Machiavelli half a millennium ago, humming to a different tune. What Machiavelli noted is the stick route to induce others to obey your will  and that is to reduce what game theorists call their BATNA – the Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement. I learnt about  BATNA from a Moscovite oligarch who said “look, even you poor journalist can buy my house for 1000 roubles. Just douse the place in gasoline and light a match. The deal is I get 1000 roubles. The BATNA for me is I get to keep a heap of ash. In this context 1000 roubles is a good deal.” 

Philosopher and sociologist Max Weber defined power as “the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent that individual or group from realising them”. This is the hard power-play of reducing the others’ BATNA. The point to note is that the ultra-powerful do not have to kill anyone. The powerful get the oppressed to do their will by making the BATNA seem insufferable rather than by actually making that BATNA happen. 

“We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now. What we are calling for is the peaceful occupation of the land…” That was Julius Malema in November 2016. In 2013, he founded the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with a manifesto which  said “our enemy is white monopoly capital” (WMC). Bell Pottinger would be shut down over WMC, while the EFF continued to climb in the esteem of the South African media. Many of our leading pundits only began showing doubts about the EFF at the end of 2018 when the VBS scandal broke, making  the EFF leadership seem to be hypocritical race nationalists.The deal Malema offered in 2016 was to change the Bill of Rights or else (BATNA) there will be blood. 

On Turkish TV in 2018, Malema said: “I am saying to you, not under my leadership will we call for the slaughter of white people. I don’t know who is coming after me. I will not speak for them, but they [white people] are alarmist, they are crybabies, they are attention seekers. No one is going to slaughter them.” If this seems ambiguous, in the same interview Malema removed that ambiguity.

 “That which I am putting on the table is the best offer to white people: let black people own their land” [emphasis mine]. Malema talks clearly in bargaining terms: “their land”, Malema has made clear, is all South African land. His Turkish TV appearance was a ramp up of his 2016 demands. To avoid “slaughter” the best deal on the table is not only for landed property to be dealt away, but also for all of South Africa to fall “under my leadership”. Or else. 

Since Malema’s call for “occupation of the land” in 2016, it has been repeatedly answered. Black First Land First (BLF)’s slogan is “Land or Death”. Its leader, Andile Mngxitama, explained that “fight” and “confrontation” would be necessary and that “we don’t want your handovers…we are coming for you and we are going to get everything that you own it’s ours”. Power resides in minds, not reality.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) considers both parties acceptable, despite having the power not to register them. And the Human Rights Commission argued that calling for illegal occupation does not pose an “immediate threat” nor does the bargain of deal with us or else face slaughter.

The man who puts a gun to your head and demands your cell phone or else has the power of the BATNA of death over you, whether there is a bullet in the chamber or not. His power lies in your belief that he has or might have a bullet in the chamber. 

Every credible poll, including the IRR’s, indicates that genocide in South Africa is impossible; that most South Africans believe that people must work together across social identity axes like race; and that better education – not revenge – is the prerequisite for future success. The chamber is empty. But Malema and Mngxitama aim the gun at this country’s collective head in any case.

In order to distract from this power play two things have happened. First, Malema claimed there is “a black genocide” currently ongoing in South Africa, which makes the threat of white genocide seem less outlandish. Not one media outlet I am aware of has called Malema out on this. Second, all the major (English) South African media have at some point or another pushed the demonstrably false claim that AfriForum believes and communicates that white genocide is ongoing in South Africa. At the aforementioned Madam Speaker debate this was said again, even after Bongani Bingwa of 702 publicly apologised for making such a claim in 2018. This is a pure distraction from the EFF’s bargaining with the threat of genocide. 

The final and ultimate distraction comes from academic pundits who pseudo-philosophically claim that black people as a category are powerless because of “the system”.

In fact every black South African has the power to challenge government by voting, by voicing themselves, by free association, by running for office, and by appeal to the Rule of Law through the criminal justice system. In addition many black South Africans enjoy the power of holding office in the criminal justice system; in the courts including the Supreme Court of Appeal and Constitutional Court; in Cabinet; in Parliament; in the Presidency and in the armed services. These figures preside over the ultimate BATNA forces – those who are trained to take lives to keep order. The heads of all those institutions are black individuals. 

In terms of power derived from property, it is worth remembering that the president’s family is one of the five richest in the country and that black dollar millionaires almost certainly outnumber white dollar millionaires in the Republic today. Black individuals have awesome power.

But this is not black power. There is a distinction between the power of these individuals and the power that Malema wields in the march to corroding our Bill of Rights. The powers vested in the state and in the economy are, at least ideally, nonracial. Many black members of the wealthy class have made money as entrepreneurs, labourers and politicos who reached mutually beneficial deals. According to Chapter One of our constitution the state’s founding values include “non-racialism and non-sexism” so the army, police, executive and so on are not black powers, they are South African powers. By contrast, even in its most idealised form, Malema’s power is a race-based power, one race leveraging itself up by (empty) threats against another, the declared enemy of the EFF’s founding manifesto. This form of black power is arsenic.

It goes against the interests of almost all black people, which one can tell from the polls and from the craven racial epithets Malema directs at enemies who happen to be black. It depends on the pretence that to be black is to be powerless. It lowers BATNAs rather than makes room for win-wins. It aims to maximise the number of black people who hew wood and draw water in the age old ways rather than unlock the potential that goes with people working as they please under the equal Rule of Law. 

It rests on the belief that black and white are not to mix as individuals, whose race fades into the background, but rather as permanent tokens of difference and contest. If he were alive today, Verwoerd would be surely voting EFF in 2019 as he stood in philosophical harmony with their tune. Such a sad, mad twist to this country’s bloody saga that I think even Orwell would raise his eyebrows.

Gabriel Crouse is the George F D Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations.

If you like what you have just read, become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.

Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). His journalism is based on fieldwork and quantitative analysis, with a focus on land reform. Gabriel holds a degree in Philosophy from Princeton University.