In this winter of 2020, South Africa is divided between those who are for #BlackLivesMatter and those who are against the BLM Global Network. This is my account of turning from one side to the other, with lessons for those on both sides.
On 27 February 2018, my life changed, and so did yours. The National Assembly passed a motion to amend Section 25 of the Constitution of South Africa, the protection in the Bill of Rights against arbitrary expropriation in South Africa. Expropriation without compensation (EWC) became an official goal of our (divided) parliament.
It was a sunny Tuesday morning in Joburg, and I was cleaning a friend’s swimming pool when the news came through. The sparkly pool belonged to Rian Malan, who had written an open letter to Julius Malema a few months earlier. Malan had heard Malema’s ‘slaughter whites’ line and publicly offered his Emmarentia house in exchange for his life, but only if Malema first explained who exactly the ‘rightful owners’ were.
Malan poked his head out of the window and said simply, ‘The EWC bill passed’, before turning back to his laptop.
I dropped the leaf-gulper and reached for a cigarette. My fingers were trembling and I kept snapping the matches. I was dazed and confused. How could this happen? Looking back, it felt as if a doctor had pronounced: ‘The country you love has cancer, it could die soon.’
And yet. Malan had recently introduced me to opinion surveys by the Institute of Race Relations, and those by RW Johnson, both showing that the overwhelming majority of South Africans opposed race revanchism and yearned for stronger property rights, law and order, more business-friendly policy, and jail time for the corrupt.
Ambition of a wizened elite
EWC is not popular, it is the ambition of a wizened elite. This must be exposed, I thought. Then EWC will be rejected publicly by the super-majority. Hearts and minds have already been overwhelmingly won, we just have to show why, in a mainstream way. Three lines of argument came to mind.
One, the moral argument. With government spending more on its own VIP security than land reform, and having stolen a third of GDP, it was abhorrent to offload the cost of land reform on to a few family-business farmers who worked hard to feed the nation. EWC was immoral.
Two, the political argument. With 2018’s top priority being the prosecution of corrupt Zuma-era officials and their ‘keepers’, the stupidest mistake we could possibly make in the first place would be to stoke the very same Bell Pottinger smoke-screen of ‘white monopoly capital’ that obscured present-day looting. EWC would instantly obstruct and delay necessary reform within the ANC, government and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Three, the practical argument. Even the mere proposal for EWC would drive out investment, kill jobs, and embolden the state to hold on to the 20 million+ title deeds it has already refused to hand out to poor black people, deepening the ANC’s commitment to playing ‘custodian’ to ‘our people’ until ‘Jesus comes’. EWC was guaranteed to make life worse, not better, for exactly the group it nominally aimed to serve. EWC was absurd.
All three arguments could focus on the EWC motion, gripping it like the ‘claw crane’ of arcade games, lift it out and dump it in the rubbish bin of history. But how to mobilise these arguments before the eyes of millions?
Crooking the knee
The obstacle was clear. Those with their hands on the buttons and levers of South Africa: the taste-makers, information gate-keepers and high-flyers, were so busy crooking the knee before his highness the new emperor of South Africa, St Cyril the ‘frog boiler’ Ramaphosa, that it had become impossible to put two and two together in public without being denounced as racist, ‘unhinged’ or both. Peter Bruce is the most obvious example of a Ramaphoriac, but was always far from alone.
Then the match lit, and I gained what I thought was a brilliant insight. I shouted at Malan, ‘BlackLivesMatter will save us!’
The BLM movement was bold and brazen, unfettered by the norms of South African politics. Its whole purpose, nominally, was to protect black people from abuses of state power. EWC was a power play that would ruin many ‘black lives’, so BLM would ‘surely’ oppose it if made aware of the facts and implications.
I got very excited and explained to Malan how we could provide all the information to BLM leaders and let decency do the rest. ‘Surely,’ I said, ‘BLM leaders will rush to the aid of poor black South Africans being dragged into another Venezimbabwean nightmare by a crusty elite trying to distract attention from its own failures?’
‘They will save this country from itself’
‘I’m going to join Black Lives Matter,’ I declared. ‘I’m telling you, if we can just speak to BLM’s leaders, they will save this country from itself. They’ll tweet “Fight EWC because #BlackLivesMatter” and millions will see that, and no one will be able to ignore it, and then EWC will go away and we can get back to building this country into the beauty it should be.’
Malan cocked his head and laughed.
I nearly punched him in the mouth. I thought I had just figured out how to save South Africa from EWC and Malan was laughing in my face as if this was all a big joke.
‘Do you know any of the BLM leaders?’ he asked. ‘I don’t mean personally, I mean do you know anything about them, do you know their names?’
I had to admit I did not, which was embarrassing. I just assumed that anyone who led a movement called ‘Black Lives Matter’ must really care about protecting everyone, but especially black people, from government abuses of power.
I also knew that the BLM movement officially protested about women’s rights and LGBT rights, too, so I assumed BLM activists would also care about black and white farmers being invaded and murdered under political endorsements of violence in South Africa – if only they knew what was happening here.
Malan was trying to mentor me into becoming less of a man-child at the time. Cleaning the swimming pool was part of the project, but the real challenge was to train me into journalism.
‘Assuming is the opposite of journalism,’ he said. ‘Research … do your research, then make up your mind, not the other way round. Go sit down at your laptop and start by looking up “Patrisse Cullors”, “Alicia Garza”, and “Opal Tometi”. Once you’ve done that, then we talk.’
Self-described ‘trained Marxists’
I did what Malan suggested. I found that Cullors and Garza were self-described ‘trained Marxists’ and that Tometi thought Venezuela’s dictator Nicolás Maduro was a great ‘world leader’ whose ‘Bolivarian revolution’ was a great thing. My heart sank. The co-founders of the BLM Global Network would love EWC, regardless of how many lives it cost or ruined, because it fitted their ideology perfectly.
Fine, I shrugged, that will not stop me. Most BLM supporters must be like me, a little naïve about the movement’s leaders but genuinely committed to non-racialism and liberty and protecting all lives from racist abuses, Marxist state power abuses and violence more generally. So, I decided to write an open letter to the BLM Movement more broadly, thinking that I could reach those people who chanted ‘Black Lives Matter’ and meant it.
The next day, 28 February 2018, I sent my open letter to the BLM Movement to the New York Times. It was rejected.
Over days that became weeks and then months, I sent various drafts of the open letter to other publications in the United States, many of which said they liked the idea but that ‘it’s not the right fit for us’ and ‘best of luck getting it placed elsewhere’.
I could not understand that. EWC was a global story at the time, our Constitution was under attack, lives were on the line. Why would anyone halt a plea for solidarity?
Malan laughed again. ‘Your letter threatens to expose the hypocrisy of the BLM movement. You’re saying if you really care about black people’s lives, please help stop EWC because it’s going to be hell for poor blacks in this country. You’re saying if you really care about exposing systemic violence then farm murders in South Africa are worth opposing too. But, say that gets published in the New York Times and then nothing changes, what then? Then everyone will know BLM does not care about black people’s lives, they just want to spite the white while feeling holy. BLM apologists do not want to expose that risk.’
It was bitter medicine to swallow and Malan poured me some papsak to wash it down. ‘Try something more reasonable tomorrow. It hurts, Gabes, I know that, I can see that, but it’s better now that you know how deep the hypocrisy goes.’
Why am I telling you this now? Because, in 2020, you know South African celebrities, and maybe even personal friends, who have recently endorsed the BLM Movement. You might have tried to join BLM yourself, just like I did, believing this would make things better.
My friend helped me when I tried that, by informing me – even though the information was disappointing, maddening. I went on to inform myself, learning that the BLM movement has been partly responsible for shielding criminality in ways that have produced hundreds of murders and tens of thousands of felonies.
Friends don’t let friends endorse BLM without facing up to the details of what their leaders and gate-keepers stand for, what their effects have been, and what their demands are for the future; but we don’t write each other off without a conversation either.
The other reason I write this old tale of personal failure is that some South Africans realise what the BLM Global Network does and demands, but may think they can co-opt the BLM movement from its own founders and leaders to make it into a movement that actually lives up to its name.
It may be possible for a few uncoordinated but influential South Africans to pull this off, but I doubt it. Waiting for the cameras to line up before you ‘take the knee’ is as unlikely to stop EWC as it is to stop police brutality in South Africa.
I have not seen one of the South African celebrities who have endorsed BLM publicly oppose EWC.
How can anyone pretend to care about protecting the vulnerable from tyranny, and kneel quietly as the systemic attempt to throttle lives and livelihoods in perpetuity, EWC, rolls in?
Gabriel Crouse is the author of the IRR’s recent report Because #BlackLivesMatter – What Institutions need to know about the BLM Global Network.
[Picture: James Eades on Unsplash.]