When the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) found itself on the receiving end of an intemperate statement from the Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, a number of other Non-Governmental Organisations came to its defence. This is a positive development, no doubt about it, but one with what we might call a context.

The Minister’s statement – a response to the HSF’s intention to take the revocation of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit on review – was crude and badly written. It fulminated about ‘a disturbing and growing trend by some NGOs to sabotage the polycentric and policy laden decisions taken by Government by using the courts.’ The country was ‘under the dictatorship of some of the NGOs with some having faceless and dubious funders. Their ultimate aim is to assist in the dislodgement of government of the day from power by all means available.’ The statement claimed the mandate of South Africa’s people for the minister’s actions and for good measure added a flourish that the HSF were ‘armchair critics, who have no idea of the sacrifices and deaths of many freedom fighters, while they sat in the comfort of their homes because of the colour of their skin.’

The NGOs that spoke out about this included Freedom Under Law, Defend Our Democracy, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, SECTION27, and Corruption Watch. Their concern was both with the specifics of the case, and the generalised menace towards civil society groups that the Minister’s statement bespoke.

‘Without a shred of justification,’ they wrote, ‘the minister issued the most outrageous public statement vilifying the HSF, impugning its integrity and patriotism, accusing it of racism and treachery – and in the process gratuitously smeared the NGO community as a whole.’

Faranaaz Variava, a senior official at SECTION27, took this further in remarks carried in a Daily Maverick article: ‘When we have comments like this, it’s very worrying for what it means for our democracy…​​ And that’s why it’s very important that when things like this happen, that we defend our partner organisations, and that we speak up in the name of democracy. We think that the government, if they believe in democracy, should be interested in having a robust civil society and a robust media committed to upholding the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.’

The activist media platform, GroundUp, meanwhile made the following comment: ‘His [the minister’s] venomous language is reminiscent of the tyrannical Robert Mugabe, who was the prime instigator of the situation that led to the special permit having to be created in the first place. But the especially unhinged aspects of Motsoaledi’s statement also come from the toxic playbook of Donald Trump. Is this to be the new low level of political debate in South Africa?’

And in City Press, editor Mondli Makhanya reiterated the comparison between the minister and illiberal rulers elsewhere, claiming he matched them in style and substance. ‘Former US President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are masters at this,’ he said, ‘Closer to home, the late Robert Mugabe revelled in conspiracies.’

Comparisons with such leaders are de rigueur when describing political malfeasance in South Africa. But behaviour of this nature is hardly new.


The broad operative concept typically associated with Trump and Orbán – and a clutch of others – is populism. Populism is not as is sometimes assumed about a drive to be popular. Rather, its etymology draws on the idea of ‘the people’. It is a political approach that sees the world divided into camps with sharply divergent interests. On one side stand ‘the people’, on the other ‘the elite’. Those denied power and influence against those holding it all. Politics rapidly becomes regarded as a contest between two implacably opposed factions, enemies rather than opponents, one where compromise is scorned and the fight is to the finish.

This sort of approach – ‘Manichean’, as the intellectual treatment of the phenomenon puts it – manifests itself in various ways. Opposition to ‘elites’ is of course one, but it may take more specific or different forms: the media, opposing political parties, racial, ethnic or religious groups and so on.

There is a strong echo of all this in the Minister’s words. The government is under siege by those well organised and suspiciously funded interests opposed to the will of ‘the people’.


Sadly, South Africa’s history primed it for a politics of pathology. South African society prior to the transition was based on exclusion and division. And the efforts to overthrow that order were dominated by an organisation – the ANC – whose own culture and outlook were ill-suited to a liberal democratic form of politics. The late Dr Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert once observed that the apparent choice confronting South Africa at that time was between repression and revolution, between an exclusionary, racially defined order and ‘liberatory intolerance’.

It bears remembering that the ANC did not – and does not – describe itself as a political party, but as a liberation movement. This is a species of political organisation rooted in anti-colonial activism, and which credits itself with embodying rather than representing its followers. Its followers are not merely a faction of the polity but are the only legitimate polity. They are ‘the people’.

Henning Melber, a German scholar with a personal political background in Namibia’s SWAPO, explains the impact of all this on the political culture that emerges among the leadership of post-liberation societies: ‘If you are not with the liberator (as represented by the movement now party and state), you are considered to be an enemy. Given the blurred boundaries between the party, government and state, any opposition or dissent is considered to be hostile and branded as an enemy to the people and the national interest.’

Call this ‘liberationism’. This is precisely the attitude that courses through the Minister’s statement.


When GroundUp asks if this is to be ‘new low level’ of politics in the country’, it is failing to recognise that this is long-standing practice. The minister’s outburst, bombastic as it may have been, has plentiful antecedents.

The idea that opposition is illegitimate has been a recurring feature of the ANC’s narrative since 1994. Party documents and speeches evinced a continuous preoccupation with a supposed ‘counter-revolution’. This was not just a concern – perhaps understandable – about possible terrorism or destabilisation from recidivist apartheid-era operators; the appellation was extended to (and sometimes conflated with) perfectly legitimate and constitutionally protected political activity.

Lest anyone think this simply a quaint hangover from the struggle, this concept is still being used in ANC discussion documents from May this year.

As for the role of opposition political parties, they were not merely mistaken, but invariably malign. They were trying to unseat the ANC (as though this was somehow outside the bounds of democratic politics) or to destroy it. Their motives were invariably venal, and, more typically, racist.

Whether they could claim a legitimate place in South Africa’s politics was uncertain. Post-apartheid South Africa’s first Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar, declared in a parliamentary debate that some of his fellow MPs ‘continue through the generosity of this very President and the new democratic order, to participate in the new democracy’. In this view, citizenship remained in the gift of the President, a conditional privilege, not a fundamental right.

Perhaps no expression of this feeling matched a series of articles in the ANC’s weekly bulletin, ANC Today, in 2007. Entitled ‘A Fundamental Revolutionary Lesson: The Enemy Manoeuvres but it Remains the Enemy’, it restated a hardline liberationist view of South Africa’s politics, where the ANC stood facing a veritable total onslaught by an array of ‘enemies’ – not merely opponents or contenders, and by implication, not fellow citizens – with the lines between the legal and the illegal blurred if not entirely irrelevant.

Indeed, the articles flirted with the idea that it might have been unwise to have refrained from the violent suppression of its ‘enemies’.

This idea was revisited in myriad ways later. As President, Jacob Zuma, in his trademark bawdiness, revisited this, telling the house: ‘You have more rights because you’re a majority; you have less rights because you’re a minority. That’s how democracy works.’ Rightly, he was criticised for this, but there was – within both a populist and liberationist worldviews – a certain logic to it. For in these perspectives, those who have an intrinsic entitlement to power by way of history, or by the weight of their numbers, and the political formation that leads them should stand above their (nominal) peers, and not be constrained in their exercise of that power. They would, after all, hold power until Jesus returned.

And when power did shift, as it did in Cape Town and the Western Cape, this had to be understood as the false consciousness of misguided residents (or their racism, according to taste), or the endurance of an effective colonial administration. But never fear, said one-time ANC provincial party chair Marius Fransman in 2012: ‘Be assured that in the eye of the storm the people shall rise, the tide shall turn and the Western Cape as the first and last remaining colony will finally be free come 2014.’

Nor was this attitude confined to opposition parties. The media came under immediate attack. A document that appeared in 1994 entitled Unmandated Reflections and attributed to Thabo Mbeki warned darkly that the opposition would leverage the media to pursue its nefarious agenda. ‘This media,’ the document continued, ‘is itself driven by fear of a truly non-racial order because of its concern to preserve its own racial status quo with regard to various matters, including ownership, editorial control and policy and staffing.’

The sense of conspiracy and victimisation by the media became a significant theme in the Mandela presidency. There was even an investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission into racism in the media (its report found, unsurprisingly, that the ‘South African media can be characterised as racist institutions’). It lingered on, even as the initial justifications – such as the supposed preponderance of white and politically ‘liberal’ journalists – become impossible to sustain. President Zuma, for example, denounced the media coverage of the country, claiming that people abroad lived in envy of South Africa – but in the country, all was doom. ‘Who do you think in reality you serve when reporting,’ he asked his audience of aspirant journalists, ‘the interest of the public that you claim, as the media, you stand for or the interest of the owners and managers of the paper?’ A distinctly populist framing.

All of the above was on display in then President Nelson Mandela’s address to the ANC’s National Conference in Mafikeng in December 1997. Not only opposition parties came under attack, but other independent institutions too. For example, calling out NGOs, he said:

We must also refer to sections on the non-governmental sector which seek to assert that the distinguishing feature of a genuine organisation of civil society is to be a critical “watchdog” over our movement, both inside and outside of government.

Pretending to represent an independent and popular view, supposedly obviously legitimised by the fact that they are described as non-governmental organisations, these NGO’s also work to corrode the influence of the movement.

He then went on to cast aspersions on the integrity and legitimacy of such bodies, referring specifically to their funding. This theme would reassert itself from time to time; there is an unbroken thread between Mandela’s words and those of the Minister. And as it happens, shortly after the address, Blade Nzimande, South African Communist Party Secretary General, named the Helen Suzman Foundation and the Institute of Race Relations as counter-revolutionary organisations. Some things remain consistent.

It goes on. The judiciary was imposing a ‘judicial dictatorship’. Western countries – South Africa’s largest trade and investment partners – were engaged in nefarious efforts to undermine South Africa. Or mining houses. Or private healthcare providers.

Our people

Nor was all of this confined to a refrain that has been so common as to seldom invite any interrogation is the notion of ‘our people’, a framing that has been in use since the 1990s. This sort of formulation would be well in place in any populist playbook. It divides society between ‘our people’ and, one infers, ‘their people’. Us and them. Some belong and some don’t. Perhaps no one has expressed this with a greater sense of chauvinism than Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema: ‘This is not your land! You must know your place, you are visitors here. And the long stay of visitors depends on their conduct. If you continue to misbehave, feeding our people to lions, putting our people who are still alive in the coffins, then you are applying for something else.’

Farmers – specifically white farmers – have been a particular target of vicious rhetoric. They have been stigmatised as emblematic of just about everything wrong with South Africa, specifically as bearers of the original sin. The epitome of the white settler ‘land thief’ or what current intellectualising might describe as ‘whiteness’. Consider former Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs Lulu Xingwana’s fulminations against farmers (supposedly a central constituency in her portfolio) who regularly ‘rape and assault’ their workers. Among other things. Or Julius Malema in his erstwhile incarnation as ANC Youth League leader saying that ‘Once we agree they [white people] stole our land, we can agree that they are criminals and must be treated as such.’

Zindzi Mandela while ambassador to Denmark took this theme up with a barely coherent rant on Twitter in 2019, denouncing white people, ‘descendants of Van Riebeck [sic]’ and ‘land thieves’. True enough, Minister Naledi Pandor said that she had reprimanded the ambassador for her conduct – but because of the breach of etiquette, not for the substance of her remarks. Her party colleagues simply didn’t see a problem with the latter.

And for those thinking that Trump represents some sort of dark future that threatens, bear in mind that the taint associated most with him – at least at the beginning of his term of office – was xenophobia. Yet here South Africa has a lengthy and dishonourable tradition in this regard, and this was so long before he was proposing a wall and musing about Mexican rapists. ‘Our townships cannot be a site of subtle takeover and build-up for other situations we have seen in other countries,’ warned former cabinet minister and Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane, ‘I am ready to state my view formally in defence of our communities.’

And at this point, legal measures to exclude foreigners from parts of the country’s economy are in the works.

‘Our people’. A limited idea indeed.

Even more disturbing

The rhetoric flowing from South Africa’s liberationist impulses is concerning for the approach to politics and social organisation that it espouses. Entirely sinister is the invocation of violence; even worse its occasional perpetration.

South Africa’s democracy was, to invoke the evocative title of one study, ‘launched on a bloody tide’. The IRR estimates that in the period 1985 to 1995 some 22 456 people were killed in politically-driven violence, whether in the form of the state whose governance strategy had been inherently repressive, the liberation movement and the ‘People’s War’, or by such formations as Inkatha. Add to this a general lawlessness and broken social structure, and the threat of violence and violent insecurity was always going to pose a threat. The nature and extent of that threat, though, would depend on how those in positions of authority conducted themselves.

Early signs were not encouraging. The election itself was conducted in conditions that made free political activity impossible across much of the country and among most of the population. At times, keeping opposition formations out was openly stated as an objective. Dan Mofokeng, an ANC-aligned civic leader who would go on to hold an MEC’s office in Gauteng said in the aftermath of an attack on an attempted political meeting: ‘The people will use every tactic to prevent political activity by the [white] parties. They are not going to allow these parties to come to the townships.’

Every tactic is a long and disconcerting list. Perceptive readers will note too Mofokeng’s liberationist and populist inflection: ‘the people’ vs ‘the [white] parties’.

It does, however, remain a major achievement of post-1994 South Africa that the sort of overt political violence that characterised the transition period subsided – even as criminal violence, some of it organised, wracked the country. To be sure, it does surface from time to time. Violence associated with protests is common – the Institute for Security Studies documented 1 123 violent protests in 2021. There have been serious allegations about the repression of community groups such as Abahlali baseMjondolo. The political assassination has remained an uncomfortable feature of the country’s politics, more apparently within the confines of the ANC than as an instrument of inter-party rivalry.

Polling by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation suggest that 8.3% of South Africans had ‘used force or violence for a political cause’, and 14.3% would potentially do so if necessary.

Yet the romanticisation of violence retains a hold on some streams of South Africa’s political culture. Perhaps this is because, unlike some of its revolutionary brethren – the Soviets, the Cubans, the MPLA, even ZANU-PF – its own armed struggle amounted to very little. A liberation movement, embodying a righteous cause and the mandate of history, must take its objectives, not negotiate them. And it might also be argued that rather than declining as the country has moved away from the struggle period, invoking this part of the history has become more prominent.

There was a particular spike in this manner of rhetoric around the ascendency of President Zuma. His trademark song Umshini wami invoked the armed struggle – and was also reportedly sung by mobs seeking out foreigner during the 2008 xenophobic riots. High-profile supporters such as Zwelinzima Vavi and Julius Malema took this up with enthusiasm, declaring their willingness to die and to kill for their comrades.

At a memorial service for a trade unionist, Vavi declared: ‘Because Jacob Zuma is one of us and he is one of our leaders, for him we are prepared to lay down our own lives and to shoot and kill.’ There was considerable consternation about this, probably not least because Vavi had been held in high regard in many circles as a ‘human rights’ defender and a man of integrity.

The matter went to the South African Human Rights Commission, and after discussions, a brief statement was issued, in which Vavi stated his case as follows:

This is not a call for lawlessness. Against this background, does this mean the climate in contemporary South Africa calls for armed action? To that my answer is a resounding no! In my speech I was not agitating that we should now take up arms because we have exhausted peaceful attainment of our goals.  I was merely stating a principle that comrades should be ready to defend one another and when necessary that may involve killing.  I understand that the word ‘killing’ jars some peoples’ sensitivities and that I regret. This does not, however, detract from the general principle that taking up arms is always a possibility, but not under the current conditions.

Taking up arms being a generally applicable possibility and killing a possible necessity would seem to imply that violence was one of an acceptable range of options – just not at this point. This was probably the most emphatic statement in favour of the principle that violence had a role to play in South African politics. The SAHRC chimed in that the use of the word kill was ‘regrettable’, but went in to say that it ‘accepts the above statement and considers the matter closed’. Parenthetically, it was remarkable that an institution charged with protecting human rights was willing to carry and affirm these sentiments.

One can only speculate on this, but perhaps this idea – the responsibility of comrades to protect one another and to ‘take up arms when the circumstances demand it – has some bearing on strike violence. Or on the events of May 2012, when a march by the Democratic Alliance in 2012 on the headquarters of the Congress of South African Trade Unions was met by an aggressive mob brandishing makeshift projectiles, leading to several injuries. There was no condemnation of this by either the federation leadership or the ANC – although perhaps it did not warrant the killing that Vavi had previously noted might at times be necessary. The Mail and Guardian, a publication hardly sympathetic to the DA wrote: ‘Members of the Democratic Alliance (DA) were sent a clear message: If you want to wear blue and espouse the opposition’s viewpoint, you’d better be prepared to take a literal beating for it.’

Anthony Butler has offered an explanation for this: 

The militaristic tenor of exile has also infected present-day political rhetoric and symbolism. An older generation of ANC activists took intellectualsassertions about strategy and tactics with a pinch of salt. Many of them were able to inspect the merits of different systems of government – including failing communist states and largely admirable social democracies – at first hand. New generations of ANC activists, on the other hand, have less exposure to the practical lessons of history. They are sometimes inclined to take the Leninist slogans and militaristic posturing of the past at face value and to reproduce them in their political actions. For this reason, meetings of the ANC youth organisations are increasingly dominated by political theatre, militarism and machismo.

Julius Malema and the formations he has led – both the ANC Youth League and the Economic Freedom Fighters – have been the exemplars of this. Indeed, echoing Vavi very closely he declared that: ‘We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now.’ Perhaps reassuring after a fashion, although – like Vavi – he did not foreclose the option. 

A new low?

All of this has contributed not just to an errant statement from a minister, but to a recurrent pattern of political behaviour, a serious flaw in South Africa’s political culture. It is not a new low, but a persistent one.

The Trumpian and Orbán allusions are irrelevant, as this is a phenomenon that has emerged wholly from a South African conjunction of factors that have an extended pedigree on these shores. South Africa must face up to this. It is political culture that has brought us to a point where institutions staffed with political appointees fail to execute their mandates, where the business environment is inhospitable to the point of toxicity, and where supporters of a hopelessly compromised former president can hold the country to ransom by threatening an uprising. It is one where a sitting cabinet minister can openly denounce the country’s constitution.

This is a political culture in which government is a route to instant enrichment, and not prudent and long-term vision; the culture of procurement fraud, construction mafias and the false promises of voodoo economics.

Perhaps above all, it is a culture that works against both a constitutional democracy and the sensible policy debate that will underwrite its sustainability.

South Africa, though, is resilient. It has survived decades of abuses, including those of the last ten years. It can be reoriented. Those invested in this future need to understand just what has transpired. For many, it will be a difficult realisation, and perhaps even more difficult to act on. But this will be essential to forging a future worthy of the name.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.