The problem with personality politics

Hermann Pretorius | Jun 25, 2019
A politician being disliked is not unusual. But few politicians invoke such vehemence as DA MP Phumzile van Damme.

Disliked for her refusal to pull punches or give an inch, yet liked for those exact reasons, Van Damme is a forceful presence in South African politics. A cursory glance at her Twitter page shows an impressive collection of retweeted tweets of adulation – praise for her grit and gusto. Yet it is doubtful whether any other South African politician can hold a candle to Van Damme when it comes to the intensity and regularity of Twitter spats. It would certainly be uncontroversial to call Van Damme the most Marmite of South African politicians.

It comes therefore as no surprise that Van Damme has been the topic of much controversy following an alleged racist incident where the prominent MP became involved in an altercation. Van Damme tweeted that she was the victim of racial abuse and that she threw the punch in response. She has also taken the fight to Twitter users who target her, or ask questions she deems offensive. All of this has led to the appearance of two distinct tribes: the Phumzileites and the Anti-Phumzileites – the former believing the version of events provided by Van Damme, the latter not so much.

In law the person making an allegation of wrongdoing bears the burden of proof. The onus is on the alleger to first set out their version of the facts. Yet other than her many tweets on the matter and one or two photographs of the alleged racists, Van Damme has not provided any form of evidence that the incident occurred as she described it. No photographs of the actual incident, no eye witness account, no video footage, no CCTV footage. If photographic and videographic material of the incident is hard to come by, it must be noted that Van Damme has not provided her version of events under a legal obligation to be truthful or face charges of perjury. This could easily be remedied by her making a sworn affidavit stating that her version of events is what transpired. Absent these forms of substantiation, Van Damme has objectively failed to shoulder the burden of proof.

The reaction of both the Phumzileites and the Anti-Phumzileites has been stubbornly tribal – one tribe believing Van Damme’s version of events to be true, and the other believing her version to be untrue. The unfortunate origin of this division is little more than like or dislike of Van Damme. If you like Van Damme, you’re willing to take her at her word; if you dislike Van Damme, you aren’t. This reflects an unfortunate element stubbornly present in our political discourse: a willingness to follow personalities rather than facts. This willingness seems to be universally present, not discriminating on race, sex or party. From Verwoerd to Mandela, De Lille to Van Damme – South African society seems stuck in the rut of judging political matters and politicians on the grounds of the identity of alleged perpetrator or alleged victim. Stubborn tribalism breeds factless politics.

Putting aside any personal views of Van Damme, it must be acknowledged that the facts of what actually happened at the V & A Waterfront remain unclear at best. This has not, however, stopped many South Africans from reaching their own conclusions on where the truth lies. The principle that facts should precede a political conclusion lies discarded and dusty in the shadow of personality politics – exactly as it had when Verwoerd and Vorster embodied Afrikaner identity, when Mandela was the manifestation of racial reconciliation, when Mbeki irrevocably loosed the current of Zuma, when that current made Zuma president for not being Mbeki, and when Ramaphoria convinced millions of South Africans that Cyril Ramaphosa being Cyril Ramaphosa would be enough to halt the South African decline.

The ultimately inconsequential collision between Phumzileites and Anti-Phumzileites is just another manifestation of a dangerous South African reliance on this stubborn politics of personality. As divisive as the tribalism surrounding the V & A Waterfront incident might be, it is nothing compared to the scarring fissures of democratic and societal division that will remain gaping for as long as political conviction is based on who we follow rather than what we adhere to.


Hermann Pretorius studied law at the University of Pretoria. He worked for the DA’s 2019 election campaign and has a specific interest in elections and constitutional law. He is currently interning at the IRR.


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