Mchunu’s article is a wake-up call

By Brij Maharaj Time of article published May 27, 2013

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Durban - Senzo Mchunu, recently elected chairman of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, raises a number of concerns about minorities and their engagement (or lack thereof) with the ruling party. He makes a number of unsubstantiated, and perhaps questionable, assertions about the South African Indian community.

He rebukes Indians for voting for the DA “from Madiba’s time”, offers no insight into the reasons for this trend and, except for threatening innuendos, is unable to indicate how the ANC will turn this around.

According to Mchunu, minorities “who vote for the ANC do so because they feel the need for a sense of belonging to SA”. Axiomatically, minorities who do not vote for the ANC do not belong to SA – a dangerous discourse in a country haunted by racist divisions and prone to xenophobic pogroms.

More portentously, Mchunu gets “a sense that minorities have generally abdicated their responsibility towards South Africa, being South African, towards the government, and the ANC”. The government and the ANC blur into one.

Of course, this combination can be altered through the ballot box. In Mchunu’s ominous discourse, not voting for the ANC is unpatriotic, and “the self-imposed isolation” would be “lethal, if not downright cancerous, for the future of being South African over and above a mere minority”.

Mchunu is concerned about the lack of support that minorities give to the ANC. But what he covers up is the ANC’s deliberate marginalisation of minorities and retreat into racial nationalism. It appears to have dumped the non-racial project, which was replaced by a narrow form of African nationalism in the Mbeki era, and is now party to the resurgence of tribalism under the Zuma regime (and a deliberate sidelining of minorities and the simultaneous rise of “tenderpreneurs”).

Mchunu berates Indians for disowning and abandoning (rather than celebrating) individuals from their communities who are elevated to high office by the ANC, and questions whether such persons simultaneously lose their “relevance”, “impact” and “standing in society”.

The so-called Indian leadership in the ANC (some with exaggerated Struggle credentials who try to mobilise invisible constituencies by remote control) is largely disconnected from the community.

Certainly, there is little record of any of them publicly articulating the concerns and anxieties of the community. In fact, it would appear that they have been rewarded for their silence, subservience and submission.

On the other hand, there is evidence that Indians in the ANC have actively undermined the community’s heritage – for example, by supporting the destruction of the Warwick Triangle market and remaining silent over the closure of the Durban Cultural and Documentation Centre.

As Professor Ashwin Desai has argued: “When a number of Indians were high up on the (electoral) list, did they in any way represent the interests of the poor in the community, or did they use their position to represent themselves and hangers-on? With rare exception, position was used for personal advancement.”

The concerns of Indians are the same as ordinary South Africans – the exponential increase in all forms of crime (murder, violence, robbery, rape, hijackings, corruption). As “things fall apart”, from health to education, the government seems flat-footed as it panders to a number of personal agendas. It is no wonder, then, as unemployment burgeons and inequality deepens, that minorities appear in the cross-hairs.

Minorities feel increasingly uncomfortable in the “rainbow” nation, battered by the increasing number of anti-Indian invectives in the public domain (for example, Mbongemi Ngema, Jimmy Manyi, the attack on Judge Chiman Patel, and the Mazibuye African Forum). There has been a deafening silence from the provincial ANC, which may be interpreted as tacit support.

Since 2009, those opposed to the destruction of the century-old Warwick market, which had an umbilical connection with the descendants of indentured labourers, were taunted with chants of “Hamba khaya! Hamba uye eBombay” (Go home! Go home to Mumbai!) from rent-a-mob groups aligned to the ruling party in front of the ANC triumvirate in Durban (Obed Mlaba, Logie Naidoo, Mike Sutcliffe).

According to a witness, activist and intellectual Trevor Ngwane, many people were left to believe that “the main social benefit of getting rid of the market was getting rid of the Indians”.

In KZN, provincial ANC secretary Sihle Zikalala conceded: “There is a perception among people of other race groups that we do not represent their interests. We need to show everyone that the ANC is a non-racial organisation.”

This view was affirmed by KZN Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo: “We have seen a dwindling support in areas like Chatsworth, Wentworth and Phoenix.”

Mchunu correctly points out that Indians are not a “monolithic” group. Largely as a result of a lack of astute, credible leadership that can genuinely represent the working class and the poor, Indians are being politically marginalised, and have become disenchanted and despondent in the post-apartheid era. They have anxiously retreated into their mosques, temples and churches, praying for divine intervention.

Those in the business and professional sectors thrived in the democratic era and bonded with political elites, together seeking power, privilege, patronage and position. However, the new Indian elite are increasingly being implicated in corruption, and are tarnishing the entire community.

The ANC has demonstrated a disturbing tendency to deviate from democratic principles which were forged on the anvil of the Struggle – especially, for example, with regard to threats to regulate and limit media freedom and access to public information (hallmarks of the apartheid regime).

There are significant problems, both with how the ANC elects its leadership and South Africa’s electoral system: “An electoral system determines the calibre of individuals elected into office, the character of the legislature, the orientation and implementation of policy, and the public’s attitude to the political system as whole” (Mail & Guardian, April 20, 2012).

South Africa’s electoral system is based on proportional representation, the number of seats allocated depending on the percentage of the total votes, and the individuals chosen contingent on party list hierarchies. Hence, servile, sycophantic subservience is paramount. A key question is: How does the electorate hold those elected accountable?

A return to a mixed constituency and proportional representation electoral system could force leaders to be accountable to the people, rather than compete for positions on political party slates, and perhaps encourage Indians to emerge from their cultural and religious cocoons.

Politics is about power, and in South Africa minorities have to engage with mainstream political parties and government, which often only respond to the language of mass mobilisation. A silent question is whether it is possible to build a democratic, progressive platform from the grassroots level that could articulate the problems and challenges facing the community, without becoming the surrogate of any political party?

It is time to take a leaf out of the book of the indentured, who were not simply prisoners of “the system”, but often imaginative, creative human beings who found all manner of means to resist, survive or escape the strictures of indenture.

For South African Indians, Mchunu’s article is a wake-up call. The present state of affairs is not a bad dream that will simply go away. As the South African transition fails to deliver on its promises, so the search for scapegoats will begin. Maybe it has begun already. While we were sleeping.

* Maharaj is an academic who has worked with civic, community and religious organisations, and is a founder member of the 1860 Legacy Foundation.

The Mercury

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