The appropriate comparison for J Arthur Brown’s visit to Khayelitsha yesterday is Jacob Zuma’s visit to Eldorado Park a few weeks ago – the president’s vist conducted ostensibly to free that neighborhood from the tyranny of crystal meth and tik.
Watching the visuals on eNCA (catch those here) of the white fraudster’s visit to the Cape township yesterday was surreal. Brown, louche, handsome and relaxed in tatty jeans and gelled hair being warmly welcomed by the community meeting; the elderly African audience in their Sunday best, anxious to please, respectful and sitting up straight in their seats. Brown lounging like a rock star being interviewed by Rolling Stone.
Afterwards outside: the crowd greeting him with Amandla! – everyone taking a turn to hug their last hope for the return of the money, the man who the state accused of stealing it in the first place.
Zuma’s trip to Eldorado Park is the same species of manipulation. It was supposedly prompted by an eloquent request by resident Dereleen James describing her desperate efforts to get her 17-year-old son off crystal meth. See that moving letter here.
Both these incidents have the classic elements of ‘big man’ politics and the worst features of populism.
What you do is take an issue that absolutely no-one could disagree with and then you march in as the good and heroic saviour. Even those who suspect your motivations are forced into silence. The poverty-stricken victims need all the help they can get, even if it is coming from people who are motivated by the need to repair their public image.
I don’t buy that, in exactly the same way as I don’t buy it when repressive governments argue that the internet needs censoring because of child pornography.
Anyone who argues against the populist measures is immediately cast as the villain: so what, are you in favour of drugs, child pornography and poverty? You are prepared to let these victims suffer just to satisfy some political principle of your own?
Julius Malema, Jacob Zuma and Winnie Mandela had one thing in common. They understood perfectly that you shouldn’t waste your time with actually solving the housing crisis, poverty, drug addiction (choose your perfect and sanctified issue.) All you need to do is go into the impoverished area and give someone a house. Do it with fanfare and praise singers. The community will come out, awed at your power and generosity, clear that you are the source of the goodies that make life possible, full of hope that their turn might come some time soon.
So maybe J Arthur Brown is going to stump up a few million rand, perhaps set up a fund for the people who have been robbed. Surely that is a good thing?
No, it’s not if it means that pressure is relieved on the more pervasive looting of pension and investment funds by people like J Arthur Brown.
How can we be anything but horrified when the fox volunteers to police the hen-house? Not for some vague political principal, but because our desire to save one chicken has endangered them all.
A few years ago it would have been the SACP and the ANC making these arguments and far more eloquently than I have here (catch an excellent interview with Jeremy Cronin several years ago doing precisely that – push through till he gets to the ‘big man’ and populism bit, it will be worth your while). Of the many things I regret about the present, the loss of that perspective from our politics is the one I feel most keenly.
Zuma’s visit to Eldorado Park is indistinguishable, in its deeper architectural structure, from J Arthur Brown’s visit to Khayelitsha. In both cases there will be immediate changes to local people’s lives, but changes that purely result in a displacement of the problems and temporary relief. Like the distribution of food parcels by politicians just before elections the temporary relief provided the hungry does not balance the harm done the society by the successful hoodwinking of the electorate by the ‘big man’.