Of language and politics

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Mar 16 16:55:49 UTC 2009

Of language and politics
ZACKIE ACHMAT: COMMENT - Mar 16 2009 06:00

'Comrades, my addiction to Leninist polemics is slowly coming under control."

I grew up with the political language of the left. We took no
prisoners. Polemics and facts were used to deride an opponent and
their political argument. "Capitalist apologists" were reformist
comrades in the trade union movement. "White liberal" meant racist
protecting apartheid. "Sell-out" referred mostly legitimately to the
act of collaborating with the state. "Children of the bourgeois"
referred to comrades in Nusas, the white students' union, who often
went to prison and suffered. "Black petit bourgeois" referred to
comrades in the black consciousness movement and later to some ANC
leaders themselves. The worst one I used was "bourgeois housewives",
referring to the courageous women of the Black Sash. After insulting
the person, we usually argued against their policy positions.

Today senior ANC leaders have dropped the facts necessary to answer a
political position and only focus on destroying an opponent, whether
they are right or wrong. Like Lenin, "I suffered from an infantile
disorder." For the past 15 years I have felt uncomfortable with this
language. Then I read George Orwell's essay Politics and the English
Language. He says: "In our time, political speech and writing are
largely the defence of the indefensible … Defenceless villages are
bombarded from the air … this is called pacification. Millions of
peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging on the roads with
no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or
rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without
trial or shot in the neck ... this is called elimination of unreliable

Language in politics often promotes intolerance or even legitimises
violence. Intolerance or fear is often expressed by labelling an
opponent as "racist". "Elimination" has been used to argue against
political opponents. The next step is violence. Let's take race and
criticism. Often, when we have been legitimately criticised as a
government, movement or as leaders, "race" became a convenient tool to
discredit the argument without proper consideration of its merits.
Particularly under former president Thabo Mbeki, rhetoric tended to
identify criticism with racism. True, critics (irrespective of race)
often disregard the legacy of white minority rule that we are striving
to overcome. But race-based immunity from criticism provides a shelter
for laziness and incompetence, lack of accountability, arrogance and
corruption within the public service and private sector. It inhibits
an honest discussion on race, racism and racial fears in our society.
This is a discussion that must take place with the language and
practice of respect for the dignity of every person.

The language of disrespect has descended from the highest levels of
our leadership. This is not an excuse for a politics of lawlessness
that speaks of "killing for our leaders", a proposition that offends
the Constitution and the values of the ANC. We can only learn from a
mistake through its open and honest appraisal. The attacks on Nelson
Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, supported by Mbeki, many of his
ministers and his supporters in the ANC national executive committee,
led to a disrespect for political differences that is unacceptable
both in our movement and in society.

Tragically, the good people among us assisted this by remaining
silent. Disrespect for political opponents and their opinions are
manifested through language.

Citizens, organisations and our alliance partners have legitimately
criticised our government and movement on some of these issues. They
too were dismissed and some of our party leaders often used the lack
of knowledge among cadres to attack people as "agents of imperialism",
"capitalism", "third force", "ultra-left" or "pharmaceutical stooges".
My comrades in the Treatment Action Campaign and I were often abused
in this manner -- privately and publicly. The language of our politics
must change to allow people to disagree without labelling them. This
will build democracy and earn the respect of our people. Argument that
relies on force or the threat of force as opposed to argument based on
reason and proper factual justification often leads to dehumanisation
of a political opponent or marginalised people. It can legitimise
violence against them.

The language of violence, killing and weapons by political leaders can
legitimise the extraordinary violence faced by all our people in their
daily lives. South Africa has an unnatural death rate (including
murder) that is eight times greater than the global average for men.
Most reputable studies on crime conclude that it is not simply the
volume of the crime but the extreme violence that accompanies it that
makes South Africa exceptional.

The xenophobic terror that our country experienced during May last
year demonstrated that this violent culture can be used in a
politically lawless manner. This is one of the serious fears that
people have when our leaders are seen to speak of opponents as "dogs"
"cockroaches" or "traitors" very often married to the phrase "they
will be eliminated".

A language of "war", "killing" and "dying" was a deeply difficult and
uncomfortable part of our struggle against an illegitimate apartheid
state with overwhelming military power. To use this language today is
a failure to understand the pain our whole movement, led by Chief
Albert Luthuli, suffered when deciding to turn to armed struggle. The
extraordinary violence of the apartheid state in Sharpeville, Soweto,
Bonteheuwel and many other places over decades led to a military
response from our youth. This was exacerbated by Inkatha's war against
the United Democratic Front and the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Though heroic in sacrifice, the militarism of our youth very often
became a response that glamorised violence and one that saw it as a
"quick fix". Youth who missed that period without any proper study of
our history can be misled.

Today our government and state is legitimate and one of our biggest
challenges is the safety and security of all our people.

The breakaway led by Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa is one of the
most painful experiences that our movement has faced. Most people feel
a sense of loss and anger against those who split and even against the
movement and our most senior leaders. This we must acknowledge.

We have to learn to debate the policies of the new party, not their
personalities. Our movement and country face the danger of political
lawlessness and disrespect. Whether in schools, homes, universities,
places of worship, public transport, work places, streets, bars,
clubs, shebeens -- there will be pain, disagreement and anger. We are
stronger than the breakaway in our leadership, policy and organising
capacity and therefore we have a duty not to be arrogant.

ANC leaders and members must work everywhere to protect these smaller
parties' right to campaign freely. Emotions are high -- we must work
to calm them. This can only benefit the country and the ANC.

We must address those with whom we differ fundamentally in an honest
manner and address ideas and policy with properly researched facts. We
must learn that logic and facts are ultimately more powerful than
rhetoric. Attacks on a person or their identity demeans all of us and,
in particular, the person who uses offensive language. We are all hurt
by the language of violence and authoritarianism.

Fearless respect for disagreement without threats of violence is the
test of maturity, democracy and Ubuntu. Democratic culture is tested
when we can respect the equality and freedom of those furthest away
from us in political opinion, material interest, belief and

These are some of the ideas contained in a discussion document I wrote
by agreement with senior ANC leaders, including two members of the
national executive committee. I asked them to place it before the
national executive committee and to publish it internally as a
discussion document. I publish this now because the language of some
respected leaders has become more careless.

I know it is difficult. Like an ­alcoholic, I struggle daily against
my Leninist and Trotskyist training of referring to people as
"renegades", "political prostitutes" or simply "idiots" instead of
using argument and evidence. But acknowledgment of a problem, though
not enough, is a necessary start. My addiction to Leninist polemic and
turgid "communist" prose is coming under control. Precise language
means clarity of thought.

Democratic renewal of the ANC and social transformation cannot be
separated from a culture of respect for the life, dignity and freedom
of every individual. We must use the fourth democratic election to
begin to rebuild the traditional values of respect for different ideas
and a dignified contestation of political space.

I leave the last word to Leon Trotsky: "Abusive language and swearing
are a legacy of slavery, humiliation and disrespect for human dignity
-- one's own and that of other people."

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