19 Nov 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Recent debates are reminders that we prefer our politics to be binary and eschew complexity and nuance by slapping labels on views we most dislike, writes Tony Leon
JEANE Kirkpatrick, the US liberal democrat, became a political apostate, when, in 1980, her fierce detestation of communism led her to embrace Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, in whose cabinet she would later serve.
Kirkpatrick was not overfussed about being labelled. Despite migrating from a youthful embrace of the Socialist Party of America to a middle-age conversion to the conservative cause, she shrugged off attempts to pigeonhole her ideologically: "Labels in politics are like parsley on a dinner plate — decorative but not nourishing."
She would, however, have had a hard swim in our waters had she been born in, say, Deneysville, Free State, rather than in Duncan, Oklahoma. Recent debates here are reminders that we prefer our politics to be binary and eschew complexity and nuance by slapping labels on the views and voices we most dislike. It’s not simply a matter of prejudice; it also has the convenience of closing down a debate before it has properly begun by suggesting bad faith or irrevocable bias on the part of certain participants.
Ironically, this week we celebrate the attainment of the constitutional settlement at Kempton Park 20 years ago. The chief architect of the bridge constructed there was Cyril Ramaphosa. Yet, just last week, the avatar of the nonracial and equal democracy with which his name and contribution will be associated forever, struck a very different and discordant chord.
Campaigning in Limpopo, Ramaphosa warned: "If you don’t vote, the Boers will come back to control us." This all-purpose swipe against all opponents of his African National Congress, without nuance, presumably embraces everyone from Julius Malema to Pieter Mulder. He later clarified this remark, explaining he meant it as a reference to "former apartheid oppressors", not to whites or Afrikaners as a group.
Just as the wells of nonracial co-operation built at Kempton Park were being spiked, the government announced that Robert McBride was the best qualified person in South Africa to be head of the Independent Police Investigation Directorate. The opposition spokeswoman on police, Dianne Kohler Barnard, noted that she had voted in favour of the previous incumbent, nominated by the same government, "as his legal qualifications were impeccable, added to which he had an uncontroversial and upstanding reputation". She then pointed out that in order to panel-beat the qualifications for the post to meet McBride’s lack of qualifications, "the crucial legal qualification necessary for (this) post had been excised from the job advertisement". Instead of explaining this striking omission or dealing with the serial controversies that have attached to McBride since 1994, his defenders followed the less nuanced or complex route. Two public servants "writing in their personal capacities", Busani Ngcaweni and Vusi Mona, did not bother with rebutting such bothersome technicalities. They simply averred that opponents of the ill-starred McBride "want to hold onto white privilege".
I then reread Kohler Barnard’s critique and could not find a single direct or implied reference to McBride’s race in it. No matter, her critics will cry, it is her racial origins that count, and condemn her views to the bin.
Correctly, we measure the mountains of progress achieved since the dramatic final days at Kempton Park 20 years ago. But far less visible there than Ramaphosa and other designers of our new order was the quietly spoken and intellectually towering legal academic, Etienne Mureinik. Many of the clauses in our bill of rights owe their provenance to him. Sadly, he committed suicide in August 1996, so he never witnessed the signing of the final constitution by Nelson Mandela.
But months before he died, at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mureinik was embroiled in a row over the fitness for office of William Makgoba, at the time a deputy vice-chancellor. The details are perhaps less important than the terms of engagement in that now largely forgotten debate. However, with his pioneering writing and brave advocacy during apartheid, Mureinik could not be defined, on Ramaphosa’s version at least, as a "Boer". He did far more to rebut the oppressive old order than many others. But he was white. Makgoba dismissed Mureinik and his fellow critics "as a typical group of racists". Mureinik’s response was both instructive and eerily predictive of the whirlwind to come. He called it "stigma labelling". He wrote: "A white person who dares to question a black person’s credentials will automatically be called ‘a racist’, a label which makes one a moral criminal, and consigns one to the nonworld of those who can safely be ignored."
But while it might silence the debate, what does this do to the constitutional order? Once again, Mureinik suggested, it removed the essential pillar on which the entire construction rested: "It destroys any hope of equal accountability." Perhaps in the war of words, we sometimes destroy better than we know.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA