Debunking the Daily Mail’s doomsayer

On Sunday 29 March, a devastating article by Peter Hitchens on Jacob Zuma and South Africa’s future was published in Britain’s Daily Mail. Couched in a sickening, sensationalist discourse swirling with racist and colonialist undertones, the story employed gross misrepresentation, selective truth-telling, distortion and stereotyping to depict South Africa as about to collapse into the abyss of anarchy and lawlessness.

Of course South Africa faces some very worrying challenges. There are indeed threats to the sustainability and strength of our democracy – not least the disbanding of the Scorpions and the dropping of Zuma’s charges. But with all the nuance of a sledgehammer, Hitchens’ article framed the largely untested Zuma as a savage despot, thereby reinforcing all the crude, racist assumptions about our country that doubtless many Daily Mail readers hold.

I have selected some of the more outrageous passages (italicised) and comment on them below.

On electricity cuts:

Electricity blackouts – the invariable sign of a country on the slide – are now frequent. The ill-run nuclear power station inherited from the apartheid regime’s atom bomb programme is beginning to judder and fail, raising fears of an African Chernobyl.

Loadshedding is so last year. Apparently not for Hitchens. I can’t remember the last time there was a powercut in Cape Town. And remember not so long ago when New York was plunged into darkness? No one was predicting the demise of the American empire then. Eskom may have screwed up big time with a lack of capacity but that doesn’t necessarily mean South Africa is on the verge of falling apart.

To my knowledge, Koeberg had nothing to do with the apartheid’s nuclear programme. And despite its shutdowns, it’s highly unlikely Koeberg is going to blow up any time soon.

On immigrants and informal settlements:

It is largely thanks to these new arrivals that wretched, instant slums sprout right up to the edge of Cape Town’s slick new airport.

Those “slums” have been there since the 1980s and haven’t just suddenly sprouted within the past few months. With the N2 Gateway housing project there are actually far fewer shacks near the airport than there has been in decades.

Even in the lovely Cape wine country, squatter camps have erupted on the outskirts of towns where chefs drizzle olive oil on to fancy salads….

Again, squatter camps and townships have been on the outskirts of Cape Winelands towns for decades and haven’t just suddenly materialised. The settlements are a result of apartheid’s vicious town planning in which blacks were forced to live away from towns in appalling conditions.

On Aids:

There is a little about AIDS, but nothing like as much as there should be, given the acres of graves that commemorate the government’s moronic policies, of denial and folk remedies (including beetroot).

Yes, government Aids policies have been moronic. But Hitchens makes no mention that Aids denialism has been abandoned or that Manto Tshabalala Msimang, one of its fiercest proponents, has been sidelined and replaced by a very capable health minister, Barbara Hogan, who – even though only being on the job for a few months now – is already improving the healthcare system and its response to the HIV/Aids pandemic.

On Zuma himself:

In the coming weeks, South Africa seems to me to be taking several definite steps towards its cold, shocking awakening – as a full member of the Third World.

The man who will lead it there is called Jacob Zuma. Remember the name. You are going to hear a lot more of it.

Zuma is wholly African.

Wholly African? Hitchens is implying that’s a bad thing.

He completely lacks the Westernised polish and smoothness of Mandela and Mbeki. His political party, the African National Congress, sometimes seems aghast that it has chosen him as leader. Too late.

Why is having “Westernised polish and smoothness” be a good thing? Hitchens is implying that such qualities are a virtue, far better and more civilised than being African which he clearly considers “savage” and “barbaric”. Mugabe and Idi Amin both were renowned for their “Westernised polish and smoothness” and look at where that got their respective countries. And it didn’t make Mbeki anymore democratic – far from it. His tenure as president would have made Machiavelli blush.

As for the ANC despairing of its president – well, that’s simply hilarious. The party loves him. They’ll do anything for him.  For heaven’s sake – that’s why he won at Polokwane.

[T]he future President has all the charisma of an ashtray. The scripted slogans fall from his lips like blobs of cold porridge.

Another joke. Zuma is known as a highly charismatic figure and electrifying, gifted speaker.

On South Africa’s impending elections:

Many fear it will rapidly become a lawless kleptocracy when he comes to power, which he will do after a hopelessly one-sided and rather crooked election.

South Africa’s 2004 elections are generally considered to have been the freest and fairest in its history. And while there will undoubtedly be the occasional incident of intimidation etc. it is unlikely that this will characterise the upcoming election. As for South Africa becoming a lawless kleptocracy? The rot set in when Mbeki was in charge. It’s up to civil society and the political opposition to ensure it doesn’t spread any further.

On the Zulus and Zululand:

South Africa’s largest tribe are a proud fighting people, and Zuma will not be a mild leader, as Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, his two forerunners, were.

Tribal stereotypes are not only shameless constructs but often ridiculously inaccurate. Hitchens implies that while all Zulus are war-like, the Xhosas are peace-loving and “mild”. Both are equally pathetic generalisations. As more and more of the Xhosa Mbeki’s machinations come to light, it’s hard to think of the man as having been a “mild leader”.

There are Zuma posters, but the ANC – mistrusted here as a mainly Xhosa party – has to come into these districts under heavy police escort. The posters are nailed on electricity poles about 15ft up, to stop Inkatha militants tearing them down.

It’s laughable to think of the ANC as mainly Xhosa or that the only reason why Zulus support Zuma is because he is also Zulu as Hitchens attests. ANC support in KwaZulu-Natal has grown massively since 1994, with the Inkatha Freedom Party shedding masses of votes at each successive election – long before Zuma was the ANC’s leader.

On a rally in Springbok:

What is he doing here, in this arid dorp halfway to Nigeria? The truth is that the ANC faces a rebellion, and is trying to quell it with a mixture of power and pay-outs.

Someone please show Hitchens an atlas! Springbok is nowhere near to being “halfway to Nigeria”. And if the ANC is really facing a rebellion why is it doing so well in the polls? Of course many amongst the poor are gatvol, but, viewing Zuma as a saviour, they tend to take their angst about service delivery failures out on immigrants and individual ANC municipal councillors instead.

A breakaway, called the Congress of the People (COPE), has just scored surprisingly well in council by-elections near Springbok. Zuma’s allies, furious that for the first time they face serious opponents, have let their rage show in ways which have rightly scared many peaceful South Africans.

So, Cope is doing well in Springbok. Ergo they are now “serious opponents” to the ANC. That’s hilarious, considering a Markinor poll estimates their support to be between 8 and 12%. They’re little more than a splinter.

On the DA:

[Helen Zille] knows the [Democratic] Alliance must break out of being nothing more than a white liberal party.

A white liberal party? Hitchens is sounding like Trevor Manuel on this one. According to research done by Lawrence Schlemmer, the political analyst and academic, the DA is South Africa’s most multiracial party. And there’s that massive landslide at a by-election in the coloured township of Mitchells Plain we could talk about…

Hitchens’ conclusion:

[T]he prognosis – a rigged and menacing election, a government founded on lawlessness and an uneducated, cunning new leader, an African ‘Big Man’ with his roots in tribe and tradition – is not so good.

An election is generally considered to be the will of the people. Because Hitchens considers Zuma a barbaric savage, he describes such a concept as “menacing”. (Quite frankly the elections that propelled the warmongering civil-liberty assaulting Tony Blair to power were far more menacing.) There is no evidence that supports the notion that the election will be rigged but maybe Hitchens assumes that as its happening on the African continent, it must be rigged.

As for Zuma’s lack of education, why should that be a concern when so many of Africa’s “big men” were some of the best educated on the continent (such as Mugabe)? Hitchens implies that African cultures are inherently dangerous and uncivilised. Provided that Zuma respects and adheres to the constitution, bill of rights and our democracy, there is nothing wrong for him to be rooted in “tribe and tradition”.

It is unfortunate that worst kind of neo-colonialist Afropessimism has been employed to sell a few more papers. If they are incapable of a rational, truly insightful and nuanced portrayal of South Africa and its challenges, perhaps the Daily Mail should rather just do another story on Jade Goody instead. Or talk about how terrible Tony wriggled out of the cash-for-peerages scandal and canned an investigation into British Aerospace’s bribing of Saudi Arabian decisionmakers to guarantee they bought Eurofighter jets.

It cuts both ways.

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