‘Where did the rain begin to beat us?’ – UP's Prof Tawana Kupe on what SA can learn from US chaos

Posted on January 15, 2021

The dramatic and disturbing events watched by the world at the US Capitol at the certification of the presidential election results are testimony to the fact that we live in the age of disruption.

It is tempting to blame it all on the losing presidential candidate Donald Trump who, as we all know, falsely claims robbery.

It might be easy to impeach him for his actions, for the second time. It might also be convenient to scapegoat those who committed the heinous act of invading the citadel of American democracy as misled ignoramuses driven by the worst of prejudices –  prejudices that most Americans do not harbour. But the route of easy blame is a cop-out that, in the words of the Igbo people of Nigeria, fails to address the question of where the rain began to beat America. “We are like the man in the Igbo proverb who does not know where the rain began to beat him and so cannot say where he dried his body,” novelist Chinua Achebe once wrote.

What happened at the US Capitol has a longer history embedded in the practices of democracy in America, which still carries the legacies of the exclusion of many, particularly minorities and the working class, despite the diversity that is America. It must be remembered that on the day of the inglorious invasion, America experienced history in Georgia with the election of the first African American senator from the South in 2021. Not forgetting the first black woman vice-president, although not yet a president.

Hillary Clinton, despite her wealth of experience in government and public service, lost an election, which would have made her the first woman US president, to Donald Trump with all his known flaws.

Trump was, with his incendiary speeches at the rally before the certification process, certainly guilty of inciting his supporters to invade the Capitol. It’s his style. He campaigned in this fashion from the primaries in the Republican Party, through both of his presidential campaigns. The party did not see fit to disqualify him for this behaviour and, in fact, willingly succumbed to his anti-democratic ways after he won. Trump disrupted all the norms of decency, respect for women, black people and those different from him. He did not play by the rules, even refusing to reveal his tax records.

Nothing in the political system could restrict or bar him from using the system to accumulate more power. Trump was, in reality, rewarded by the very system he derided. Perhaps this was his real coup.

Conditions in American society were ripe for both a Donald Trump presidency and the attempted insurrection at the US Capitol. These conditions include, but are not limited to:

  • The growing disjuncture between the governing and corporate elite and sections of the American public, fuelled by economic and social disparities and inequality.
  • Growing distrust and even loss of trust in traditional institutions including the institutions of democracy.
  • The decline of the influence of the mainstream media on sections of the American public.
  • The decline in the diversity and plurality of American media because of mergers and acquisition that created concentrated media behemoths. Media concentration resulted in the reduction of a plurality and diversity of views and opinions and elite mainstream media polarisation; and, very importantly, the rise of social media, outside the influence of the editorial norms and ethics of the mainstream media.

It is ironic that in America, elite populists like Donald Trump share a radical left-wing critique of the mainstream media as “lame-stream media” captured by the elites.

Trump saw a space for populist disruptions of his own, using the social media platforms from which he is being belatedly, and perhaps even opportunistically, barred. In his primary and first presidential campaign Donald Trump did not directly court the mainstream media, as is tradition. Instead, he recognised the power of social media as the perfect outlet for his populist rantings against the system, including calling Washington a corrupt swamp that he would drain. Never mind that he, in turn, clogged the swamp with even more corruption. His rantings resonated with sections of the American public and he found a platform on Fox News, a member of the mainstream media that he captured.

Whether this could happen in South Africa is not the question, the question is, rather, in what ways are there similarities and trends. Could Jacob Zuma be considered to have been our Trump? Zuma was incredibly wily in his ability to drum up populist support, enabled by his accomplices in the ANC, many of whom he appointed. He got rid of anyone in government who criticised him and led a legacy of disinformation, corruption and lies. Moreover, South Africa let him largely get away with it. In the present circumstances, are some of our opposition leaders also drawn to populist attacks on what is an indecisive government with weak capacity to deliver?

In this age of disruption, South Africa has the dubious distinction of being the most unequal society in the world. It has stratospheric levels of youth unemployment in a country and continent whose population is young. High unemployment and poverty are endemic. The economy is in decline in multiple ways. The clarity of programmes and will to transform it is neither strong nor inspirational. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation.

There is distrust of the political elite for their failure to deliver on the promises of the liberation struggle. The private sector is perceived to be the preserve of the privileged. There is anger and resentment about what appears to be the never-ending rounds of corruption and plundering of the public purse. The ruling party’s ever more shrill discourse on anti-corruption has proved to be little more than a discussion about how to develop procedures to deal with those alleged to be corrupt. Yet corruption is now endemic and systemic. Add to this the high levels of crime, the civil war that is gender-based violence and femicide. The time might not be too far when people will no longer believe that the electoral route can result in meaningful changes to their circumstances.

Already there has been decline in electoral participation in each election cycle. Growing protests about lack of responsiveness or plain neglect (sometimes criminal, sometimes violent) have increasingly replaced trust in representative institutions at governance level. 

Coupled with this, the mainstream media is in dramatic circulation decline. It does not appear to be robustly probing and holding government to account. In the place of a vibrant, diverse and responsible media is a runaway rise of social media that is turning into a viral space for spreading the phenomenon referred to as fake news. It is nothing but misinformation, disinformation, disdain for facts and knowledge, and there is no stopping it. Social media has become a growing space for conspiracies, rejection of science, facts, reason, including suspicion and rejection of vaccines for COVID-19. Not to mention the emergence of latter-day Luddites destroying 5G towers.

Government’s inconsistent management of the pandemic has not helped. Its poor public communication efforts are creating more space for doubt and resentment, including about vaccine efficacy, to rapidly spread through social media. This not only seriously undermines efforts to bring the virus under control, but it fuels the atmosphere of mistrust and conspiracy.

Fed on a diet of manipulation and lies, the excluded can easily become the puppets of corrupt autocrats in party politics who take advantage of the context, just as Trump did, and which we are at risk of facing yet again if President Cyril Ramaphosa’ s government does not self-rectify and start properly looking after all the people.

Fortunately, no situation is beyond change. In both the US and South Africa the solution is not to chase scapegoats and address the symptoms of a disrupted, corrupted environment. Rather, there is a need for leaders at all levels of society to reimagine society and engage in actions to co-create a genuinely democratic, equitable and equal society that is sustainable, including creating inclusive green economies.

This time requires leaders with the political will and social morality to drive change in the public interest, not narrow self- and class-interest that is harmful to people and the environment. It requires support for communication and media systems that are open, pluralistic and diverse, and which leverage new technologies to strengthen a genuine public sphere that enriches public discourse for informed choices. Finally, it requires reimagining and creating political, economic and social systems and institutions that enable the sustainability of humanity in harmony with nature. We have to. It could be our last chance to fundamentally change the course of where the rain began to beat us.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria.

An edited version of this article first appeared on news24 on 15 January 2021. 

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe

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