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The White Malema?

by Brandon Edmonds, image by Jason Bronkhorst / 31.03.2010

There’ll be swearing. I hate you because I see myself in you. I know who you are. You’re close to the bone. You have everything you need, Gareth Cliff. You always have. You want things but only in the fitful, passing way of a listless consumer. Ever since you were a kid. Lights, heat, water, books, blankets, summer holidays. You had it all – parental guidance, new shoes, ice cream, tennis rackets and computer games, CDs and DVDs, poolside house parties, British magazines and pop music. Just like me. It made for tremendous self-assurance. Admit it. These formative objects and pastimes, these choices and experiences, precede you, Gareth Cliff, they speak for you. Your minority-sojourn in suburban comfort, in untroubled easygoing everydayness, in total social care, and happiness, in settler whiteness, defines you.

Think of what it was built on – the social relations behind white comfort – a world built on the backs of toiling miners and maids, dude, on an exploited black workforce, and a wholesale policy of active separation, active enmity and exclusion. This went on for centuries. Your experience, Gareth Cliff, is radically different to the life-world of those who grew up, and grow up, poor and black, around you. It is this material and psychic difference that abides. It is the difference you ought to acknowledge and respect. The difference that exposes you, Gareth, for the poisonous, self-satisfied nullity you are. It is, inescapably, no matter how you spin or twist it: the difference of privilege. White privilege. Verwoerd & Co enabled you. They did. They enabled us all. Us whites. That’s the truth.

Schools, jobs, land and futures were set racially aside. Systematically. Before you speak, Gareth Cliff, before you broadcast of a morning, begin there – with the truth. Factor that in first, this debt of privilege, won criminally, scraped hour by hour, off the backs of black workers. Begin with the truth of our past. And yet you have the staggering temerity, the vulgarity, in perverse solidarity with that justly sacked knob-end, ex-lifestyle columnist David Bullard, to ask:

“How would Africa be right now if white people had never come and settled here?”

Reactionaries love such ‘alternative history’ modeling in place of genuine historical engagement, a what if, and imagine that, which vanishes the brutal class antagonism they prefer to ignore. The question is filthy with self-serving subtexts: that whiteness made Africa, modernized Africa, providing train schedules and penicillin, that enslavement and subjugation were morally worth modernity, worth the blood and sweat and tears; that whiteness ought to be praised for its ‘rational’ capitalization of a ‘dark continent’ – and its edenic assets; that whites led the fallen children of Ham, the hewers and herd boys, through the golden arches of McDonalds, into the industrial and consumer age. Uppity blacks ought to thank us. Well, fuck you, Gareth Cliff, and David Bullard, and the ‘courtesy cars’ you drove in on. Fuck your racist, self-serving alternative-scenario porn.

We are told on Cliff’s website that “Gareth does not subscribe to the celebrity culture – he believes that the only real celebrity in South Africa is Nelson Mandela – but has nevertheless become a household name and face.” Well, good for Gareth, but why doesn’t he mainline a little of Madiba’s disarming empathy? Try being humbled. Try imagining the brilliance of historical black achievement (in science and industry, in culture and sport) against immense structural odds. Try imagining black potential without the debilitating assault of slavery. Try imagining life beyond the raced limits of your perception. Set yourself aside for a moment. Historical awareness implodes narcissism, if you let it. You inherited, as did I, the strange fruit of an Apartheid dream world. We had all the advantages. What are we making of them?

My inheritance led me, out of shame and anger, to Chomsky, Trotsky and socialism (I jumped to the left, Rocky Horror fans) – and yours has made you, as you often proclaim, a “libertarian”. Which merely means, Gareth, you want, like any right-wing US Republican, Big Government “out of your life” and off your back. You want social welfare, the great ethical public achievement of the 20th Century, saving untold millions from Dickensian misery, scrapped, and personal freedoms, the cosmopolitan right to be left alone to enjoy your stuff, boosted maximally. You want an aggressively callous evolutionary capitalism (think Ayn Rand – that mistress of boyish fascists – via Milton “the market will solve everything” Friedman) to go on operating under the banner of “survival of the fittest”. Thrivers and subscribers, investors and shoppers are all in the loop – the rest of us can go to hell. You want “winners” to go on winning regardless.

No matter that the planet (and the majority of its inhabitants) is beyond the rubric of winners and losers; those scraping by on a $1 a day are people beyond the all-out growth logic of runaway capitalism, only too aware that this ruthlessly competitive framework no longer applies: too many of us are simply dying; too much of the earth is already dead.

Gareth, your views are just fucking heartless. Disastrous, if the current bank meltdown driven by speculative high jinks and a lack of government oversight is anything to go by. Cliff writes: “I don’t know how you feel about how much government should have to do with your life, but my position is the bare minimum… the less governments do for me, the less they may ask of me. Those who rely on government diminish their own ability to make empowered decisions about their lives, future and independence. A welfare state is never going to lead the way, it will always be dragging a huge burden.” Your ‘ideas’ stink. How blind you are to the racially slanted ‘welfare state’ that shaped your formative years, ensuring you opportunities insofar as others were violently denied them. This is precisely the historical amnesia and glaring irony Cliff refuses to acknowledge.

His libertarianism is the feckless, facile politics of privilege. Why can’t, reactionary libertarians wonder, poor people just help themselves? Pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, like white people did in the past? Why can’t black people just get over it? Why can’t everyone be as cool and tolerant and forward thinking as I am? It’s selfish bullshit masquerading as a viable political outlook. It has no tradition in this country beyond the idle reveries of shallow ‘content-providers’ like Cliff.

He’s an obfuscator, disgusted and threatened by humanity. Here he concludes a screed on fat people on airplanes: “We are a species that deserves nothing less than extinction – either that, or we’re about to separate into two distinct sub-species – the strong, fast, smart kind, and the lard-arsed loser kind. The latter will probably and ironically end up becoming a food source, or at least something fun to hunt for sport.” No prizes for guessing which ‘sub-species’ young Gareth imagines for himself. This is re-heated South Park satire for an easy Highveld audience on one level and further confirmation of Cliff’s unchallenged sense of exception and privilege on another.

His uneasiness with even vaguely progressive, popular currents is overt. Here is Cliff before the election that saw Obama take office last year: “Beware the Democrats! They’re populists and draw support from three main areas: Liberals, the poor and environmentalists. I can’t imagine three groups of people I like less.” This is laddish conservatism from someone who regularly addresses our country, a place in desperate need of collective democratic solutions to vast social inequality, on air, online, and on television.

Finally, we might read Cliff’s recent web-post on that avaricious ANC youth-league bozo, Julius Malema, with a newfound sense of irony: much of how he characterizes Malema rebounds on himself. Indeed, neither of them have much real interest in organizing or inspiring beleaguered working class communities, nor alleviating ongoing social suffering. They’re careerists. Both make heated claims, bordering on extremity, and utter pointed utterances intended for pre-groomed audiences; both use inciting language to stoke social pressure, and generally muddy the water with reactive charismatic outbursts.

Here are some choice cuts, each equally applicable to himself, from Cliff’s posting, entitled, oh-so wittily, ‘Juli-ass Malema’: “this man is brimming with an indefatigable and dangerous bravado” / “He is of the opinion that he owes nobody an explanation for anything” / “feels he can say whatever likes” / “spreading only divisiveness, destructive, vitriolic rhetoric” / “showed a complete lack of ability to temper zeal with sense and moderation” / “a simpleton with a big mouth, someone of primary-school intellectual faculties with a large helping of vaulting ambition and galactic arrogance.”

The posting closes with a characteristically overblown injunction, wholly pompous, pushy, overbearing, and idiotic, much in line with the reckless rhetorical modus of the man he’s criticizing: “if you have a reasonable brain (one wonders how a ‘brain’ – the organ itself – as opposed to the qualitative thoughts it might enable – can be said to be ‘reasonable’ – but then Cliff is not half as smart as he thinks he is), and you care even a shred about South Africa, you must stand up to Julius Malema. To do less would make you, and our country, his slave.” His slave?
Goodness, an entire country? All such fantasies of enslavement and power-loss reveal is Gareth Cliff’s own abiding inability to acknowledge the historical debt of white privilege. Malema stirs such fanciful language in Cliff because he embodies what the Idols judge refuses to confront in himself: that he’s as divisive, ridiculous, grotesque and grasping, as mean-spirited and ‘bad’ for the country, as Julius is.

Image © and courtesy Jason Bronkhorst.

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