I like reading Xolela Mangcu’s columns. I understand why he is controversial, considering that he:

consistently accuses whites individually and generally of racism, which- however accurate- rarely goes down well with the parties concerned;

makes no bones of his deep admiration of and belief in America’s open and broad intellectual culture and sings the praises of Western institutions and academics, while continuously reminding us of his associations with them (which can cause resentment in the SA context, because of our love/hate relationship with the US);

at times seems to conflate his personal fortunes with the fortunes of the black public intellectual in South Africa writ large;

frequently quotes from / name-drops Western scholar’s to bolster his arguments. While this is standard academic practice, the fragmentary nature of his selections leads me to suspect that he does this to cloak his arguments in a façade of erudition [So fair play, if I haven’t read the work he quotes, who am I to argue?]

insists on using his invaluably influential media platform, almost weekly it seems, to extol the virtues of Tiger Woods specifically- clearly an underappreciated, plucky underdog in his opinion- and golf generally.

OK, maybe I’m the only who is irritated by that last point, and even there one has to give Mangcu his due. While I would question the necessity of promoting golf, a sport which has seen an explosion in participation by the new black elite and upwardly mobile sits uncomfortably with me because of its deeply class-based membership, the suspicious ‘networking’ element of its culture, and its seemingly insatiable thirst for large, sprawling portions of the country’s most scenic and attractive residential land.

But on the whole, I appreciate Xolela. I like reading his columns. I appreciate his efforts to take intellectualism out of the ivory tower, promote a culture of democratic, reasoned public discourse and collectively engage to create a new, progressive active citizenship.

What I don’t appreciate, is when he slides in ridiculous/indefensible/disingenuous/logically unsound positions into his otherwise valuable weekly contributions. The first time I noticed this, was in the runup to the ANC’s Polokwane Conference in 2007, during the non-campaigning campaigning by and on the behalf of various ANC leaders, when he started punting for Tokyo Sexwale to be elected President of the ANC, and presumably the country. This was completely out of the blue, and despite making little discernable public contribution intellectual or otherwise, to the intractable societal problems we’ve faced since he left government to build his career in the private sector. It seemed Sexwale’s perceived charisma was enough to get the support of one of our most thoughtful and critical black public intellectuals, and illicit glowing comparisons with JFK, who in addition to charisma and personal wealth, at least added published author of a well-regarded book on leadership, military service, and election to both houses of Congress to his CV. While JFK (and his family) planned and strategized his groundbreaking run into fruition, Sexwale’s campaign, even by South Africa’s pretend-no-one-runs standards was not serious, consisting as it did of one BBC interview where he attempted to cast himself in the [re]conciliatory mould of Mandela.

I was willing to overlook that one, perhaps after 8 years of Mbeki’s rule, Mangcu was understandably disposed to look for hope in whatever guise it could be found.

But I must object to his argument- surfacing most recently last week– that “The electoral victories of US President Barack Obama and President Jacob Zuma were inspired by a spirit of political rebellion against elite rule.”

Really Xolela?

Mangcu has cultivated this argument since the runup to the national election earlier this year, where he basically argued that opposition to Zuma is elitist disdain of African political and cultural aesthetics and traditions which offend Western [il]liberal sensibilities. The objection he articulates is by implication unprincipled, and is placed in opposition to, the ‘salt of the earth’ masses who defied the odds by elevating Zuma in “a spirit of political rebellion against elite rule.”

This argument is ridiculous.

First of all, Obama’s electoral victory was unprecedented, not only because it represented the first emphatic electoral refutation of the founding and enduring white supremacist American myth that only white males were true citizens, authentic Americans, and worthy of leading the country in high office, but it also represented a resounding Democratic defeat over Republican right-wing politics, based on fear, exclusion, and the use of divisive cultural issues to distract middle and working class voters from disastrous social and economic policies which favor the elite at the expense of the rest of society. This election was also a watershed in that it saw America shift from a center-right to a center-left country in terms of political philosophy. On an electoral/demographic level, this election spelled the end of 50 years of Republican dominance based on the consolidation of the white ‘heartland’ base, over the Democratic coalition based on whites on the coasts, liberals, organized labor, and ‘minorities’ (African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, etc.)

While Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy was definitely a repudiation of Mbeki’s aloof, autocratic ways, and embodiment of the worst aspects of the ANC in exile’s political culture, it cannot be said that the 2009 election was representative of a “political rebellion against elite rule.” The ANC won it’s usual 65-70% of the vote. The biggest political shift was in the consolidation of the opposition in the form of a strengthened DA, and COPE, which entered the scene with significant support drawn from voters dissatisfied with the ANC, as well as drawing some voters from the smaller opposition parties, which lost support.

Zuma’s election despite years of nervousness, fearful trepidation and warning from the pro-business crowd, and the growing confidence on the left in the run-up to and post-Polokwane, has not been accompanied by a major shift in ANC policy. As Zuma and other ANC leaders have been at pains to remind, ANC policies are not decided by individuals but the organization as a whole. There has not, and will not be wholesale change. Noises from the ANCYL about nationalization of mines need to be considered in that context. Zuma’s appointments to the key ministries controlling the economy- and the Reserve Bank- have been fairly conservative.

So where is this political rebellion against elite rule? Did the ANC rebel against itself? Zuma is as ANC as they come, and despite the selective memory of his supporters, was Deputy President for most of the Mbeki era (I would say all but the Mbeki era began when Mandela was still President.) He did not come out of nowhere.

While Zuma’s ascendancy to the ANC presidency definitely rode on the crest of an ANC rebellion against Mbeki’s rule, his election as State President was business as usual. I have no idea why Mangcu is nurturing this clearly fallacious argument.

It is ironic that Mangcu would write off pre-election opposition to Zuma in this way, as this is exactly how Mbeki and Suresh Roberts’ defended Mbeki from criticism replacing elitism with racism and Western illiberalism respectively.

What is problematic about this approach is that it closes the space for legitimate debate on the record and merits of President Zuma. Mbeki sidestepped criticism in a similar way, something which Mangcu rightfully deplored.

I will continue to read Mangcu columns, which are usually insightful, and generally ask interesting questions. I will, however, be reading critically.