To a British onlooker, South Africa is both reassuringly familiar and unsettlingly alien. Both demographically and democratically our junior, it could perhaps be conceived as our more fractious, more febrile younger sibling. Despite the recent election of supposed reformer Cyril Ramaphosa, in popular understanding, South Africa is still a place of dichotomies, ruled by a party, the ANC, that is simultaneously associated with the idealistic liberation party of Nelson Mandela and the corrupt and nepotistic machinations of former president Jacob Zuma. In this country of extremes, its politics is closer to our consumer fiction than to the pages of our newspapers. Yet at the same time, South Africa’s principle uncanniness is in the reflection it gives of our own home nation. Whilst for most British, the consequences of the imperial past upon which our society is based are reassuringly remote, but for South Africa the bubblegum façade of Western culture is openly and revoltingly juxtaposed with the undisguisable aftermath of colonial exploitation. In South Africa, we see, perhaps, most clearly the hypocrisies that ferment just below the surface of our own country. Yet even in a more general sense, such as the creeping tendency towards populism and the rule of soundbite politics, South Africa is less an anomaly than, as my uncle and resident of Johannesburg deems it, “a microcosm of the world.”
What perhaps links the two countries most closely from my perspective is the issue of representation. The UK, since the last election, has become effectively bipartisan, leaving those of us with views outside that of the dominant Conservative or Labour narrative essentially unrepresented on the political stage. The problem is only exacerbated by Brexit, that has not only left the 48 per cent who voted Remain without a political voice in this respect, as both parties, currently, refuse to offer an alternative to leaving the EU, but also left little room for parties to think about anything else. Sapped by Brexit, neither party appears to have the bandwidth to develop new, modern policies on issues that voters feel strongly about.
In South Africa, the issue is increased a hundredfold. The ANC holds a one-party stranglehold on government, achieving 62 percent of the vote in the last election despite the numerous allegations of corruption and illegitimacy against it. Voting against the ANC is thus seen as essentially a waste of time and any form of opposition to the party is tainted with this sense of futility.
One person who is particularly frustrated by the whole problem is Nick Farrell. Aged just 17, Farrell had run for the leadership of the Democratic Alliance, the country’s principal opposition party. A champion of liberal ideals since apartheid, the DA can perhaps be seen as the South African equivalent of typical European centrist party. Yet Farrell dismisses them as “irrelevant”. They achieved just 22 per cent of the vote at the last election, and appear unable to connect with voters beyond their traditional white and middle-class base.
For despite Farrell’s involvement in the DA since 2012 as a youth leader, and then chairperson of Morningside ward, his run for leadership was not based on a desire to become a career politician. Indeed, it was born out of frustration with the DA’s “increasingly autocratic” behaviour under the then leader Helen de Zille, who had bene unchallenged in leadership contest since 2007. Fed up with the inertia of his party, Farrell, against the wishes of his parents, announced his intention to run against her.
“People weren’t giving us (dissidents) a voice in the party. So, running was a legal way of saying look, you can’t shut me down…it was the best way of expressing my views in an open way,” he said.
Although Farrell never actually got to run against Zille in the contest, standing down shortly after making his statement, it was still enough for him to gather uncomfortable scrutiny from the press and even from the DA’s own MPs. One, Dan MacPherson, condemned his leadership run as a “stunt” and implicitly threatened to weaken Farrell’s chances of getting into university if he did not stand down.
“Young people often have slightly different views to the political establishment within the party, so when a young person speaks its often assumed that they are going to say something that isn’t in line – and often it is! But it’s easier to silence young people, to make sure they don’t have a place in the party,” said Farrell when considering MacPherson’s behaviour.
“But if you don’t have young people in the party, how are you going to attract young voters that are occupying a greater and greater percentage of the demographic, of the voting population?”
And of course, the DA’s inability to connect with voters is not just destructive for their own party. Without a powerful opposition movement, the ANC have been allowed in recent years to engage in corrupt political activity with effective impunity, relying on the memory of liberation to ensure success at the ballot box. The moral purity and ideological consistency of Mandela’s ANC was hijacked and replaced by Zuma’s own brand of personality politics. Prior to his recent expulsion, Zuma had used his individual power to enrich his own family and connections at the expense of his electorate, demonstrating himself to be more a kleptomaniac despot than a saviour of the people.
This lack of scrutiny from mainstream opposition, oh-so-familiar in our current political clime, has led to the creation of new parties in the South African system. Although often openly populist, nationalist. radical and still relatively fringe in terms of voter support, the Economic Freedom Fighters have begun to attract attention from disillusioned voters.
Indeed, despite his own centre-right political leanings, Farrell expressed admiration for the party. Perhaps in their “charismatic and powerful” young leader, he sees more than a little of himself. Julius Malema established the party in 2013, after being sacked as the leader of the ANC’s youth organisation under charges of “bringing the party into disrepute”. Echoing Farrell’s own criticisms of the DA, Malema has called the ANC, “directionless, possibly the most corrupt, and openly neo-liberal, right-wing political formation that will never solve South Africa’s socio-political problems”.
For Farrell, Malema has “a way of doing politics that I like.”
“You know I watched a press conference with him the other day, and you know – he’s a communist! – but I listened to this press conference and I thought he was actually speaking for me. It was bizarre. He was talking about a constitutional court judgement and he was talking about that in a way that connected with me.”
When I suggest that this is nothing more than the fatal attraction of unresearched populist rhetoric, he disagrees.
“I think everyone goes Julius Malema is a communist, he must be a populist and I think they are populist and they speak in a populist way. But if I look at EFF policies, they are definitely more substantial than the DA’s. They have a better grasp of the complex issues.”
For Farrell, the DA’s shying away from more controversial politics and their reluctance to engage with views that challenge party policy comes from a certain brand of “pragmatic politics” and “political correctness”. In his eyes, this political correctness that acts to place inflammatory and difficult beliefs outside the realm of usual political discourse is less a process of effective condemnation than a form of political cowardice.
Although the party elected its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, in 2015, it has struggled to dispel accusations of institutional racism – attempts to silence the sometimes flagrantly racist remarks of party members have been unsuccessful in changing public opinion. Indeed, Farrell believes that this tactic of silencing is itself flawed.
“These people aren’t talking about it (race) out of malicious intent, they’re talking about it because it’s their belief, their view, and it’s not overtly racist but it’s subtle racism. We should embrace them rather than reject them, bring them in and include them, and say this is a problem, this is why you can’t say that, this is the empirical evidence that says that this isn’t true. Simply silencing people and saying, ‘No you can’t be involved, you can’t talk about this issue’ – it’s a superficial fix to a sophisticated problem.
“You can’t just say ‘sign this piece of paper and you won’t be a racist anymore’, ‘sign this piece of paper and you won’t say anything racist,’” he explains, referring to the ‘Pledge Against Racism’ that is now obligatory for all party members to sign.
“The essence of evolution is that we keep getting better. But we aren’t challenging the status quo, those views are going to get more and more entrenched and prejudiced. If people are overly pragmatic and politically correct it will not help progress, it will slow down, slow down, slow down [sic].”
Instead of coming out and challenging these problems, Farrell characterises the party’s policy as negative.
“What the DA have done over the last 5 years has just been anti-Zuma, and that is very, very simplistic. When Zuma goes, possibly in the next few weeks or months, what’s their argument going to be?”
Of course, since this interview, Zuma has gone. His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, with his promises to fix corruption and restore a ‘business-friendly’ South Africa, seems to have signed the effective death warrant for the DA as the sole representative of transparent centrist politics.
Although the expulsion of Zuma is undoubtedly a good thing, paradoxically, of course, the re-ignition of support for the ANC through the appointment of Ramaphosa will only mean a further entrenching of South Africa’s position as an effective one-party-state. The vast spectrum of political parties that is so often put forward as the ideal of parliamentary democracy and that encompasses a continuum of political opinion, could perhaps slip even further out of reach.
But, as someone who isn’t a member of any political party, what Farrell gets most audibly excited about is a different vision of political heterogeneity. This heterogeneity comes not from established parties, but from individual members of the electorate themselves.
“If you look at our constitution, voting is one right, you know, [but you also] have the right to freedom of expression, you have the right to protest, you have the right to create a political party, you have the right to fund a political party, you have the right to free media. The right to vote is one aspect that a democracy needs to succeed, [but you need] to be participating in a variety of different areas that the constitution has set out for you to do…the constitution is a toolkit for all of us to use, for us to hold our leaders to account, to engage in the political process and to get the best outcome.”
For Farrell, young people are perfectly poised to initiate this new form of democracy. He admits that most of the publicity he got during his leadership campaign down to his age and his ability to exploit technology. Whilst social media is often demonised by the press as the root of extremist politics, echo-chambers and trolls, Farrell has a more idealist vision.
“We know everyone can tweet something and retweet to hundreds of people automatically. There is something inherently powerful in that that people aren’t making use of.”
Launching a political revolution on a medium most commonly used for exchanging memes and selfies may seem a little far-fetched. But we have already seen the power of social media as a means of breaking up and questioning the discourse of the mainstream press, as not only ordinary people but otherwise anonymous experts in their field have harnessed the democratizing nature of social media to highlight traditional journalists’ mistakes. Flick through any Twitter feed, and you can see responses to politicians and pundits being corrected and questioned by lawyers, doctors, nurses, nuclear physicists. Whilst its potential for spreading lies and vitriol is ceaselessly examined, social media’s ability to give further nuance to tricky topics is just as clear. Social media can be claustrophobic, but it also allows us to take more specific and unique viewpoints.
When it comes to his own future in politics, Farrell remains undecided.
“I definitely wouldn’t close the door in getting back into major involvement in the party and going up the ranks, but I definitely would need to finish my degree first and hopefully have a successful career before getting involved with politics in a major way again.
But I definitely want to stay involved, stay active, stay engaged.”
This final point seems particularly poignant in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In an online world that is increasingly becoming characterised by the psychological warfare of unseen political entities ready to manipulate and exploit our own prejudices, isn’t it time to reclaim the Internet as our own? If we’re so bothered about the dissemination of fake news online, isn’t it right that we should be challenging those opinions and creating our own narrative? Now, more than ever before, it seems appropriate for us to take up Farrell’s gauntlet of individual political activism.