Gary Koekemoer | Time to talk about race

Ideas rule the world. Money may make it go round and love make the journey worth it, but ideas are what make things happen.

We follow (and lead) others, not so much because of who they are, but because of the idea they represent.

And it’s down to an idea that could mean the city has a new mayor and governing coalition by month-end.

Post the successful parliamentary motion on land expropriation without compensation, EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema announced that “on the 6th of April, the day of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival, the day of the formation of the PAC by Robert Sobukwe and the hanging of Solomon Mahlangu – in honour of these people but also a demonstration of seriousness about land we will be passing a motion of no confidence on the mayor of PE as a warning shot”.

Malema explained why at an EFF voter registration rally: “Because the mayor of DA in PE is a white man. So, these people, when you want to hit them hard – go after a white man.

“They feel a terrible pain, because you have touched a white man . . . we are starting with this whiteness. “We are cutting the throat of whiteness.” And then to drive the knife home in a Twitter response to mayor Athol Trollip he tweeted, “Hahaha, you are going white man.

“I’ve got no sympathy for whiteness, it feels so good for a black child to determine the future of the white one. #Kubo.”

In response Trollip penned a three-page open letter to Malema, commending him on his previous strategic approach, his practice of sticking to his word but bemoaning his recent (racist) change of heart because of its consequence on the ordinary citizens of the city.

“Come see for yourself” was the mayor’s call.

To no avail, the CIC isn’t coming to the city and the EFF is resolute.

It is determined to “punish” the DA and oust the mayor and the speaker, re-institute the deputy mayor position and effect a change in which a new ANC-led coalition rules the city.

Rumour has it that they have the 61 seats required to make the change. And all this because of an idea. The idea? Whiteness. The commander-in-chief, as a modern day Don Quixote, has taken it upon himself to cut its throat by using the EFF’s kingmaker power to send the only white metropolitan mayor packing, irrespective of how good a job the mayor and his team may be doing.

Because details don’t matter – the idea that you’re slaying the beast called “whiteness” is what counts.

How is it that a party that garnered only 5% of the local government vote is able to fire the “warning shot” that will likely result in the unseating of the party with the majority of the seats (the DA secured 46.7% of the vote, 57 seats in total, but four seats short of a majority) in the Nelson Mandela Bay council (err . . . not just PE Mr Malema)?

How is it that undoing whiteness has greater priority than best serving the citizens of our bay? It all seems grossly unfair. Or it all seems entirely just. It’s the idea we hold in our heads of what constitutes good governance that matters.

For some it’s righting the wrongs of the past, for others its eradicating bucket toilets.

It’s easy to write off Malema and the EFF as racist; that in a post-Zuma world they need a new battle cry and a new enemy, cue the white mayor, Athol Trollip.

It’s easy to point out (or depict in cartoons) that their stance is one of flip-flopping in the extreme, especially after Malema complained that SARS was out to punish him, which he thought very unfair.

It’s equally easy to write off mayor Trollip as arrogant, as serving the interests of the suburbs rather than the townships and to point to the white-dominated mayoral team.

Even easier is simply to write off the whole caboodle – just politicians doing what politicians do; they’re only in it for their own gain; not one is to be trusted further than you can swing a glass jug.

This is simply the next act in an all-too predictable circus.

But the easy retorts and kneejerk sound bites are not changing the conversation.

We keep having the same to-and-fro, pointing out how the team on the other side have absolutely no clue, how only we can see it clearly and that by listening to them disaster will surely follow. We now live in a post-Zuma world. The ex-president is going to court to face the charges against him.

We no longer have the distraction of a leader who appeared in equal measure to be corrupt and inept.

And with the distraction fading into the sunset, we can no longer hide from the fact that the idea of “whiteness” has traction – that it isn’t simply a marketing gimmick by a desperate political party.

What if we took the idea that Malema is propounding seriously? What if we started an open conversation about “whiteness”?

Could that get us out of this destructive loop? Or is it better to hide it from sight, hoping our new president will make it disappear?

In 1994, change happened in this beautiful country of ours.

At that moment we set about undoing a race-based system of privilege with the intent of replacing it with a democratic, non-racial system that benefited all. In so doing, we undertook an informal social contract that underpinned our formal constitution – the unspoken agreement being that life should improve for all, but specifically for those disadvantaged by 342 years of race-based policies and practices.

Are we all in a better position today than 24 years ago, or are only some of us?

And does that better position still have a white tint to it?

Can black people expect to be called by their given names, or must they still accept some European label because it’s easier to pronounce? When driving through the townships, and then the suburbs, is the contrast still as stark as it was in 1994? Does unemployment, poverty and crime impact us all equally?

But that’s only part of it. Tough conversations are always two-way streets.

Will white people ever be allowed to feel at home in this place they persist in calling home?

Should they have bags packed and passports ready just in case?

Is whiteness, like #Zumamustfall, simply a useful distraction from a crashing economy and collapsing social infrastructure? The honeymoon is over. Now the work starts of building a nation, and it begins by having conversations that will take courage and (gentle) confrontation.