Jacob Zuma’s decision to meet with Gareth Cliff and Woolworths’ decision to put Lig, Juig, Joy and Lééf back on the shelves makes me wonder about the rules of engagement in the battle of ideas in the age of celebrity and social media.

In the 1980’s those of us connected to the ANC in the ‘white left” were mostly engaged in the battle of ideas. In that war we witnessed one defeat from afar and experienced victory up close and personal – and believed it was ours.

First, watching from afar as one government lost the battle:

In Zimbabwe the signs that ZANU might be losing was the Catholic Bishops Conference starting to sound alarmed at what was happening in Matabeleland.

In South Africa as in Zimbabwe the Catholic Bishops Conference was friendly ground for national liberation movements in the battle of ideas – it was territory we had already won, so there were two ways of understanding what was happening:

  1. the Catholic Bishops Conference had been won over by the bad guys or;
  2. ZANU had become the bad guys.

Thankfully we were suspicious enough of ZANU and Mugabe to not be totally surprised as the Gukurahundi massacre gradually revealed itself. I regretfully suspect that had the situation been reversed (and our ally ZAPU had won to power) ‘some among us’ would be denying the atrocities to this day … but then, I am forced to believe that in those circumstances such atrocities would never have happened … hmm.

Putting aside that difficult conundrum … the victory we experienced up close and personal was our own over the Apartheid regime – or that was what we liked to think, anyway.

Another way of saying the Apartheid state and the National Party lost the battle of ideas is to say they lost influence over the middle ground that lay between them and the African National Congress.

We (the activists and supporters of the ANC) saw this as the fruit of our work in implementing the revolutionary injunction: “Isolate your most dangerous enemy from his potential friends!” – we were a tiresomely self-righteous lot much in love with clunky slogans, but anyway …

The National Party losing the middle ground was less a function of the work of those of us distributing awful translations of already awful ANC literature to bemused Afrikaans speaking white students at Stellenbosch and more a complicated interplay of factors as diverse and vast as the failing of the Soviet economy and the effects of sanctions on South African businesses.

But if the pamphlets (or even the establishment of  Nusas and End Conscription Campaign branches at the University of Stellenbosch) made little difference to the grand scheme of history the fact that such branches were set up in the National Party heartland and staffed and run by young Afrikaners was a crucial indicator of what was going on.  These were real hints of the shape of things to come – so to speak.

The ebbs and flows in the ideology and influence upon organisations and groups in the middle ground keeps a reliable scorecard of the broader contest.

The ANC in those days conceived of the middle ground as the organisations, forums and activities over which it could exert influence. It started with organisations and institutions which were very close to it (essentially under its discipline), through the newspapers and universities all the way to forums like the General Synod of the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk, within spitting distance of the Apartheid regime itself.

We are a long way from the 1980’s and the ANC that was then running its war from the wilderness is now in the fortress at the centre of its own heartland. It is not as threatened in its retreat as the National Party and the Apartheid state were by the mid-80’s, but the rumours of war are starting to be whispered in the corridors.

Like I said, the useful thing about the middle ground is that it is like a gauge of the state of play. You only need to cast your eye over the daily newspapers to realise that the ANC is gradually moving onto the defensive on important fronts in the war of ideas.

If you do have doubts, look at this extraordinary list of individuals and civil society groups that have signed in support of the Right To Know campaign in opposition to the Protection of Information Bill. All those organisations are not suddenly firm enemies of the ANC and the state … but they are drifting into opposition, a fact that is clearly starting to concern the ANC and government.

Another sign of the shifts in ‘civil society‘ is DJ Gareth Cliff feeling confident enough to attack government and President Jacob Zuma in deeply uncivil terms on his blog – its worth a read.

Jacob Zuma’s office has announced (astonishingly, I might say) it is seeking a meeting with Cliff to discuss his article.

In the same week the South African retail giant Woolworths reversed a decision to remove Christian magazines from the shelves of its stores – after an ongoing campaign that played itself out on Woolworths own facebook page.

At one level both Zuma and Woolworths live and die by the strength and popularity of their image. Perhaps they are just following that hoary old marketing maxim:  “the customer is always right”?

But I think that Zuma and Woolworths holding up the white flag in the battle of ideas is an important sign of things to come. Is presages a coming time when billions of rands and perhaps political power itself will be won and lost in the the feverish rebellions that sweep across the web.

The implicit hesitation by both Woolworths and the South African government is both healthy and wise. This is a new field of battle and the rules of engagement are uncertain. It is right to edge your way forward, using each brush with the enemy as an opportunity to learn something new about the terrain upon which the war will be won and lost.

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