TOM EATON: Herman Mashaba’s legacy — hate propped up by carefully curated statistics
Imagine if the former Joburg mayor had tweeted about crimes committed by gays or Jews
Say what you like about outgoing Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba — the man owns his bigotry like few other South Africans.
Not for him the slippery code-words and cowardly dog-whistles preferred by our more unscrupulous politicians. Not for him claims that he had been misquoted or taken out of context or that it wasn’t ruled to be hate speech and therefore didn’t count as rabble-rousing incitement.
No. Mashaba truly has the courage of his nasty little convictions. Time after time he stood tall, gazed out at the torch-lit Olympic Stadium of Twitter where his audience of plaited, dirndl-clad xenophobes trembled in pre-orgasmic anticipation, and shrieked his prejudice into the spittle-flecked microphone of populist idiocy.
On Saturday that stadium was resounding again as he delivered one last variation on a theme of “Ausländer raus!” while his groupies squealed and fainted.
In case you missed it, perhaps because you don’t engage in recreational xenophobia, Mashaba’s tweet featured a photograph of one page of a document, apparently produced by the City of Johannesburg and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police department, showing how many foreign nationals had been arrested between 2016 and 2019 for a variety of crimes.
The page was laid out very neatly. It featured bright colours, national flags and very short words, making it ideal reading for the sort of people who admire Mashaba.
And Lord how they loved it. To read the comments under the tweet was to open a vein and plug directly into the sort of salt-of-the-earth folk wisdom, uncluttered by expertise, that is “Making America Great Again”.
What Mashaba’s picture didn’t show, of course, was the number of South Africans arrested for those same crimes. I have no doubt such a number would have dwarfed those presented as proof of a type of “Total Onslaught” from across the Limpopo; but who needs context when you’re loitering on the dirtiest street corner of our body politic, opening your trench coat and whispering: “Psst. You want a scapegoat? Very cheap? Very clear?”
The tweet raised one or two brief objections, but that was it. Perhaps this was inevitable: Mashaba might have been the man of the hour last Monday, but the resignations of Mmusi Maimane and Athol Trollip have reduced him to a cameo in the melodrama that is the DA’s divorce from itself.
Then again, perhaps there is a more sinister reason for the comparative silence around a tweet that was pure poison: perhaps many, many South Africans are finding themselves quite partial to that poison. Consider, for a moment, the scandal if Mashaba had posted crime statistics that were curated in other ways.
For example, imagine if he had decided to reveal to us the crimes most commonly committed by followers of various religions in SA. Following the template of his Saturday tweet, such a document would, of course, ignore crimes committed by Christians, but would reveal at length the criminal tendencies of practitioners of African religions, Muslims, Hindus and Jews; each faith represented by a jolly little symbol. (That Star of David works particularly well as an eye-catching warning, not so, Herman?)
Then again, maybe we should list crimes by sexual orientation. The “Mashaba Method” would require us to ignore heterosexuals, but how about the rest, eh, Herman? Why don’t you tell us whether it’s the gay men or the lesbians or the bisexuals we need to be most afraid of?
No, if Mashaba had tweeted a maliciously curated document claiming to show the criminality inherent in the religious and the non-binary, he would be the most toxic politician in SA today. There would be denunciations in parliament and the press, and the Human Rights Commission would be all over him. Literally.
That’s what the HRC does with politically connected bigots: it crawls all over them, looking for somewhere to massage, before sending them away with a stern warning that next time it might have to give them a tummy-rub too.
But Mashaba didn’t target faith or sexual orientation. He targeted the Other, the “Dangerous Foreigner”, the “Bringer of the Plague”, as poisonous politicians have done so successfully and so bloodily for so many centuries. Our collective shrug suggests it might still be a successful strategy: perhaps Mashaba knows South Africans better than we might want to admit.
This column is about the dangers inherent in making divisive generalisations backed up by carefully edited statistics, so I’m not going to claim that when it comes to crimes against decency, social harmony and cohesion, mediocre politicians are over-represented.
I’m just going to leave the implication dangling here. Just like Mashaba would.
• Eaton is a Tiso Blackstar Group columnist.