In ANC’s factional war, the murder victim is the English language

The two factions in the ANC are warring over whether it should be 'white monopoly capital' or just 'monopoly capital'. They're squabbling over nonsense.

British author George Orwell warned in 1946 against the misuse of language.

A key lesson in his essay Politics and the English Language was that dying metaphors, pretentious diction and meaningless words are dangerous. If people don’t know what you mean – and you perhaps don’t even know what you mean – then true dialogue between human beings is impossible. Political progress in the finding of common ground stays out of reach because there can be no honest debate in good faith because people will be arguing over gas and phantoms.

After last week’s ANC policy conference I couldn’t help but think of Orwell and what he would have made of some of the grand declarations the ruling party made after six days of supposedly intense debate.

It appeared that after thrashing the matter out at length, the party concluded that the word ‘white’ in the phrase “white monopoly capital” was a big problem because you can apparently also get “black monopoly capital”, which is supposedly also objectionable.

The head honchos eventually settled on the majority compromise that the issue should not be racialised – because the ANC is a nonracial party after all – and therefore the enemy of the revolution and social progress is now a thing called “monopoly capital”.

Really? Is it now?

They went so far as to point out that, in their analysis, this is some sort of global problem too.

But what were they actually talking about? It’s not good enough to just hack away with primitive surgery at archaic, struggle-era phrases in the hope that you can make them relevant to the 21st century. You can’t install a piston from a 1970s tractor into a 2017 Ferrari after subjecting it to an angle grinder.

“Monopoly capital”, as far as I’m concerned, is a meaningless phrase birthed in the witches’ cauldron of political convenience. Sure, those two words mean various things on their own, but I’m not sure what relationship they have to each other. South Africa is already officially against “monopoly ownership and control” of various industries, which is why we have a Competition Commission and a Competition Tribunal.

“Capital” is, at heart, just “money” and the people who control it. Are we against money? There’s no particular reason to slap those two words together and I’ve seen no rational explanation for why you would want to do so.

I’ve asked around and it seems people have the general understanding that “monopoly capital” means “rich people”, or “people who have too much money or too much control of money” – but if that’s what the ANC meant, then they should have just said that, and everyone would have known exactly what was being said. We could have then made up our own minds on what we think about it.

When Blade Nzimande said: “We have identified monopoly capital as the strategic enemy,” that sounded like an erudite, Marxisty kind of comment, and all the people in red T-shirts nodded along. However, if he had said, “We have identified rich people as the strategic enemy,” there may have been more pause for thought, especially since Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba still has to go cap in hand to countries with rich investors to ask them for more foreign direct investment.

Government is also hoping the local private sector will want to invest more of its trillions into local industries, so calling rich people the enemy is perhaps a little too direct for comfort.

Saying “monopoly capital” conveniently depersonalises the debate and makes you think you’re dealing with some vague enemy, when really you’re talking about actual, flesh and blood human beings.

When the ANC said last week that “black monopoly capital” was apparently just as much of a problem as “white monopoly capital”, imagine how that may have sounded if they’d merely said: “Rich blacks are as much of a problem as rich whites.”

Would we have been quite so accepting? I’m nowhere near rich myself, but on principle, I’m not opposed to rich people. I don’t see them as the enemy. Some of my best friends are rich. I’d rather not see them sent to a gulag by Communist Party boss Nzimande shortly before he gets into a R2-million Mercedes.

Some black South Africans have lashed out against the ANC for its having declared that there’s no such thing as “white monopoly capital”, but they were probably just pointing out that there are obviously still a lot of rich white people in South Africa, and having money gives you power. Sure, that’s true. That’s reasonable.

Obviously, if Gwede Mantashe or Joel Netshitenzhe were to have said, “There’s no such thing as rich whites,” we’d have had a big laugh at their expense. But they tried to get away with it by hiding behind grand-sounding triple-syllabled gobbledook. We deserve better. If you murder a language today, tomorrow you may actually murder real people, and it will have been justified by all this nonsense that has colonised our minds.

According to the reports, the Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma camp has been in support of the “white monopoly capital” rhetoric while the Cyril Ramaphosa camp has been against adding race to the issue. Sadly, both sides are more or less equally deluded.

If the Ramaphosa camp were to go for another six-day debate on what “monopoly capital” means, they may return to tell us the problem is actually just “monopoly” or “capital”. Then when we complain the problem can’t be “monopoly”, will they perhaps reduce that to: “Our enemy is ‘mono’, we are fine with ‘poly'”?

As Orwell put it 71 years ago: “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous.

“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases … one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy … A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.

“The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.

“If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.”

Orwell also advised us that: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”

Orwell at least made it clear that there is always hope, which boils down to simply speaking in a way a child can understand.

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

Charles Cilliers, digital editor

Charles Cilliers, digital editor

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