I did a bad thing. A very bad thing. I watched a YouTube video. I am a bad girl.
Let me explain. (Saffers please feel free to skip the next seven paragraphs as you probably do not need the context.) Renaldo Gouws is a relatively minor local politician, representing the Democratic Alliance (DA) in South Africa’s sixth largest city. Having said that he is something of a social media ‘personality’ with a Twitter account with over 29 000 followers and a YouTube channel with over 118 000 subscribers. He thus exerts an influence greater than his official role may suggest. He also has the ear of the DA’s leadership, with various high-ranking leaders appearing on his channel from time to time. For context, the DA is South Africa’s second largest political party.
Renaldo is ‘relevant’ in that the DA has recently moved perceptibly from its earlier incarnation as a progressive, slightly left of centre political organisation, into ever more conservative positions. Its leaders, in particular its Federal Chairperson (Helen Zille, a favourite of Renaldo’s) has even started sprouting American right wing ‘talking points’ in her various channels. She wrote a book on how ‘wokes’ are a threat to society, she is a massive critic of critical race theory and other tropes. It is not always clear to many South Africans how these artefacts of the American ‘culture wars’ relate to us at the bottom of Africa, but hey, she seems to think they matter so we do have to deal with that.
With that ‘context’ out of the way I must explain that one of Renaldo’s favourite YouTube channel activities is to invite a person on to the channel for a ‘live stream’ on a Sunday night. This usually lasts in the region of one and half hours. His modus operandi seems to be to get people with what he considers to be ‘large’ social media followings and then have a half interview, half ‘debate’ with them over various issues that may be of mutual interest. Sometimes these guests are ‘of a mind’ with him (eg Helen Zille) sometimes they adopt radically different views. The main determinant of your worthiness as a guest however is what ‘following’ you can bring to the video, rather than the quality of your arguments. This is evidenced by his refusal to have Kyle Smith (Twitter handle @sejanus_) on the channel even when Kyle volunteered to discuss a subject that Renaldo was desperate to discuss and no other person would take the bait. Renaldo specifically cited Kyle’s ‘lack of followers’ as the reason for not wanting to invite him on to the channel.
It is thus clear to me that Renaldo only wants people on his channel who will give him ‘free’ content (ie do much of the intellectual heavy lifting for him in terms of content creation) and who will bring viewers to his channel and thus provide him with plenty of ‘views’ thus boosting his channel in respect of the YouTube algorithm and boost his revenue earning potential in respect of YouTube’s advertising revenue sharing model.
As an aside I find Renaldo’s format predictable and boring. When he has a guest with whom he agrees on the channel it degenerates into sycophancy and mutual ego stroking to the point of obscenity. When he has someone with whom he disagrees the positions he adopts are highly predictable and the format he has chosen sometimes results in the two ‘shouting’ at each other rather than any actual debate. The lack of a formal debating structure, the lack of a moderator and the lack of agreed rules negates the ‘debate’ as an intellectual exercise. Renaldo repeatedly states that he is a ‘classical-liberal’ with a left of centre political ideology. This may be true but it seems to me that in the South African context he is drifting ever further to the right and espouses more traditionally conservative rather than progressive values and his followers seem to also be more like this as well. He is in par responsible for the DA’s drift to the right.
For these reasons I do my level best to avoid his channel. I am fortunate indeed that I do not need to avoid him on Twitter as he blocked me some time ago as I was associated with (and supported) someone with whom he was engaged with in a Twitter dispute. He has subsequently unblocked the person I was supporting, but not me. This does not make me sad.
Anyway, last night he had a Twitter and Tik Tok ‘personality’, Kaitlin Rawson, on his show. Kaitlin started posting overtly political videos on Tik Tok earlier this year as South Africa started the run up to local government elections, which were held on 1 November 2021. Kaitlin was initially merely ‘critical’ of the DA in her videos but as she received more negative feedback to her videos, she stared adopting a more ‘anti-DA’ stance. Renaldo thought it would be good for him to have her on the channel as she would be a good counterweight to his views and with her 18 300 Tik Tok followers she would bring some much needed traffic to his channel. I would prefer it if my fellow progressives did not engage with Renaldo on his channel. It would be better if they did so on other ‘neutral’ channels but in the aftermath of this interview I kept seeing references on Twitter to the interview so I decided to give it a watch, even if I risked earning Renaldo an extra Rand or two… I therefore watched the video! As a result, I feel compelled to respond to Renaldo and here is my response.
Saffers, start reading now.
To avoid any allegation of my bias resulting in misrepresentation of his words I have linked to the video below:
My response will be a set of responses to what was said at a particular ‘time stamp’ that I will record at the start of each response. This will allow you to skip to the right spot and avoid you having to inflict too much pain on yourself.
At 8:40 Kaitlin starts explaining that in addition to the various points of difference policy differences she has with the DA, some of her complaints pertain to differences of opinion with the DA leadership, in particular the Federal Chairperson, Helen Zille. Kaitlin then goes on to say that she has recently submitted her Honours thesis that dealt extensively with Helen Zille’s tweets. She admitted that she had not read any of the books written by Helen Zille as part of her research or background reading. I admit that I too was surprised by this. I would have thought that reading Helen Zille’s own books would have been part of the literature review of the Honours thesis, but as I am not au fait with the thesis this may not be true. I do not think it necessarily detracts from Kaitlin’s understanding of Helen Zille. As a political leader Helen Zille should be as accountable for her tweets as she is for her books and indeed her speeches. The medium is in this context less relevant than the message.
At 13:45 Renaldo asks Kaitlin about racism. In this area Kaitlin completely out thought and out argued Renaldo. It seems that the biggest problem was that Renaldo and Kaitlin were working from two quite different understandings of racism and indeed Renaldo is woefully uninformed on what racism is (and is not). Kaitlin correctly resorted to her ‘academic’ definition of racism and correctly identified the differences between structural or societal racism and individual racism. Renaldo on the other hand kept on conflating racism with racial discrimination. This is to my mind a critical point of departure and in part explains many of the communication challenges we have in South Africa (and possibly other parts of the world) when it comes to our understanding (or lack thereof) of race and racism.
To be clear racism is not racial discrimination. Racism as an ideology (as evidenced by the suffix ‘-ism’) is predicated on the obviously erroneous belief that there are inherent differences between people of different races and that these differences are inherently hierarchical, that is to say that one racial group is inherently superior to another racial group. This ideology (on a personal level) then informs societal structures and systems that in turn result in systemic and structural racism which results in certain racial groups being privileged and others being disadvantaged.
Racial discrimination can thus either be racist or not racist, but it is not necessarily racist. Renaldo is either unwilling or unable to grasp this distinction but it is a vitally important one. Racist behaviour is thus necessarily always malign. There is always malevolent intent because it is predicated on notions of inferiority and superiority and these notions are used to justify the privilege of one race over another. Racial discrimination can indeed be malicious, but it is not necessarily so. Racial identity can similarly be benign (black consciousness asserting that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with being black) or malicious (white power advocates claiming that white people are inherently superior to black people).
Renaldo seems to think that any reference to race must be racist. This is obviously ridiculous. Whilst it is true that the distinctions between racial groups are completely superficial, it is also equally true that only a fool would try to assert that race is not ‘real’. You can look at yourself in the mirror and acknowledge that you look different to a person of a different race without thinking that the cosmetic difference determines anything about your abilities, worth, status etc in relation to that other person.
I would even go as far as to suggest that if someone thinks that any acknowledgement of racial difference must also include elements of racism, then the person asserting that must themselves be racist: only someone who cannot see race without asserting elements of superiority/inferiority would be unable to see the racial differences as mere differences in appearance and lacking in substance.
This is an important distinction to draw as Renaldo seems to think that measures used to redress apartheid are themselves racist because they are predicated on race. The truth is that South Africa’s Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment and Affirmative Action policies are not predicated on the ideology that black people are better than white people. They are rather predicated on the need to ensure that groups of people who previously experienced extreme prejudice and disadvantage (because a system of government, a society and indeed a state believed that they were inferior because of their race) should now experience some assistance in order to provide redress and ‘normalise’ the society in which we live. Promoting a black person ahead of a similarly qualified white person in recognition of past systemic injustice is entirely different to passing legislation that denies jobs to black people because you believe them to be an inferior race undeserving of an equal role in society. Similarly providing funding to black students at the expense pf white students is indeed, in the strict definition of the term, racial prejudice but it is not being done because we believe that white students are more or less capable (because of their race) than black students. It is being done to ensure that our society changes for the better.
There is perhaps a danger in the long term that this benign racial prejudice could turn into some sort of racism, but we are a very long way away from that state of affairs. I do not believe that black people are necessarily incapable of racism. Sadly, all people are a mixture of the best and worst humanity can conjure up, but it is patently fallacious to equate BBBEE with apartheid. Using ‘racism’ as a catch all for any and all types of racial language, identification, policy etc is lazy at best and disingenuous at best. If more white people would apply their minds and understand this distinction, I think we would all make a great deal of progress.
At 22:00 Renaldo switches to another one of his hobby horses. The notion that the ANC is (almost) entirely to blame for the state of South Africa in 2021 and questioning whether the ‘legacy of apartheid’ is still a justifiable excuse for the various problems we face. He seems to be suggesting (although in fairness I do not think he ever explicitly states as much) that the ANC is more to blame for South Africa’s unemployment (and other social woes) and that these can no longer be ascribed to the legacy of apartheid. The first confusing thing for me is that his tone towards Kaitlin is quite accusatory. Kaitlin, it must be noted is not an ANC supporter, let alone an ANC representative. Renaldo expects her to apologise for the ANC. This is ridiculous and I gave no idea why he kept on referring to the ANC. It seems to me that Renaldo lives in a bi-polar world where he thinks that if you are not for the DA then you must be for the ANC. This is simply not true. This view permeates a number of DA leaders’ thoughts as they are seemingly incapable of understanding that people can dislike the one without liking the other. I suspect that this thinking may be at the root cause of the massive loss of support the DA suffered at the recent local government elections. The DA thinks that anyone who does not support the ANC should support them. Their loss of support to Action SA shows just how wrong they are. I do not however suspect they will be able to pivot their mindsets. Conservatives (and these DA leaders are most certainly now conservative) are not known for their ability think flexibly…
At 41:16 Renaldo delves deeper into another of his hobby horses, that BBBEE is a poverty alleviation exercise. This is simply him having misconstrued or misunderstood what BBBEE is about. Naturally, economic empowerment will have a degree of poverty alleviation at its core however it needs to be understood not as primarily being about poverty alleviation or indeed to provide relief for the poor. BBBEE is just that a policy to empower black people to provide redress for apartheids wrongs and also to reorient South African society along more ‘normal’ lines. It was devised as (as far as is possible with this necessarily difficult situation) a non-punitive policy aimed primarily at empowering black people whilst simultaneously doing as little harm to white people as possible. I am not saying that this policy was perfectly devised nor am I seeing it was perfectly implemented but as Einstein once famously quipped, you should not judge a fish by its ability to climb trees. We undoubtedly need poverty alleviation and to develop an economy that provides more jobs for more people. I do not think BBBEE is the prime or best means to achieve that. Let us stop treating it as though it were.
Another mistake that is often made by people who argue similarly to Renaldo is that if economic growth happens this will automatically take care of inequality. Renaldo also says at 59:20 that if you undertake non-racial poverty alleviation then this too will address at least some of the inequality and will achieve the aims of BBBEE without having to resort to racial discrimination. The problem with both these arguments is that they are simply not supported. Historically we see that economic growth does not necessarily result in less inequality. I fact it often increases inequality. Similarly why would non-racial poverty alleviation necessarily address the goals of BBBEE empowerment? It might reduce the total number of black people living in poverty, and that is desirable, but would it achieve any of the other goals of BBBEE? Would it increase the numbers of black people in senior management positions? Would it increase the number of black business owners etc? Possibly in the long term, but that is by no means certain and it would do next to nothing for these objectives in the short to medium term.
At 46:20 Renaldo challenges Kaitlin on her knowledge of the DA’s history. Renaldo’s paternalism aside Kaitlin has a good grasp of the history of the DA, and Renaldo does too, to an extent. Renaldo however conflates the role played by the DA’s political antecedents (the Liberal Party, the Federal Party, the Progressive Party, the New Republic Party the Progressive Federal Party, the Democratic Party etc) in opposing apartheid with the role played by the ANC and IFP. This is patently ridiculous. The ANC moved from peaceful to armed resistance. Large numbers of ANC members were executed, imprisoned, and exiled for their activities. Many others were killed by state security operatives and military forces either extra-judicially or in combat. The same is not true of the DA’s forebears. It is true they may have opposed apartheid but they worked within the confines of the apartheid state. They seldom if ever acted illegally. It has been argued elsewhere that the actions of these people even legitimised the apartheid state, an argument I will not deal with here, but one that is worth noting.
What I will say is that many (even most, if not all) of those forebears of the DA may well have opposed apartheid, but they were not all paragons of virtue. Some of these parties were (especially for their time) relatively progressive and non-racial, but many of them officially proclaimed racist ideology. Arguing that black people were de facto inferior to white people. The evidence of this lies in some of the policies put forward by some of these parties. Universal suffrage was anathema to many of them and some even favoured the ‘multi-cameral’ parliamentary system of apartheid but arguing that urban black people at least should be given a parliamentary chamber. To equate such thinking with that that gave us the Freedom Charter is frankly an insult to the sacrifices made by so many. And as Kaitlin correctly states, a political party’s history (especially fairly distant history) is no reason to support a party today.
At 1:08:40 Renaldo repeats his laughable claim that voter turnout in the recent local government elections was the fault of the Independent Electoral Commission. He does this to escape culpability for the massive loss of support his party suffered. He cites anecdotal evidence from his voting district. I can equally cite contradictory anecdotal evidence from my personal experience at my voting district. Renaldo is so desperate to support his political party’s leaders that he is prepared to misrepresent the facts. The fact is that the DA is no longer appealing to the voters in the numbers that they used to. Many voters have voted for other parties. Many more have simply not voted. This should worry any politician. I am astounded that he is prepared to blame election administrators rather than look for more plausible explanations.
The remainder of the interview was less interesting to me and very little of what was said seemed worthy of comment. Renaldo clearly dislikes people singing struggle songs and enjoys making fun of people based on how they look that is his prerogative. I am not going to bother engaging with any of that.
In summary I would say Kaitlin won almost all the arguments presented. She had better arguments and was in better command of her facts and indeed the substantive issues at hand. Renaldo seemed unable to engage on the same level. There are obviously differences of opinion here but many of Renaldo’s opinions are simply not justified.
This commentary is not meant to belittle anything that Kaitlin said or did. All I am intending here is to put forward my perspectives on what Renaldo presented and respond to the more egregious points he raised. I was extremely impressed with Kaitlin’s responses and this should stand as an example of how to contest with the likes of Renaldo.
Now all that remains is for me to do penance for having viewed his video, and even worse, having linked to it… Mea culpa, mea culpa.