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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear

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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia