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30 August 2016 01:27 (South Africa)
South Africa

SONA2015: The night South Africa stood still. It still does.

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa
poplak-thenight-subbedm.jpg

Another of South Africa’s transformative Big Bangs has exploded and — congratulations! — you now live in a brand new country, one that’s ensconced in a deep and very serious political crisis. With the weekend to consider the implications of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address and the surrounding mayhem, perhaps it’s time to reappraise just what happened on that terrible night, and what has come to pass in the days since. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Twenty-one guns

Cape Town’s Twankey Bar is appended to the Taj Hotel, its bay windows offering a vista of Adderley and Wale Streets, and therefore a spy’s-eye view of the city’s Parliamentary precinct. On the night of President Jacob Zuma’s 2015 State of the Nation Address (SONA), the annual event that over the course of his tenure has transformed from a political pageant into a reality show policed by its own shoot-to-kill security force, the Twankey resembled a bar during the finals of some forgotten but suddenly resurgent gladiatorial tournament. Members of the British High Commission, members of ANC advisory teams, members of the Democratic Alliance, sodden journalists, baffled tourists—all on their feet in front of two mounted flat screens, waiting for President Zuma to take to the podium and open this year’s Parliamentary session with a 70-minute speech. There were many plotlines to consider: would the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema, stage a disruption? Would the Democratic Alliance, led by Mmusi Maimane, back the disruption? Would Zuma pre-empt all of this with a dazzling act of oratory that dealt with the issue of the costly renovations at his Nkandla residence (misspent money the Public Protector has ordered him to pay back), thus neutering the opposition and once again taking control of the National Assembly and the country he ostensibly leads?

Even before Zuma dragged his diminishing frame up to the lectern, there were signs that all would not proceed according to the programme. As journalists, Parliamentarians and dignitaries filed into the house, they found that their mobiles were not working. It was clear to almost anyone born after 1950 that their devices were jammed by a signal blocker, and the media contingent took to their feet and spat out another of the hashtag memes that these days define our politics: “Bring back the signal!” And so State Security Minister David Mahlobo disappeared from the house, waved his arms like a cut-rate Steve Jobs at a Bronze Age tech convention, and lo!—the signal returned. The first befouling of the Constitution had occurred before Zuma had opened his mouth.

If the ANC rules at Christ’s behest, as the president has so often insisted it does, then was this not jamming in the name of the Lord? Regardless, for me these botched sleights of hand were foreshadowed 24 hours before SONA. I was on my way to a political gabfest, walking alongside a dry run of the street parade that would usher the president’s cortege into Parliament, and as I made my way through Company Gardens, the world blew up a few feet in front of me. I dropped to my knees, while the universe was torn a second time, then a third, then a fourth. As the gardens filled with the smell of cordite and fake war I realised that this was a full dress rehearsal for the 21-gun salute that would greet our president when he and his entourage entered the Parliamentary precinct on Thursday. There was no warning, scant cordoning, and only two guards keeping people away from the patch of roaring lawn adjacent the National Museum. In all the prelapsarian ferment, I thought the civil war had started without me.

Deaf, dizzy, disoriented, I looked over to a park bench, where amid the boom of artillery fire a drunk took a slug from a half-jack, and then promptly fell asleep. In awe, I noted that the slumbering boozer was pantomiming the ANC’s entire political strategy—when the guns start blazing, pretend nothing that is happening, sleep it off, and wake up to find that the world has returned to normal.

Bringing Down the House

For two decades, that strategy has worked more or less to perfection. But now, there is no more normal. Or rather, in the light of 72 hours of sober(ish) reflection, this is the new normal. What the State of the Nation debacle delivered was as sharp a summation of the state of the nation as we could possibly have asked for.

The country has arrived at crisis that everyone in a position of power saw coming—Chronicle of a Dissolution Foretold, if you will—and yet did nothing to stop.

In other words, we can say that this is a manufactured crisis, and for some a welcome crisis. “Disorder is the highest stage of order,” the Zimbabwean poet and novelist Dambudzo Marechera once wrote.

With this in mind I hung around the red carpet and watched as third-tier dignitaries and the sprawling Mandela clan posed in their Sunday best, none of whom understood that they’d been reduced to carnival barkers at the entrance to Hell’s circus. Then the ANC’s Next Generation poster boy Malusi Gigaba showed up, in a suit that seemed woven from shark skins, grinning for the cameras like the princeling he is. The DA arrived dressed for a funeral, all in black. The EFF filed in (minus MP Andile Mngxitama) wearing their revolutionary red—all parties staking their positions and stating their policies through the judicious sewing of cloth.

An hour before the speech commenced I was shoed away from the red carpet (I did not crack a ringside wristband). And so I arrived at Twankey Bar, where I was to watch the address on telly, accidentally escorted by riot cops. I chased them chasing a contingent of EFF supporters through Church Street, up St. Georges and back onto Adderley. The cops seemed exhausted and far too large for the job, but then the water cannon thundered in, along with several nyalas. (And this wasn’t the start of their day; earlier five DA members were arrested while staging a protest.) Cape Town hipsters on fixies rode by, gazing at the mini-riot with trademark Mother City bemusement, as if it had all been staged for their Instagram feeds. (Hadn’t it?) Red overalls met black body armour in waves, and when the leader of the EFF group leaned in to scream at the riot cops—the only actual discourse I witnessed all night—he said, “Why aren’t you chasing the ANC? They are behind you! They are right there!”

And suddenly, right there, booming through speakers studding the Parliamentary precinct, were the first few lines of Zuma’s address. I rushed back to Twankey, ordered a meat board, and was just in time for the great interruption. When it happened, when EFF Secretary General Godrich Gardee rose on a point of order and asked the Speaker to ask the president when he was going to Pay Back The Money (the minor act of corruption, among the countless major acts of corruption, upon which all of South Africa’s politics now hangs) the whole bar inhaled. Finally, here it was: The Showdown. Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete, wearing a hat that looked like it housed a promising cake, was calm, collected. For a few moments, it seemed like the issue would be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Nope.

What transpired has already entered South African lore, but there are one or two details worth teasing out, details that prove just how sclerotic and unimaginative the ANC has become as a political machine, and how easy it has been for a single spurned insider to undo them. The EFF members that followed Gardee rose not on points of order, but on points of privilege. As Julius Malema would later explain, the EFF knew that Mbete had received her marching orders from the ANC’s Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, who had instructed her and Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Thandi Modise (otherwise renowned as South Africa’s worst farmer) on what to do should a point of order be raised. But she was completely stymied by points of privilege.

“And that’s because she doesn’t know the rules of Parliament,” as Malema would later point out.

If Malema is correct—and maybe he is, maybe he isn’t—then the, a supposedly non-partisan entity who is meant to work for all members, took instruction from an ANC stalwart who has never been an MP, and has never spent any time in the National Assembly.

“You can know all the rules about Parliament, but until you have been there, you will never know how they work [in practice],” Malema would later say.

And so Mbete lost her cool, and burly men wearing black jackets, white shirts and black slacks—clothes that screamed “security-hack”; clothes that made the last and most emphatic sartorial statement of the night—swarmed in. Meanwhile, on a parallel track in a parallel political world, the DA staged its own, funereal walkout. With great delicacy and in supreme good taste, the state broadcaster turned its cameras away from the violence and focused on Mbete and Modise, and the bruisers went to work. And yet this newspaper had three correspondents in the House, and they emerged with stories and footage revolting in its intensity. This, you must understand, was not pretend violence. It was real violence. It was designed violence. And it was violence that is becoming the lingua franca of South African politics, a violence that is taking the place of the institutions that once saved us from the enormous violence, from the End of Days violence, that lay in wait for us after liberation.

‘Obsessed With My Balls’

When you live in a country governed by a party that jams cell signals and sends thugs after the opposition in the most important of its democratic institutions, then you must admit to yourself that you live a security state, or at the very least a state that acts like a security state. And while the ANC’s bumbling efforts in this regard remind us that they are systemically dysfunctional—there is nothing that they can’t screw up, including screwing up freedom of expression—they do have all of the state’s resources behind them, and I’d wager that they’ll eventually get this specific item appropriately actioned.

It’s also worth noting that all the players got exactly what they wanted from Thursday night’s proceedings. The ANC were determined not to address the Nkandla issue, and they didn’t. They were determined to stick to their Good Story to Tell narrative, and they did. They were determined to gloss over the fact that this country’s electricity grid is falling apart and robbing the economy of billions, any meaningful economic growth, and millions of jobs; they were determined to ignore the fact that our water grid is next up. Zuma’s SONA address was rehearsed in front of a mirror, and it was given in front of a mirror—a house full of his fawning, adoring minions, the gentlemen and ladies that form his vast, sticky web of patronage. He peppered the speech with his signature “heh, heh, heh” chuckle, once man-of-the-people ingratiating, now a tic belonging to an ingrate. Indeed, Daily Maverick’s Greg Nicolson captured him stifling just such a chuckle when Julius Malema, his wayward son, was physically accosted by the Men in Black.

It will go on historical record that the president of this country giggled as he played at being Don Corleone.

But who is Jacob Zuma? He used to say, in the heady days of late December 2007, just as he won complete power in Polokwane, that he was an empty vessel and the ANC members should fill him with ideas. Today, he is an empty vessel filled with power, existing for the sake of that power, empty of everything except power. He cannot “come to his senses” because he no longer has senses; he cannot “wake up”, because there is nothing to wake up to except the absoluteness of his power. He cannot manoeuvre politically, because he long ago made his last move to shore up his power absolutely. He is the single most dangerous leader this country could possibly have had, because he has nowhere to go—he may have spun his web of patronage, but he is caught in it too, seemingly until the end of days. So he cannot work within reality, but must instead create a reality in which to work. Ergo, his SONA 2015, which was an act of universe building, and in turn the act of a man who works for power alone.

The DA, happily, also got what they wanted. They emerged looking like the sober opposition party in a state that is falling apart—when they walked out of the House, they did so in a “disciplined” fashion. I spoke with Mmusi Maimane a few days after SONA and he sounded genuinely disturbed by everything that had unfolded. He is one of the world’s great believers in institutions, and he was watching one crumble before his eyes. But what was he going to do about it? “While this family feud goes on between Zuma and Malema, we don’t focus on anything else,” he complained. “The most vital issue here is how do we strengthen Parliament to do its job? When President Zuma fails to address a sitting, the Speaker has to deal with that! When she instructed police to enter the chamber, it becomes dangerous. It can only escalate violence within the chamber—and we have to ask for a judicial intervention.”

Ah, yes, judicial intervention. And with the entire judiciary present for the proceedings, it would be nice to know who is going to hear such a case, given that the recusals will fall like so many MP austerity provisions. Which is a point Julius Malema made at his lively presser the day after he was worked over by the Men in Black. He was not sorry, he told us, about his party’s behaviour. He would not back down. The EFF were justified in their right to ask The Question, and he was proud of the way he had outplayed his old masters. When I asked him how he hoped to assist in governing this country, considering that democracy is the dark art of co-operation, he gave a non-answer, which suggested that co-operation is not in his interests—which, of course, it manifestly is not. The EFF will not help govern, he implied. They will only disrupt.

So everyone emerged a winner, which is to say we all emerged losers. And Malema, undiminished by the violence, welcoming it even, used his assault as a punch line. “One of them was even obsessed with my balls,” he told us. “Pulling them, pulling!—I hope we’ll be able to still have kids.”

South Africa knew exactly how he felt.

Inyenzi

And no one knew it better than the disparate punters at Twankey Bar. The mood was sullen, resigned, ragged, worn out. When I walked back over to Parliament after the violence had played out, the ambiance was similarly grim. It would only get worse as the days wore on. As reported in this newspaper, the men who took care of the EFF belonged to the Public Order Police (POPS), and had been training for this day for some time. One of the geniuses among their number posted details to his Facebook profile page—an example of the thugs upon whom the ANC have become so reliant—writing in Afrikaans, “To all the members of POPS Cape Town, I wish you strength and thank you for a helluva month. Particularly the guys in my platoon…Ps. Don’t worry, at some stage in the near future we’ll go back into Parliament for old Julius! LoL.” [One big sic].

LOL indeed. But what this really means is that the ANC has created a Republican Guard to protect the president and his people in Parliament—I hope I’m not insulting your intelligence when I point out that this is a mighty contravention of the Constitution. And the offences have just piled up. Addressing the ANC’s North West provincial conference on Saturday, Baleka Mbete noted that, “If we don't work we will continue to have cockroaches like Malema roaming all over the place.” Now, “cockroach” is a loaded word in the African context, given that in its Kinyarwandan iteration “inyenzi” was used to dehumanise Tutsis before they were slaughtered on an industrial scale in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In the real world, Baleka Mbete never goes near the Speaker’s chair again. In the real world, she’s shuffling papers in the Kabul High Commission until she evaporates into history.

But this ain’t the real world. On Tuesday, the president is expected in Parliament to answer questions regarding a speech that no one heard. Will he show? At this point, that barely matters. That this country, under this system, cannot be governed without Parliament and the commissions, does not count anymore, because chaos has become the point. The prize is the wards on the other end of the 2016 municipal elections, and the country on the other end of the 2019 general elections. Disorder is the highest stage of order, which is another way of saying it’s a great campaigning technique.

And so I left the Parliamentary precinct to chase down another mini-riot, just before the president wrapped up his endless address. Zuma’s voice boomed from the speakers over deserted, rain-slicked Cape Town streets, his speech bouncing off buildings and echoed back at itself. In all this sonic recycling I could not make out one coherent sentence, one coherent policy, one small glimmer of hope.

“Heh, heh, heh,” I heard the president cackle, each fake laugh resonating like the fake mortar blasts that had borne him into the Parliament he had worked so long and hard to destroy. This was his big night. He didn’t flub a line. DM

Photo: ...The second the EFF MPs were driven out, there was a cheer from the ANC. And President Zuma, surrounded by his own security, chuckled. (Greg Nicolson)

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa

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