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3 December 2016 17:32 (South Africa)
South Africa

Trainspotter: How the erection and removal of a banner explains South African politics

  • 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
Photos of the Overbeek building in Cape Town by Reuters and EWN.

Last weekend, a mysterious personage paid for a Zuma Must Fall banner to hang from a prominent Cape Town apartment building called the Overbeek. On the weekend, it was ripped down by ANC-affiliated folks who were not gentle in their methods. The whole thing tells the story of the current state of South African politics, and hints at the violence we seem to be willing ourselves towards. By RICHARD POPLAK.

1. Rashtag

Perhaps you remember how all of this started? The #ZumaMustFall initiative was kicked off by an agglomeration of concerned parties following the president’s firing of his suddenly revered finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene. It was the 13th of December: the Rand tanked, the markets dove, and suddenly “civil society” was heaving a hashtag campaign along the same electronic ruts carved out by #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. The whole gambit reeked of appropriation and political callowness, and in the campaigners’ self-righteous certainty that the country needed someone tamer at the helm—Cyril, do you copy?—they seemed to forget how quiet they were when, say, Zuma’s government presided over the murder of 34 miners in Marikana.

Remember that hashtag campaign? Nah, me neither. Worse, while #ZumaMustFall was not directly responsible for everything bad that has happened to the country, it must shoulder the, ahem, rap for the following:

The upshot of all this? #ZumaMustFall seemed to rouse the old codger from his Gupta-induced trance. Meanwhile, the ANC—punch-drunk and swaying from the Nene debacle—quickly got its shit together, turned outrage-o-meter to 11, and deemed #ZumaMustFall both “racist” and “treasonous”.

Zuma took it one step further: at a recent speech at a Jacob Zuma Foundation fundraising reach-around, the president offered a lament for the derision he receives from certain circles of South African society:

They can’t believe that you come from a poor background and that you have managed to make something of yourself and so they try to make a laughing stock out of you. They try to make you feel like you are not capable and make you feel like you don’t know what you are doing and [you are] just useless.”

Implication: any reference to my (English) diction, economic background or lack of education is either classist, racist or both. And while that’s largely true, you probably shouldn’t feel too bad for the guy. Zuma can’t read large numbers and doesn’t seem to know how sizeable Africa is relative to the rest of the world, but neither his backers or his detractors expected the second coming of Stephen Hawking. Instead, they anticipated a dutiful and canny CEO of SA Inc., mostly because he is one of the finest political operators this country has ever produced. Zuma makes his opponents both inside and outside the ANC look like big, coddled infants; he is the boss because his faction is the toughest, tightest, crookedest and nastiest in the history of a 104-year-old political entity.

Jacob Zuma practices the politics of the belly better than the next guy, and he’s immune to your dumbass hashtags.

2. Illegal Erections?

Well, mostly immune. Flash forward to last weekend, when a person or persons of mysterious providence emblazoned a six-story Zuma Must Fall banner across the façade of a Cape Town apartment block called the Overbeek. There it stood, a big middle finger with windows, slap-bang in the centre of the Democratic Alliance’s Wolf’s Lair.

Who is the fearless political operator/s who paid for the banner? We do not know yet. How much did it cost? According to most reports, around R600,000. Was the banner legal? Here’s where things get tricky: the building sits at the prominent Long Street/Kloof Street intersection, and is regularly used as billboard for such genuinely evil institutions as Standard Bank. But this was unambiguously a political message, and no lesser authority than the City of Cape Town has insisted that the banner was illegal. How so?

The city has never been big on specifics when playing politics.

The banner hanger was a dude named Brent Dyssell, managing director of Independent Outdoor Media, and in a recorded telephone conversation with an outraged Overbeek resident he said that, “The message is a positive one, it’s meant to be one that stimulates debate. That is all, it’s not hate speech.”

It was indeed not hate speech, at least not according to the current laws of this land. It was, however, a six-story banner calling for the felling of the president, erected at a time that South Africans are battling with the meaning and limits of free speech—calling it “positive” is a bit of a stretch. At the very least, it was a graceless act, engineered by people with a gold-plated sense of entitlement, and it is difficult to imagine a country in which a massive advert like this one could occupy prime real estate in a major city without some sort of action being taken by the president and his backers.

But now we come to the part where action is taken—and because we live in a bad place filled with bad people, it wasn’t the right kind of action. Enter the ANC’s Western Cape branch and their Youth League cronies, whose rationale went like this: the “illegal erection” (not my words—I lifted them from an actual ANC press release) was racist and therefore deserving of extra-legal removal methods. On Saturday afternoon, a sympathetic Overbeek resident was said to allow 50 or so ANCYL supporters into the building. They rushed through the hallways, and hit the roof—literally. The banner was torn and toppled, but not before things got a little brown-shirty. There was jostling, yelling, punching and general intimidation of Overbeek residents. This was mob action—no other way to describe it—and it would be naïve to imagine it didn’t have tacit backing from the top. On Facebook, now the official publishing house of the South African idiot, ANC MP Bongani Mkongi called for the Overbeek and its residents to be swallowed by a revolutionary conflagration, a statement the ANC has since distanced itself from.

In that statement’s sequel, released on Monday night, the ANC attributed the Overbeek banner to a DA conspiracy. “The gigantic and expensive billboard, sponsored by the privileged and wealthy racists of the DA, had all the malicious intent to racially polarise and incite political tensions with a view to distract public attention from the increasing levels of racism both inside and outside the ranks of the DA.”

In other words, the DA was being racist in order to distract public attention from its own racist behaviour.

Next stop: lasers on sharks.

3. Debate Stimulus Package

All of this noise, all of this high-grade, plutonium-packed, centrifuge-whirled stupidity suits the political class just fine. There’s no way to have a conversation in South Africa, because no one is interested in listening to opposing points of view. The #ZumaMustFall campaign was as dumb as it comes—sending 70 thugs to rip down a banner was equally daft.

When South Africans say that they don’t trust their politicians and they have no idea who they’d vote for even if they did vote, this is exactly what they’re talking about.

The insensitivity, the moral bankruptcy, the hypocrisy, the tacit threat of violence underlining all of it: this is life in the Year of the Sparrow. The banner hanger wanted to “stimulate debate”—he should’ve worked on his opening statement. Meanwhile, nothing justifies the (tacitly encouraged) mob action that felled the debate stimulus package.

And yet, in this small, very South African story, we have all the elements that comprise our political reality, one that is summed up by the fact that some golden-hearted lug has now hung a luscious, premium quality South African flag off the Overbeek’s façade:

What does that flag represent in the Year of the Sparrow? #ZumaMustFall vs. #ZumaMustBrawl. Sign o’ the times. DM

Photos of the Overbeek building in Cape Town by Reuters and EWN.

  • 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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