Where has the time gone
26 May 2016 22:10 (South Africa)
South Africa

Trainspotter: SONA 2016 – behold the Zombie Apocalypse

  • 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
Photo: South Africa's Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Jacob Zuma stand before the State of the Nation address at the opening session of Parliament in Cape Town, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

SONA 2016 was bigger, dumber and crasser than its predecessor. But the story isn’t the Economic Freedom Fighters staging a walkout. It’s the fact that Jacob Zuma still has this country’s number. By RICHARD POPLAK.

“Whoa, it’s like they’re preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse,” said the barista with the short-term-thinking body art, his espresso machine hissing in violent agreement. He was referring to the tangle of barbed wire he’d skateboarded past in order to get to work. Adderley Street, along with much of the rest of downtown Cape Town, was in the process of being SONA-fied—countless of metres of A-grade razor wire manned by thousands of overweight cops stuffed into Kevlar cladding.

Early signs that the country’s most absurd and useless pageant was about to get underway.

This barista served not only some fine-ass coffee, but also the most astute political analysis I’d yet heard about the proceedings. What was this but the Zombie Apocalypse? The undead corpse of President Jacob Zuma was soon to lurch its way toward the parliamentary lectern. Would the zombie slayers on the benches leap up to jam a figurative axe into his closely shaved noggin, or would he be left to drone away unmolested?

“Bru, it’s gonna be mental,” insisted the barista.

Outside, suitably caffeinated, I bumped into Bernard Joseph, the EFF chairperson for the Western Cape. Sly Joseph is an old operator, with a political career that stretches back into the Paleolithic age. He was in full dissembling mode.

“We have bussed in hundreds of supporters,” he told me, putting the numbers at more than 2,000. He hoped to link up his contingent with the Zuma Must Fall march that was departing from Green Market Square at 13:00 sharp. Meanwhile, we could hear on Adderley the first murmurings of the Ses’khona march, an ANC-backed movement that bore a banner reading “DA Have Hatred Against Black People.” The city was now a chessboard rigged to blow, but Joseph promised me that the EFF would match their numbers with discipline. “Our structures will not provoke law enforcement,” he promised.

That was the first lie of the day.

* * *

Above, a plane dragging a banner reading: “DA Together For Jobs.”

Below, a spirited discourse between an array of political entities: sad, small open-air plenary discussions involving the Pan African Congress, #FeesMustFall, the ANC, the EFF, and the sweaty, heavily-armed moderators in their too big helmets. The cops roared around in their Nyalas, U-turned their water cannons, hopped pavements on their off-road bikes. Downtown looked like the mansion of an ex-husband of a Kardashian enjoying an endless bender. The occasional boom of stun grenades served as the soundtrack.

Watch: SONA 2016 - Day of protests turns violent (By Daily Maverick Chronicle)

On Parliament Street, late model SUVs were pulling into the precinct, discharging the country’s blessed and high born onto a red carpet. Here unfolded the single stupidest ritual on the South African calendar: the media/celebrity/politician group sex session ingeniously elevated by Zuma to the most important event of the year. His brilliance has resulted in a gruesome daisy chain: journalists scrumming around fat rich people wearing couture, while the heads of serious publications service Power by Tweeting assessments of clothing. Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who should’ve shown up in sober slacks and something with shoulder pads, wore what looked to be the corpse of the world’s largest, deadest canary—and this, consensus allowed, was considered to be a good thing.

Bread?

Nah, Mr. Brecht. We’ll stick with circuses.

Meanwhile, less than 500 metres away from this display of BMWs and Breitlings, running battles were underway on the street. Between the two universes, a DMZ manned by bored men wearing un-ironic, un-revolutionary fatigues.

“Is that a water cannon?” asked a passerby, pointing to a water canon.

“Yup,” I said.

“Good,” she said, pointing to the protestors on the street. “They could use a good wash.”

Here I’m forced to break the journalistic fourth wall and assure you that that was actually said to me, and it was not, I don’t think, a joke.

* * *

Like most sequels, SONA 2016 was proving to be bigger in budget, crasser, dumber, and much more threatening than its predecessor. Following a blue-light train that would have flattered Vladimir Putin, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma was delivered to both his friends and enemies, as if to the doors of a mortuary. He looked ashen, unwell, unmotivated—the walking dead.

Something funny then occurred on the way to the second great SONA disaster of the post-2014 election era. You’ll read much about the disruptions perpetrated by the youthful opposition and some analysts will even try to explain parliamentary rules to you.

Ignore them. You’ll learn nothing.

(Actually, that’s not true: if you paid any attention to Speaker of the House Baleka Mbete, you know that you were watching a person’s soul rotting inside what looked to be a wearable doily.)

Turns out, the most interesting thing about the state of the nation address was the address itself. Not for what was said—that was bullshit. But for what was not said.

Jacob Zuma spoke at length about economy. He did not mention firing his finance minister. He spoke about the platinum sector. He could not bring himself to utter the word “Marikana.” He spoke about the “demon of racism”, even promising to inaugurate an anti-racism day. He said nothing about systemic, structural racism. He mentioned the maligned, rotting state owned enterprises. He claimed they were doing just beautifully.

We are constantly told that the greatest strength—and by extension, the only hope—for this beleaguered country rests on the fact that we’re all free to denounce the president in any way we’d like. Paint his dick, shout him down in parliament, publish the details of his ridiculously crooked activities. Sure his people moan. But when was the last time a punter spent a night in jail for rampant Zuma-phobia?

The reason this president doesn’t bury journalists alive and cook his political opponents in frying oil is because he doesn’t live here. By “here”, I mean on earth. He lives in an altered state, inside a small bubble that is only occasionally burst. He doesn’t need self-respect or dignity—he has power and money and praise singers and a sangoma who is always right. His greatest weapon is his ability to ignore. The kleptocracy he presides over is so refined, its machinery so ancient, that Zuma can read a Kafka-esque speech in front of hundreds of his quislings, and the fake becomes real. He invents reality by creating absences, and he fills those holes with clothing pageants.

Zuma is not the zombie. We are the undead, stumbling around with our pants around our ankles, dribbling gore from our eyeballs. Regardless of how the president’s political enemies behaved in the Big House on the big night, he still got the last word in. All reigns collapse, but for the meantime he runs a powerful mafia gorging itself on state resources. And what do we do?

Pull out our selfie sticks and take pictures of expensive hats.

The barista was right: the zombie apocalypse is underway. We’re all undead, so stay calm, friends, and drink espresso. DM

Photo: South Africa's Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Jacob Zuma stand before the State of the Nation address at the opening session of Parliament in Cape Town, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.

  • 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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