Mental floss for the discerning
29 July 2016 00:14 (South Africa)
South Africa

Trainspotter: When the ANC marched against Racism, and railed at The Great Satan

  • 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
Main photo: Leaders Gwede Mantashe, Jessie Duarte & Fikile Mbalula lead the party's unity march in Pretoria. Picture: Christa Eybers/EWN

On Friday, the ANC took to the streets. It was a party the likes of which only the Big Boys can throw, and in the throwing they took on the Biggest Boy of all. The ANC's secretary-general Gwede Mantashe wants us to know that the Great Satan is in our midst. And Barack Obama is gunning for Jacob Zuma’s job. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Over the course of the past several months, I have marched about 40 kiliometres—just about the equivalent of a marathon. The exhausted, eponymous Pheidippides of Robert Burton’s famous poem ran from Sparta to Athens and arrived lamenting, No care for my limbs!—there's lightning in all and some—/Fresh and fit your message to bear, once lips give it birth!” He warned that the Persians were planning an attack, and then he perished. Much like the father of long distance endeavour, I come carrying news:

'My feet hurt.'

The current South African marching season has been unusually frenetic. It was kicked off last November by the Unite Against Corruption coalition, who revived the classic Burgess Park to Union Building route, with a small but charmingly disparate group of (mostly white) folk freshly experiencing the pleasures of political activism. Since then, I have marched for the following:

Democracy, unity, constitutionalism, non-racialism, the sanctity of Chapter 9 institutions, 8.3 million real jobs, black consciousness, Jacob Zuma, hashtags, white monopoly capital.

And I have marched against:

Racism, disunity, corruption, statues, fees, outsourcing, Jacob Zuma, the Guptas, the Zuptas, white monopoly capital.

I do not for a second believe that marching season is over—this is, after all, an election year—but it has been punctuated with an exclamation mark in the form of last Friday’s African National Congress effort. The ANC are experts at saying one thing while selling something else: this was on the surface a rally pillorying Sparrowist utterances and other forms of racist discourse. But it was effectively the launch of the governing party’s municipal election campaign. Lead by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, the march for Unity, Democracy and Non-racialism was the special-effects-laden blockbuster to the other parties’ boring European art films.

I’d argue that when motivated, no political entity in the world throws a better hoedown than the ANC. For anyone confused about the sheer might of incumbency, or for anyone hoping to illustrate the breathtaking power of Power, look no further than Luthuli House. Sure, the ANC bumbles their way through the business of governance, but that’s because their business is not governance—it is the capture and exercise of power. And they capture power by activating their base, by owning the streets, by reaching out into the farthest flung regions of this sizeable nation with those brilliantly yellow t-shirts and a message: we rule until Jesus comes.

They are a massive, wireless, unstoppable, AMG-designed, precision-sharpened political threshing machine.

Behold the eight brand-new Ford Ranger bakkies emblazoned with Jacob Zuma’s face, bearing megaphones blaring struggle songs. Watch the busses roar into Tshwane, disgorging thousands wearing iconic yellow. Dodge a convoy of gleaming late model SUVs within which heavyset men whisper sweet mafia-isms into burners. Above, a prop plane and several choppers tracking the proceedings. Below, the masses.

Photo by Richard Poplak.

Other parties march. The ANC marshals a roving city. Were these rent-a-crowds? So what? No one else has the bank to buy crowds this large, and the perception of power is as good as the real thing. Here’s what you don’t see at other rallies: random hotel staff and construction crews singing along as the crowds pass by. Gogos crossing the street to yell “Amandla” and “Viva ANC!”.

Genuine, unbridled love.

And frankly, if you’re the Pheidippides of South African political marches, you could do worse than an ANC event. Their marchers are nice. Hungry? Here, enjoy a handful of Fritos. Thirsty? How about some Iron Bru? The vibe is chill and celebratory, rather than shrill and genocidal—the power is worn like a silk kimono. If you think the House Jacob Zuma unbuilt is collapsing into nothingness, well, that’s the political equivalent of performing your own proctology examination.

The ANC is still a thing.

* * *

At the press conference the day before the Big Walk, Uncle Gweezy told the assembled reporters that, “the march is meant to mobilise society [against racism]. It’s not a protest march. It’s a march where encourages everybody to start a conversation. When people get angry I am not surprised, because there is some positive that comes out from that.”

There’s certainly a lot of positive for the ANC, mostly at the expense of the Democratic Alliance—a party rocked every couple of months by a politician or a rank-and-file member doing or saying something vastly unkind. Want demonstrable proof that racists are idiots? The party they loathe beyond measure benefits immeasurably from their racism.

To wit: by midday, the Union Building lawn was jammed with about 15,000 yellow t-shirts. The masses were fenced off from the leadership, who stood astride the biggest party bus in the business, their gleaming SUVs lined up waiting to whisk them back to their provincial lairs. When you are this big—when you are the gaseous dwarf star around which galaxies orbit—you get to create reality. And in this reality, the ANC is comprised of a bunch of old struggle vets petitioning the president for an Anti-Racism day. In this reality, the ANC and the state are two distinct entities. In this reality, the ANC are the maligned underdogs, and the only party fighting for unity, for democracy, for democratic unity.

Which brings us to a tasty conceptual problem: how do you bash racism when it is your job to uphold and perpetuate the structures of a fundamentally racist society? Easy: find scapegoats. Gauteng Premier David Makhura spent his time on the party stage painting the DA as a racist vampire scourge sucking out the brains of township youth. Ace Magashule, the Free State’s premium-Mercedes driving premier, was less creative but more strident. “The party of racism is the DA,” speaker after speaker insisted.

But this was the secretary-general’s day, and he would not be upstaged. Looking stout and grizzled, swaggering like an aged Rick Ross, Gweezy started out slow but heated up quickly. By mid-speech, he was fulminating like an Iranian mullah. The Great Satan, he intimated, was among us—fomenting dissent, promoting regime change, tumbling the statues and agitating for the fall of fees. “We are aware of the programme,” he spat, “that takes young people to the United States for six weeks then bring them back and plant them everywhere in the campuses.”

The programme in question, it would seem, is the Mandela Washington Fellowship. As far as the un-covert online application goes, it doesn’t appear to be a NSA psi-op but one of those ubiquitous scholarships that teach ex-colonial subjects how to become well behaved neoliberals. Gweezy himself was aware of this programme, American Ambassador Patrick Gaspard later insisted on Twitter, because he was personally invited to recommend ANC leaders for it.

Doesn’t matter. The Americans invent their own reality in Washington DC. Pretoria is the ANC’s reality generator. “We're aware of meetings taking place at US embassy,” continued Gweezy, “they're about nothing else but regime change.”

Will South Africa be the next Afghanistan? The next Iraq? Will the CIA perform a Lumumba on Zuma? Does Barack Obama, the man with the shittiest job in the world want the second shittiest? Are the Yanks coming for our chickens?

Of course they are.

When Gweezy was done auditioning for the Taliban, the crowds drifted back to the busses, and a petition decrying racism was handed over to the president’s office. The ANC’s new reality was setting like gelatin pudding in the baking late summer air. But the unreal world simmering under the marketing guff also belongs to the ANC. They are not solely responsible for every ill that bedevils South Africa. But they have been running the show for over twenty years. It is Power’s prerogative to pretend powerlessness. In the ANC’s version of things, they are not the message but the messenger, sprinting marathon after marathon bearing petitions and pleas, and dying so that we—the people—may benefit from their sacrifice. DM

Additional reporting by Bheki Simelane.

Main photo: Leaders Gwede Mantashe, Jessie Duarte & Fikile Mbalula lead the party's unity march in Pretoria. Picture: Christa Eybers/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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