South Africa

HANNIBAL ELECTOR: Braai-ing with BEE—why can’t the ANC buy love from those it has enriched?

By Richard Poplak 10 March 2014

In an upscale braai house in Bryanston, Hannibal Elector learns that among a cohort that has benefited mightily from ANC policy, the love is by no means automatic, or shared. By RICHARD POPLAK.

The Mash Braai House, in Sloane Square, Bryanston, is deep in the heart of BEE country. On a Sunday afternoon, after the rain has swept through and left the parking lot resembling the banks of a muddy river, the Range Rovers and BMWs arrive, followed by fat middle-aged men on motorcycle cruisers they can’t ride. Mash inhabits an abandoned Nando’s outlet in a busy strip mall, and the owners haven’t bothered to gussy up the exterior. They let the brands outside sell the beef inside: Dolce, Givenchy, Louis, Heineken, Romeo y Julieta. And today, one more brand, this one scoured of its former luster: the ANC Youth League, Rivonia Heroes Branch, Ward 106.

Last Sunday, City Press reported that the ANC’s internal polls put the party at 45 percent “at best” in Gauteng. Were the elections to be held tomorrow, the ANC would need a coalition partner to continue misgoverning, and that’s causing some displeasure among the faithful. A mobilization drive, dubbed Operation Mayihlome (gird for battle), has been initiated. And while Mayihlome is mostly designed for the townships, the leaders of Rivonia Heroes have deemed it necessary to remind democracy’s bling-encrusted winners of just who put them in Prada in the first place.

“Nah, we just wanted to reinforce,” Dumisani Hlongwane tells me, after I ask him if the crowd at Mash is buying what he’s selling. “This is one of the places people chill on a Sunday. We don’t want to take them for granted. We want to meet and greet and say hello. And it’s also a time for them to state their grievances.” Hlongwane is an enormous man wearing shorts, sandals and a white ANC golf shirt. He belongs to an investment outfit called Diarora Holdings, and has brought his young son along. “We just want to remind people that the brand is in their area.” Since Julius Malema was canned from the ANCYL, leaving the coffers bare, the organisation has taken a dive—a fact that Dumisani disputes. “The only thing we don’t have is his loud mouth. We still stand for the same things.”

We stand on Mash’s patio in a cloud of meat and cigar smoke. The ANCYL members have gathered around a picnic table, drinking Cokes and Fantas, while Mash’s real clientele smash through buckets of beer and bottles of wine. They tolerate the ANC in their midst as they would an ancient order of high priests—an order once worshipped by their great-great grandparents—and take the manifesto brochures Hlongwane hands them as they would the offerings of a gently crazed sangoma. But if you’re of the impression that there is unanimous support for the ANC among those who have benefitted most from their tenure—and on this wet day Mash is nothing if not an alluvial Black Diamond mine—please think again.

“Hey Fighter!” yells a patron at someone in yellow. There is nervous laughter—everyone gets the joke, or rather pretends that it’s a joke. The “Fighter” honorific belongs to members of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. These here are Comrades. But no one is referring to them that way.

“Oh, sure,” says Hlongwane, “the challenge to the ANC is that the EFF has come on board. It’s not something that we should be worried about. We just need to engage with our voters.”

“Yes,” I say. “But don’t the poll numbers concern you?”

“Ja,” says Hlongwane, “it’s just indicative of the work we have to do. This isn’t America—the polling numbers have never been that reliable in this country.”

He wants me to consider the demographics of Ward 106. The area is shaped like a tomahawk tipped on its side, and it encompasses Bryanston, Rivonia, parts of Woodmead, stretching all the way to Magaliesig, and even touching on Alexandra. In all, it’s about as significant a petri dish of Gauteng society as one could hope for. But while the votes will come from the townships—and with this in mind, Rivonia Heroes just delivered ten laptops to Alexandra Secondary School—the perception of the ANC is driven by the people inside Mash. The trendsetters. If they’ve abandoned the brand, that means the brand is dying, and those yellow t-shirts will one day be used to clean the grease off the half-a-million rand motorcycles parked in front of us.

“The ANC’s greatest crime?” asks Nceba Nonkwele, a man in his early thirties wearing a blazer over his ANC regalia. “We just don’t defend our record. You heard President Zuma saying over the past few weeks—‘we have a good story to tell’. But given our Ubuntu system, we’re just too reserved. The ANC does not talk about its greatest achievements. Look around you! You can see the ANC has created entrepreneurs.”

Um, yes. But…

“Ai!” exclaims Nonkwele, who told me earlier that he’s director and shareholder in Nonkwele Holdings. “You think I go to an ANC meeting and they pass around a bucket of opportunities? And I take an opportunity and win. This is a false perception. An absolutely false perception.”

I’m not sure if it’s because the DJ has hardened up the beats, or whether the Mamelodi Sundowns destroying mid-leaguers Amazulu on the big screen has upset the nerves of Kaizer Chiefs fans, but the mood has shifted. There’s sullenness in the air, most of it directed at the ANC table. An IT professional named Ntoni, recently decamped from Cape Town, walks over to me with a glass of white wine in hand.

“Listen,” he slurs, “anyone here will tell you the same thing. These guys are doing nothing. Nothing. Just taking, taking. I support Juju and the boys. I do. But when I vote, I have to be true to myself.”

But what does he have to complain about, given that black tech professionals during the apartheid years…

“Hey,” he says, turning on me, “I work hard. I studied fucking hard. No one has done anything for me, except maybe my parents. No way. I won’t accept that.”

We’re joined by Sebetse, wearing the single largest Stormers rugby jersey ever haberdasheried. “You know what would be nice?” he asks. “If they”—he points to the ANCYL table—“could invent waterproof potholes. Or get robots that work in the rain.”

Ah, potholes and operational traffic lights—the oft-mocked bane of the middle-classes. The reigning symbols of rot among those who eat; but regimes have tumbled for less. As more drinks get slogged back, and as the patrons of Mash spread themselves onto the parking lot, the anger is more viciously expressed than it is in the direst township. In one of the centres of BEE-dom, where the young nouveau riche gather to pay five times more for chisa nyama than they would in Thembisa, I’m reminded of the oldest of revolutionary maxims: the fat and ostensibly happy will be the first to burn your palace down. And for a country to be truly divided, like this one is, it’s not enough for there to exist divisions between classes, creeds, tribes. The self, too, must be divided.

“Sure, I’ve done well. But this hasn’t worked out,” says Ntoni. “You’ll see, my bra,” he adds, waving his grease-smudged wine glass in my face. “You’ll see.”

The ANCYL table is now creaking under the weight of several elderly women. A young cadre member joins me on the railing.

“This kind of life,” he says, nodding his head toward three women waddling on stripper shoes into the restaurant, “is not going to take me forward. I’m a young person. It’s crazy. The black child thinks when you get a bit of money, you buy a flashy car. A lot of these people don’t even own property, they buy the car first—and there’s a huge debate about land in this country. Nah, bra. It’s short term lifestyle.”

“These people, do you think they even vote?” I ask.

“Sure they do. Sure they do.” But that’s only half a sentence from an election campaigner. But I know what we’re both thinking—even for people who buy their shades from airport malls in Zurich, the political brand of 2014 is EFF, and not the bunch of old ladies drinking Fanta on the picnic table to the right of us.

“Let me ask you,” says my new friend, nodding toward the devolving scene outside restaurant. “Is this progression?”

I’m a bit taken aback by the question. “You mean Mash? I don’t know,” I say.

“Think about it. Is it progression?” he insists.

“Well, this wasn’t possible twenty years ago. But I don’t think that’s what you mean when you say progression.”

“Hmm.” He takes a sip of his Coke. “This is going to get us nowhere.”

I’m not sure if he’s referring to our conversation, or to the people drinking around us, or to something more general, like, say, the country. When I look for him five minutes later to clarify, he’s gone. I dip my hand into a beer bucket: when in Rome, any distraction from the decline and fall must be welcomed. Even if it’s Heineken. DM


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