The Tuesday following SONA was a very busy day. There were press conferences and rebuttals and debates. Stars were made, blows were landed. But are we any closer to clarity? By RICHARD POPLAK.
When the devolution is complete—when our progeny use the bones of their enemies to etch unintelligible runes onto the ruins of our governing institutions—the post-SONA 2015 hubbub has functioned as a warp-jump into the future. In an age in which IS rivals Apple for brand recognition, and in which the coding glitch that occurred at some point in our development has finally bugged out completely, South Africa still functions as a social laboratory. Time and time again we’ve warned the world against the evils of racism, sexism, factionalism, tribalism, clientalism, unspecific and yet virulent hatred, money worship, and stupidity. Yet we’re awful at heeding our own advice. In the steaming Jurassic swamp that awaits our children, where pterodactyls screech through our empty cities and townships, rusted hard drives will hold the memory of days that were filled with raucous warnings.
The Tuesday following the State of the Nation Address that plunged the country into a political crisis looked much like any Tuesday during a political crisis—very, very busy. Reporters sprinted from press conferences to Parliamentary sessions, buzzing on Red Bull, codeine, and (unjammed) carcinogenic smartphone signals. In Johannesburg, a dissident EFF MP’s rent-a-thug pointed a gun at journalists, an echo of the rent-a-thugs that accosted EFF MPs in Parliament during SONA. During her own press conference, Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete insisted that the jamming device used to jam cell signals during SONA was not a jamming device, and if it was, she had no knowledge of it, and what knowledge she did have made her certain that it was an unknowable device with inscrutable qualities.
Meanwhile, only hours later, the first of two SONA Parliamentary debate sessions got underway. The entire cast of South Africa’s mega-budgeted Avengers, minus a villain or two, had a walk-on part. The Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane acted like a populist, and the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema droned on like a wonk, a switcheroo that was somehow the least disorienting thing to happen all day.
But let’s begin where it began, with suspended renegade EFF MPs Andile Mngxitama and Kanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala finally holding the press conference they’d been threatening since a botched session in Cape Town the week before. Last Thursday, the EFF’s Western Cape caucus broke up the gabfest and ripped the branded shirt from Mngxitama’s back; this time, the dissenters had the chance to speak unmolested. The whole experience was soured somewhat when a gentleman named Lucky Twala, Mngxitama’s apparent “protector”, pointed a gun at journalists, presumably mistaking their tape recorders for snipers’ rifles. When the noise died down, it was left to Tshabalala to do most of the talking, and it is now clear that she is simply baffled by how politics is conducted in the Age of Money. Floyd Shivambu drives a Porsche, shops in Louis Vuitton, and carries on like a gilded age prince, she complained. The EFF had hired a “foreign” assassin to take care of Mngxitama, and there was—gasp!— corruption involved in the purchase of a company Golf.
In short, on a day that was filled with realpolitik, this served as a massive waste of time. None of the allegations were substantiated, none were backed up with documentation. Indeed, over the weekend an EFF accountant named Rirhandzu Baloyi sent an anguished open letter to Mngxitama, claiming that he had been swindled and pressured into delivery of private documents to gangster/agony aunt/open letter writer Gayton McKenzie and a journalist posing as Hawks operatives (allegations, it should be noted, that are unsubstantiated). It was all so ugly and sad and small, and while the Save the Soul campaign that the dissenters have launched to rehabilitate the EFF from its ideological backsliding is certain to keep vegan bookshops busy for at least a month, it will amount to nothing.
At exactly the same time, the SONA-verse coughed up a sine wave that made noise unbearable—Baleka Mbete was bullshitting the press on the opposite side of the country. She was asked many things, Mbete, but mostly she was asked about the jamming device that had rendered cellular phones inside the House inoperative on the night of SONA. This tentative and amateurish attempt at debuting a Putin-like security state was ultimately shouted down by a shouty media contingent. And what had Mbete learned about this grave contravention of the constitution in her travels since SONA?
“[I]t is an item we received as a report along with many other reports, without necessarily knowing the details or the particular effects,” she mumbled. “It was an item dealing with what measures had to be taken for the protection of the head of state and the deputy president. The media was not the target, it was not mentioned, and it was never on anybody’s mind. The report will come from owners of the device and the media can then talk to them.”
My guess is that the Guptas own the device, through a shell company within a shell company registered to Khulubuse Zuma new wife’s best friend’s nephew. But who owns anything in this country? Like The Device, our politicians are owned by shadowy figures whom the media cannot know and with whom they cannot speak. In the unaudited grey zones in which our political parties function—where they accept cheques from the Lord knows whom to do the Lord knows what—the people of this country are instantly rendered second-class citizens. In this, the wild allegations made by Mngxitama and Tshabalala have some resonance, because they are objections leveled against a politics governed by phantom money. The means of doing so—serially calling underground press conferences and slinging gossip—mimics the recourse available to the average citizen, AKA nada.
Which is another way of saying that we were all jammed long before we were jammed.
And from there, Tuesday’s devolution devolved to the SONA debates—a bunch of speeches critiquing a speech that no one was around to listen to. The dry, papery remains of our president sat before his interlocutors, many of whom were unimpressed by his non-performance during last Thursday’s cage fight. The DA’s Parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane gave the speech of his career so far, a rousing indictment of Zuma’s legacy.
“Please understand, Honourable President,” said Mamaine, “when I use the term ‘honourable’, I do it out of respect for the traditions and conventions of this august House. But please do not take it literally. For you, Honourable President, are not an honourable man. You are a broken man, presiding over a broken society.”
And while many were expecting a similarly piquant smackdown from Julius Malema, he did exactly what a brilliant strategist would do—he laid down his weapons and brought out the white board. “There is no doubt that you unduly benefited from the construction of your private residence in Nkandla,” Malema said to the man he helped install as president, “[and] you never said anything about the fact that you unduly benefited, and must pay back the money. That is a question for another day and you will answer that question on a different date.” He then took us on a wonk’s tour of the “real” State of the Nation, where children starve and university students sleep on floors like the hobos the police gun down during service delivery protests.
Many others spoke. And what seemed clearer and clearer as the day rushed along was that our species will not be undone by climate change or nuclear holocaust or the collapse of the grid.
We will be annihilated by noise.
We are being pounded flat by a rage of raucousness—we are being press-conferenced to death. All the sound amounts to nothing. What did the man ultimately accountable for everything in this country do when he was taken to task by the leader of the opposition for laughing while members of Parliament were assaulted by a hastily assembled Republican Guard last Thursday?
And it’s Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma’s laughter that our cave-man descendants will hear echoing through the ruins of this country. Ultimately, his cackle is the only noise that counts. If South Africa is a laboratory—and it is—Zuma’s “heh, heh, heh” is the sound of power caring exactly zero. Unless we can hold him to account, unless we stop pointing guns at each other, and unless we follow the money and find those that own the devices that simultaneously up the decibels while silencing us, we as people of the country that is one foot in Jurassica, don’t stand much of a chance. The pterodactyls are coming. And they’re ravenous. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma arrives ahead of the State Of the Nation Address in Cape Town, South Africa, 12 February 2015. The State of the Nation address was disrupted by the EFF resulting in the party being ordered out of the chamber by security forces. EPA/MIKE HUTCHINGS/POOL