Gather around White people and fed up Black middle-class folk – it’s story time. What would life look like if Mmusi Maimane and his celebrity mayoral candidates won South Africa’s major wards? Like a lite beer commercial, except with lots of data and more accurate messaging. RICHARD POPLAK drinks up.
1. Second Coming
In the Democratic Alliance’s hermeneutic echo chamber, Herman Mashaba is Black Jesus.
In many respects, the haircare magnate and entrepreneur is the party’s perfect candidate – a self-made man of colour who hit it big during apartheid, was #blessed even further during the new dispensation, and now wants to “give back”. He’s a re-upped Mamphela Ramphele – the hypersuccessful (but resolutely awful) doctor/World Banker/UCT vice-chancellor who served for four embarrassing days as DA’s presidential candidate of back in 2014 – a black conservative who loathes any talk of handouts or affirmative action, and who believes that if the South African majority just pulled their collective socks up, the country’s “potential” would be “realised”.
He’s come to save us from ourselves.
Like Ramphele, Mashaba has for decades related his started-at-the-bottom-now-we’re-here story to rooms full of cheering corporate Whiteys. Like Ramphele, he’s mistaken his story for a political paradigm, and now hopes to transpose his own experiences onto the City of Johannesburg as the DA’s high-profile mayoral candidate. Mashaba perfectly iterates the DA’s current Weltschmerz, and if you’re hoping to find some sense in the party’s platform, anything more substantial than their “Cape Town is Frigging Awesome!” pitch, you could do worse than analysing a typical Mashaba campaign speech.
Handily, he gave one at a recent march to Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau’s office, where all of his and his party’s obsessions were firmly in evidence. He told us that there are 869,000 unemployed residents in the one-time City of Gold, “6,000 of whom joined the ranks of the unemployed during the first quarter of this year”. Mashaba’s favourite word is “jobs”, followed closely by “business”, and he used both many times in his disquisition, reminding us that South Africa’s business confidence index has hit a new record low, killing jobs. If he becomes mayor, swore Mashaba, he would create jobs, jobs and more jobs — so many jobs that jobs would have jobs.
To do so, he would perform six Homeric tasks. First, he would professionalise the public service. He’d hire the best and the brightest, and use his management experience to tell them that their main job was to create jobs. (See the Economic Freedom Fighters’ local election manifesto for more on this.) Second, he would invest in infrastructure, like Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille – in 2014/15, said Mashaba, the DA dropped R3-billion on building and upgrading new roads, whereas Mayor Tau spent only R60-million during the same time period. This, said the tycoon, is why Cape Town has so many sick-ass jobs, with an unemployment rate of 21.7%, while Jozi stalls out at a horrific 31.1%.
Next, he’d enable entrepreneurs to succeed. When he started his haircare business with a R30,000 loan back during PW Botha’s halcyon reign, our future mayor created thousands of jobs. He wants to help others do the same. To do so, he’ll remove red tape, subsidise the leasing out of commercial spaces, and establish “Innovation Centres” that will provide “information on investment opportunities, licensing, land use, planning approval procedures, regulatory compliance, investor information, and business start-up advice”. Tenders will be chopped up, and small businesses will be encouraged to enter the fray – in other words, Black Economic Empowerment for all, including Whites.
Corruption and wasteful expenditure? Gone. Employment opportunities will be expanded for “the youth”, who’ll be distracted from shooting up drugs and mugging people by a free transport allowance that will enable them to go out and find – jobs! Most important, he’ll deliver basic services for all, breaking up the Pikitup garbage collection monopoly into smaller services, while an “artisan programme” will add technicians to the City Power service.
“The DA is ready to bring change to Johannesburg,” said Mashaba the haircare magnate, “change that stops corruption, delivers better services and creates jobs. Together we can revive the economy of this great city and stimulate job creation. Together we can turn Johannesburg into a city of golden opportunities.”
A standard dose of the Democratic Alliance social democratic principles, topped with Just Do It Mashaba-isms. But can the DA’s Black Jesus really save us? Or is it a bit more complicated than all that?
2. The Message is the Message
The DA’s local elections manifesto document is called “Change That Moves South Africa Forward Again”. If it’s about anything, it’s about Cape Town. Sadly, the Mother City has become for the DA both an intellectual and a political cul–de–sac – everything begins and ends at the bottom of Africa. Meanwhile, the city’s favoured citizens think of the city as paradise. Belgian tourists post ecstatic restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor. And everyone else tries to get through the day without being knifed or starved to death.
Q: What to do about these inconstancies?
A: Reframe the messaging with adverts.
And so we now have an opposition party who counts among its most valued members a cabal of marketing executives, advertising hacks and the usual moronic captains of industry, all of whom think that there’s a direct correlation between haircare products and governing a country. The DA’s website offers zero content and a billion sound bites – by way of example, the audio for Herman Mashaba’s full campaign speech is a whopping one-and-a-half minutes long. It’s as if the site is governed by an Artificial Intelligence entity that takes humans for ADD-riddled retards.
In order to get any sense of what the Blue Army are after, one needs to keep Mashaba’s speech firmly in mind while wading through an endless series of vision statements, most notably something called “Vision 2029”. Ejaculated into the universe with much fanfare several months after Maimane was anointed president in May of last year, it’s basically a piece of multimedia speculative fiction that suggests that Earth is about to get hit by a nuclear tipped asteroid, and that we can be saved only by Helen Zille wearing a tinfoil helmet and employing telepathic convergence with an alien spacecraft.
Actually, it’s a bit more unlikely than that: in brief, “Vision 2029” posits what South Africa will look like on 9 May 2029, 10 years after the DA forms a coalition government after winning the 2019 elections. Weird thing is, it’s not comedy. It’s more of an advertising campaign that advertises advertising, a warp of non-meaning and sketchy bumper-sticker bromides. Thirteen years from now, promises the voice-over, this dynamic country will be corruption free, the economy expanding by 8% a year, and we’ll be generating jobs in a green, knowledge economy. Leaving aside the fact that green, knowledge economies are steadily erasing every task historically performed by our species, the accompanying videos are perfectly calibrated to represent South Africa’s demographic mélange – a nonracial Pixar fantasyland in which every citizen for some reason feels compelled to smile at the camera while folding their arms.
Watch: DA Vision 2029
As Mashaba’s speech makes clear, the DA’s big sell is their record in Cape Town (and to a smaller extent their work in the Gauteng ward of Midvaal). The manifesto is divided into chapters, respectively titled “Opportunity”, “Responsive Government”, “Service Delivery”, “Honest Government”, “Redress”, “Safety” and “Our Promise”. The document is studded with little “Where the DA Governs” sidebars and cutaways, which take us out of the narrative and drops us into the data.
About that: did you know the City of Cape Town has delivered 6,151 title deeds in the last year, compared to Johannesburg’s zero? It’s rolled out more than 200 public wi-fi, zones, has blocked tolling of the N1 and N2 highways, spent 67% of its budget in poor communities, offered a basket of free municipal services to the city’s poorest, and kept wasteful, unauthorised spending down to R399,000.
The data makes the DA look good, as data tends to do. But the data is only a small part of the story. The rest of the tale – livability, transformation, segregation – isn’t found in the DA’s digits. And it’s the part of the story that makes those South Africans who don’t love Cape Town despair at the thought of living in a cloned version of it.
For millions of South Africans, Cape Town isn’t a sales pitch. It’s an early warning system.
3. Third Coming
The problem with the DA is that they don’t offer a measurable ideological alternative to the ANC. It’s not as if the ruling party’s succession of policy promises, culminating in the current National Development Plan, has ever offered a workable governance model for this complicated, divided country. And yet, the DA seems to think that if it delivers an uncorrupt version of the ANC’s public/private governance mash-up, laced with the odd concession to the country’s 40-million poor, we’ll magically grow by 8% a year, and everyone will smile into the camera while folding their arms.
The DA have vision, which turns out to be the problem: they don’t understand the dynamics of running a vastly uneven developing nation that currently has no future. The commodities super-cycle (that the ANC slept on) is over; another generation has been erased by a ruinous education system. We need to start having conversations about progress without growth, and about highly localised governance that serves people rather than business development. In this, the EFF’s totally unworkable manifesto is closer to what this country requires than the DA’s “Change That Moves South Africa Forward Again”.
What the party certainly hasn’t clocked onto, and what their constant shilling of Cape Town seems to imply, is that their policy initiatives will not address South Africa’s country’s oceanic inequality gaps, but will instead maintain them. Cape Town, for all its infrastructural development and “growth”, is a Thomas Picketty tome made manifest. Its demographic and spacial realities have changed so little since the old days that it serves not as an alternative to, but as an emblem of, the new gilded age.
We used to call that shit apartheid. Now we call it the country’s urban success story.
The one thing the DA has in their favour, of course, is the ANC’s self-destruction. Zuma’s clowns have screwed up Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality so thoroughly that a donkey couldn’t make it worse. Tshwane is also a mess, and the DA’s Solly Msimanga deserves to find himself in a coalition to fix the joint. In Ekurhuleni, another total bombsite, the DA has parachuted ex-ANC stalwart, Ghaleb Cachalia, who has less than no governance experience. And in Johannesburg, current mayor Parks Tau is a sophisticated technocrat who truly understands the complexities of urban development, and has steadily built the institutions necessary to spacially transform the city. (He may have been out-yapped by Mashaba and the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu at the Daily Maverick Gathering’s mayoral debate, but he is by no means running Africa’s premier city into the ground.) As of this writing, Tau has not been confirmed as the ANC’s candidate – if they remove him from the list, the ANC must go.
Mmusi Maimane is correct in saying that these municipal elections are the most important since 1994. It’s just a shame his party’s policies haven’t caught up to that reality. The hermeneutic echo chamber needs some other voices. In these viciously contested elections, Black Jesus, who considers Cape Town to be his promised land, will not end up with the final word. DM
Photo: Leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, Mmusi Maimane (C) at the launch of the party’s election manifesto in Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 April 2016. EPA/KEVIN SUTHERLAND