Resistance is futile
28 March 2017 19:34 (South Africa)
South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: It was all over but the crying. And then came Khwezi.

  • 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: Silent protestors stand in front of President Jacob Zuma during his speech at the official announcement of the results for the 2016 local government elections. They held signs against gender based violence, 10 years after Zuma was acquitted on rape charges. (Greg Nicolson)

It ended. Not with a bang, but with five pieces of paper. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Uncle Gweezy drifted through the Tshwane Events Centre like a disheveled ghost. He rode the escalator up. He rode the escalator down. As the second most unpowerful man in the country, he had very little to do. His deputy, Jesse Duarte, was covering the ANC comms base, her eyes red, the stench of genuine fear rising off her. Occasionally Uncle Gweezy would hover over her shoulder as a computer monitor spat up filthy data. The ANC all but wiped out in the Western Cape. Nelson Mandela Bay gone. Tshwane gone. Under 50 percent in Ekurhuleni.

And, potentially, the loss of Johannesburg to a beauty goods salesman who thinks urbanism is something you sprinkle over a steak.

As the ignominies kept piling up, Gweezy’s corporeal form shimmered away into nothingness. The Secretary General of the African National Congress, which was just 22 years ago the greatest political brand in the known world, was disappearing. In terms of political longevity, it has taken almost no time whatsoever for the democratic custodians of the Mandela’s outfit to transform themselves into characters in a Coolio song. And the Gweezmeister is Exhibit A in this, the case of the Great Degrading.

How did they screw it up, you ask? The short answer would be: hubris (of which Uncle Gweezy is an endless purveyor). The long answer is longer, but most of its data points were examined by Franz Fanon, long before the ANC was installing its presidents in massively overpriced Zulu theme parks.

“Cast your eyes at the board,” said a grim-faced Duarte, of the vast screen that dominated the electoral centre. “Since the 2014 national elections, four million more people have voted for the ANC — to me, that it is not a defeat. That is nothing to sneeze away. And local elections here historically and internationally have a lower voter output. That doesn't mean we're losing the country.”

But, Duarte was just being Duarte, and had screwed up the numbers. This was a local election, over the course of which punters tick one ballot for a ward councilor, another for popular representation and, outside the metros, a third for a district municipality. The deputy sec gen was mistaking slips of paper for individual humans; the numbers could not be compared to the 11 million people who voted for ANC/President Jacob Zuma nationally in 2014. At the ringing of the bell following these elections, roughly 16 million ballots were marked in favour of the ANC, slightly less than there were in the last comparable contest, back in 2011.

This is the species of genius we’re dealing with, folks.

The story of these elections is about a tumbling, a squandering, a cellular meltdown. The story of these elections is not a story about winning, or a story about the “triumph of democracy”, whatever that means.

The story of these elections is loss.

* * *

The first most powerless person in South Africa walked his way through the electoral centre, glad-handing, ball buttering, flashing his superb teeth. He was here for one of those stage-managed nonsense photo ops, in which an official explains to a billionaire how shitty Dell computers collate data, and how the IEC-branded mousepads work.   

Outwardly, Cyril Ramaphosa was sanguine. He had just recovered from the flu, he said. A result of the toll of campaigning, he told us. As he walked his way to the event centre’s lower level, two members of the Inkatha Freedom Party bumped into him. A day earlier, they had learned that their party retained the Nkandla ward, AKA President Jacob Zuma’s ‘hood. Imagine a country in which the president can’t win an election on his own ancestral ground, where he is literally turned out by his neighbours. “We’re looking forward to providing the president with basic services,” an IFP official told the deputy president.

“But it doesn't mean we're gonna pay back the money,” said another.

Cyril threw back his great bald head, and laughed.

After the photo-op, after the cameras melted away, Ramaphosa found himself facing a gentleman named Dr Pieter Groenewald, who serves as chairman of the Vryheidsfront Plus.

“Julle sal die kingmakers wees,” said Ramaphosa, in his finest Pidgin Afrikaans. Then he got semi-serious, offering a small disquisition on strategic, tactical political maneuvering. “In politics, there is no never never,” said Ramaphosa. “Sometimes you have to cross the river on the back of a crocodile.”

Groenewald countered with his own story of a scorpion crossing a river on the back of a tortoise. Then, Uncle Gweezy appeared from nowhere, leaning over Ramaphosa’s shoulder. “Never sé nooit nie,” he said to Groenewald, in his finest Pidgin Afrikaans. “Never sé nooit nie.”

It was like a National Geographic radio play voiced by carnies who had just crawled out of a moonshine barrel.

Groenewald was unmoved. The type of guy who has skinned several kudu with his teeth, and was likely married in a safari suit, everyone was trying to get into his kortbroek. In three dusty, windblown municipalities, the VF+ held percentages sizeable enough to make them prospective coalition partners.

Hence the love from the country’s richest unpowerful man.

“Us, we have to figure out what is best for municipality, and then we’ll decide who to partner with,” Groenewald told me. “For instance, if the EFF want to nationalise this and that, it makes it impossible.”

How about the DA? “Ag, there will always be preconditions with the DA, but we don't have principle problems as far as DA are concerned.”

Uncle Gweezy and the Gang?

“We don't believe they govern in the interest of the community, and therefore will not comply with how we would hope to do things. We will not form a coalition with the ANC.”

The VF+ are basically revisionist lunatics, but there stood the deputy president of the ANC, tongue-bathing a human antique whose party’s stated mission is “[the irrevocable commitment] to the realisation of communities', in particular the Afrikaner's, internationally recognised right to self-determination, territorial or otherwise”.

Welcome to the New New South Africa.

* * *

“Follow the trend lines,” William Jefferson Clinton once said, “not the headlines.”

The trend lines for the ANC are gruesome. In 1994, they won themselves a democratic dictatorship, which only increased in 1999 and 2004. Steadily, they squandered it, maybe because they allowed the likes of Jesse Duarte to do the math. Now, in every single province outside of KwaZulu-Natal, their support has dipped massively since 2011. (In the Eastern Cape, home and burial ground of so many stalwarts, they plunged over 6 percent, which is to say nothing of the loss of Nelson Mandela Bay.)

Their support in Gauteng is now well below 45 percent, which for Jacob Zuma happens to be a good thing. As he guts his party, and the country along with it, he will unsheathe his sword and slash away at the Gauteng leadership who had so famously tried to return him to hell. Although this election served as something of a referendum on his years of (mis)rule, it seems that Zuma would come out the winner. He will entrench his power within the congress, sidelining people like Uncle Gweezy and Ramaphosa. Like Skeletor from the old Masters of the Universe cartoons, mayhem makes him immeasurably stronger. Zuma’s job is not to govern. Zuma’s job is to plunder in order to gain a Patrice Motsepe-scale retirement package. His job is to stack his (soon-to-be-reshuffled) cabinet with pliant Muppets.

His modus operandi is to treat this country like an overturned Brinks truck, and losing Nelson Mandela Bay doesn’t mean squat as far that project is concerned.

Did the DA win?

Did the EFF win?

Did the VF+ win?

Depends on how you define “winning”. Aw, give it to them — they all worked like pack donkeys, and if sheer labour is anything to go by, they deserve their trinkets. But this wasn’t an endorsement of the DA. It wasn’t a love-in with the EFF.

South Africa told the ANC, Thanks, but no thanks.

If Muammar Gaddafi was running, he would’ve taken NMB. This, y’all, was a protest vote.

* * *

Finally it arrived, the end of the end, the big night. This is when the Independent Electoral Commission pats itself on the back for a job well done. The hall was swept for bombs. The security men scowled as the dignitaries entered smelling of perfume and cologne and sadness.

The proceedings started a little late. Gathered around us were the great and good, waiting for the president to come up to the podium and declare the contest over, so they get all go over to the gala dinner and whisper tender plaints into each others’ ears. The smugness gradient was off the charts.

The president was ushered in with his newly revamped Republican Guard, the mouth-breathing thugs who have made covering him a little tougher of late. Zuma walked up to the stage with confidence, and behind him the EFF staged a walk out — so far, business as usual. But seconds later, four women in black evening gowns followed Zuma and stood alongside each other in front of the stage. They held aloft simple paper signs, marked by writing in red ink. It seemed like part of the ceremony — an elegant Shinto, Japanese-type thing.

But nope.

The first woman held up two signs, the first reading: “I am 1 in 3”, and the second: “#”.

The next sign read: “10 yrs later.”

The next: “Khanga”.

The last: “Remember Khwezi”.

It took a moment, but the signs slowly revealed their narrative. Khwezi—the name of the woman involved in the infamous Zuma rape trial. Khanga—the garment she was said to have had wrapped around her at the time of the assault. 10 yrs later — yup, it’s been that long. I am 1 in 3 — the proportion of women raped in this country.

Time stalled. The hall imploded.

Zuma began his blathering: he is used to young women twerking in front of him at ANC events, and perhaps he thought of this as classier version of the same. I was sitting alongside Kate Bapela, ostensibly in charge of the ceremony, and she had no idea what to do. In leaned Small Business Development Minister, Lindiwe Zulu, her breath hot with indignation.

“Remove them,” she spat. “How can they do this? In what country would this be allowed?”

Ah, wouldn’t it be great to be in Turkey right now, Minister?

There the women stood, human sculptures, an art installation, shaking with fear or rage or both, instantly wiping away the self-important burnishing of this election process. This was people’s power. This was agency.

This undermined Zuma in a way that is almost metaphysical, while the election results only empowered him and his sleazebag faction.

After his ridiculously short speech, the Republican Guards moved in, slamming the women back into the stage, and then dragging them out the VIP exit. (Turns out they weren’t damaged, and nor were they arrested.) Uncle Gweezy materialized from the ether, assuring us that this was another example of South Africa’s awesome democracy in action.

He drifted out with the dignitaries, Uncle Gweezy, the ghost of a ghost’s ghost.

Outside, the music pumped. But no one looked like they were in the mood for a party. The late winter crescent moon hung in the sky like a scythe. Five pieces of paper had worked like a car bomb, blowing the night apart.

They are coming for you, President Zuma.

The people are coming. DM

Photo: Silent protestors stand in front of President Jacob Zuma during his speech at the official announcement of the results for the 2016 local government elections. They held signs against gender based violence, 10 years after Zuma was acquitted on rape charges. (Greg Nicolson)

  • 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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