“When I was born, I was an ordinary Hlaudi.” So said the acting SABC Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, during a eulogy of sorts. In these days of peak crazy, who does nuts better than the big broadcasting boss? Last Friday, at kwaito superstar Mandoza’s funeral, Ordinary Hlaudi took the crowd in Soweto’s Grace Bible Church through an extended recap of his greatest hits. Not Mandoza’s, mind you—but Hlaudi’s. It read like an alternate State of the Nation Address, and a fair reminder that in Zuma’s South Africa, the lunatics conduct the band, and we march to their beat. By RICHARD POPLAK.
In these days of revolutionary ferment, with our RoboCop-governed universities and our flame-thrown dorps, with our broke-ass national airline and our fraying electrical grid, with our illegitimate president and our countrywide case of irritable bowel syndrome, one man has charted our dysfunction in what will probably stand as the weirdest eulogy in the history of a nation in which eulogisers have a tendency to fly their freak flags high and proud.
I speak here of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, former (now acting former former) Chief Operating Officer of what remains of the SABC. Over the course of his five or so years at the head of the organisation, Hlaudi took his role seriously, studying the broadcaster’s mostly shitty history and finding in its apartheid-era nationalist, nativist fervour something he could build on. Hlaudi knew that the best way to create reality was to erase it: earlier this year, he punched his way through space/time and ordered SABC journalists to profile Zoo Lake’s swans and to cover kindergarten finger-painting contests instead of reporting on the fiery mayhem that accompanied the local government election campaign.
This didn’t go down well with a number of the broadcaster’s actual news folk, to say nothing of the rest of the country. Indeed, despite his performance as the most entertainingly insane member of Jacob Zuma’s vast army of Dementors, Hlaudi has never really gone down well with anyone.
Back in 2014, the Public Protector deemed him unfit for the role of SABC COO, a sentiment the Western Cape High Court backed up when they found his appointment to have been “irrational”. Just last week, the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld that judgment. Our Chapter Nine institutions and our judiciary suffer from a sense of humour deficit, and they clearly fail to understand the metrics by which the Zuma administration benchmarks success. Hlaudi is, of course, serving at the pleasure of Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi, whom the ANC National Executive Committee cannot bring to heel largely because she serves at the pleasure of President Jacob Zuma, who no one can bring to heel largely because he serves at the pleasure of the mafia that actually runs the country.
While the SABC posted a R377.7-million loss in the last fiscal year—representing one-and-a-half Nkandlas pissed away into the analog ether – the rules of upside-down world dictate that Hlaudi’s performance must be rated at a level that is literally beyond awesome.
Following the SCA judgment, Hlaudi saw his status briefly downgraded to that of an ordinary SABC employee. But he was not finished. In a country in which biological weapons developers run cardiology practices, and former death squad operatives become professional foot washers, everyone gets a free pass. This is the global capital of unaccountability, and so the SABC board—perhaps the most obeisant in state-owned corporation history—has reappointed Hlaudi as acting COO until December of this year. What’s more, Hlaudi has already received R11.4-million of an expected R33-million payout for his continued awesomnimity. This comes on top of his R3.7-million salary, which, as he has insisted, is a total bargain.
Ordinary Hlaudi, it must be said, is way richer than the artists at whose memorials he so enjoys speaking.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng has always had aspirations, but he reached the peak of his own personal Mt Kilimanjaro last Friday, during kwaito superstar Mandoza’s funeral service. The musician died at the age of 38 from a brain tumour, which under normal circumstances would constitute tragedy. For Hlaudi, it offered the opportunity to deliver a career summation.
Not Mandoza’s career, you’ll understand. But Hlaudi’s.
During a eulogy that will be revived by post-apocalyptic troupes of South African actors as a means of explaining the current age to their feral children, Hlaudi did actually mention Mandoza once or twice. But any speech that Hlaudi makes is necessarily a speech about Hlaudi. This is a man who turned a press conference into a prayer service in his own honour. He organised a Thank You SABC concert several weeks ago that was about thanking Hlaudi. (No one showed up.) He has retrained his cameramen to make him look less short on the telly. His signature line is, “I’m Hlaudi, baby!”
On Friday, he stood in front a hall full of mourners, and he wasn’t about to waste the opportunity.
“There is a difference between speaking English and intelligence,” he said, warming to his theme. “For some of us, intelligence is in our blood.” This resulted in bulging eyes and a hand pressed to the heart. “We are unique,” he continued, using the first person plural in the royal sense. “I listen to people. And I have been observing when people are saying: Hlaudi’s out! You can’t decide for my future. I will decide for my future.”
Hlaudi then lurched his way to the burning transformation issue. When the SABC boss talks about transformation, he doesn’t mean what the Fallists or the leftist intelligentsia mean. He’s referring to one of the more critical elements of censorship: becoming the final arbiter of all that is Good and Pure emanating from the synthesisers, cameras, pens and paintbrushes of the local artistic community. By transformation, Hlaudi means wresting ownership of culture from those who create it, and parcelling it out based on good behaviour.
For most South African cultural consumers, the SABC is the only game in town. There is no DSTV or internet on which to discover the outré, the revolutionary, the unapproved.
There is only Hlaudi.
“You know, when people speak about transformation, they speak English. I don’t speak English, I speak Implementation, “ said Hlaudi, in English. “You can’t love artists outside this country, when you have your own artists inside this country.” He was referring here to the 90% local content regulation that he recently imposed on the state broadcaster, a perfect example of Zuma-era nativism masquerading as progressiveness.
Hlaudi, a traditionalist to his core, abhors cosmopolitanism. Everything we require is already here.
“I want to tell you today, that by introducing 90%, this is the insurance of artists. They will never die poor.”
That sound you hear is Mandoza trying to punch his way out of his coffin, trying to remind us that if you own art, you own artists. And you thereby own the airtime at their funerals.
“Some people believe that South Africans can’t produce long and lasting quality,” continued Hlaudi, while standing in the country in which Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba were born. “You know what is good about me, and I’m not boasting? When SABC dismissed me, it was because I was empowering workers at the SABC. And I did die for that.”
How did the R33-Million Man end his own rousing encomium?
“Please! Pay your TV licence!” he implored.
You could argue that Hlaudi is so insane that the crazy rises off him in waves, like heat emanating from a stretch of Kalahari asphalt. If so, it’s a Yeezy-designed, machine-shopped, haute couture version of bat-shit nuttery: nothing about it seems unplanned, accidental. He is not a uniquely South African character, Hlaudi, but rather a species that belongs to a long line of self-aggrandising, scissor-handed maniacs who believe that, because they hold the keys to the cultural vault, they know what’s best for the country.
Hlaudi’s crazy because his masters want him to be.
As the front-fool for a gangster state, as head propagandist and artistic gatekeeper, Hlaudi’s power is very real. The grim hijacking of a superstar’s funeral is classic Hlaudi, which means it is classic Zuma. The eulogy was a hyper-gauche gangster move intended as a State of the Nation address: We will not be pushed aside. We own your music, your news, your soapies, your soul.
We own your death.
As usual, important issues like race, transformation, empowerment, fair wages, worker protection, art, mortality, the nature of being, the hereafter, were power-blended into a loathsome smoothie of self-pitying, self-justifying non-speak, and forced down the throats of an audience who had come to mourn.
Who was this eulogy for? Ordinary Hlaudi, the quisling who moved up the ranks to become Extraordinary Hlaudi? Or for someone, something, else? I’d argue that Hlaudi was reciting an elegy for Jacob Zuma’s South Africa. Where even in death you can’t escape the grasp of the kleptocrats and their henchmen. Where even at your own funeral, your memory is whored out so that a functionary can laud his own CV.
Where even as you ascend to kwaito Heaven, some asshole is using your death to further craft a working model of Hell. DM
Photo: Hlaudi Motsoeneng speaks at the Mduduzi ‘Mandoza’ Tshabalala funeral at the Grace Bible Church in Soweto. Friday 23 September 2016. (Photo: GCIS)
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