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22 November 2017 13:17 (South Africa)
Politics

TRAINSPOTTER: State of Rapture – How the craziest day in SA history unfolded

  • 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

  • Politics
Photo: Supporters of the Save South Africa movement listen to speeches in St Albans Church in Tshwane. (Shaun Swingler/Daily Maverick Chronicle)

On Wednesday, November 2… actually, you know what? This is no time for preambles. By RICHARD POPLAK.

How did the looniest day in post-postmodern South African history dawn?

The earth rotated on its axis, and in an ancient, ever-persuasive visual gag, the sun appeared to rise.

It rose over dry fields and dusty dales, over ragged townships and Tuscan townhouses, over empty dams and bony cattle. Mostly, though, it rose over St Albans Cathedral, which is located in the centre of Executive Mayor Solly Msimanga’s Tshwane, and was at the time of the sun’s theatrics filling up with the country’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens. Specifically, in a hall off to the side of the church, the sun shone in its full glory upon those attending the launch of the much-ballyhooed, widely discussed Save South Africa campaign.

The initiative was initially set up to support Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Famously, the minister has of late been hounded by the National Prosecuting Authority, the head of which has charged him on counts of fraud and theft – charges so thin that lawyers in North Korea were chuckling at their spuriousness. Today, along with two former colleagues, Gordhan was scheduled to make an appearance in the Pretoria High Court. Instead, the NPA’s Shaun Abrahams performed a humiliating back flip and dropped the charges, so… damp squib.

But no!

Save South Africa was, we were told, bigger than one mission; it was not a reprise of the unloved Zuma Must Fall movement of last year, which was notable for how many yoga mats featured at its marches. Challenges we face aplenty: don’t forget, on Wednesday Jacob Zuma was also fighting to interdict the release of the former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report, a matter that would be heard later that morning, and on which the president’s future was almost entirely dependent.

Save South Africa’s logo depicts a proud young black woman in profile, her hair wrapped in an elaborate doek. (This has caused some controversy, considering the lack of same in the movement’s upper echelons.) The campaign, according to the website, is comprised of “organisations, civil society groups, business leaders, prominent individuals, South African citizens and supporters of the founding principles of our democracy.” That’s quite the cabal, and the courage on display was indeed heartwarming, which slowly progressed to heart-burning as more defendants – I mean participants – arrived in their sinister Uber Blacks. The proceedings started late, spin-meister-in-chief Chris Vick informed us, because we were “waiting for business”, a jocular reference to Big Money’s reticence when it comes to weighing in on matters of national interest. We would nonetheless spirit through the presser, because the great and the powerful had “organisations to run”, and they didn’t really have time for a long drawn-out lip-flap with the media.

Well, thank St Alban for small mercies.

While there are indubitably really amazing human beings among the campaign’s members – for instance, there are only minor theological points differentiating Section 27’s Mark Heywood from Jesus Christ – not everyone among Save SA’s number counts as a mensch. Much of the campaign’s momentum has been generated from the fact that it is backed by 81 – count em! – 81 CEOs, some of whom run the country’s biggest, baddest corporates. Alongside people who fight for the most vulnerable citizens on this Earth, you have the likes of Colin Coleman, head of the local branch of Goldman Sachs, who in 2013 released a report called “Two Decades of Freedom: A 20-year Review of South Africa”, a document that effectively inspired the ANCs Good Story to Tell campaign, erased all the insanely corrupt shenanigans perpetrated by the Zuma administration, and informed us – or, rather, informed its base of emerging market investor suckers – that everything down south was just A-okay.

According to Goldman Sachs, there was nothing wrong with JZ back in 2013. So what has he done to rouse the mighty and the powerful? How have the president’s former enablers become his big-brand accusers? How did it all devolve to this point, where CEOs are forced to team up with ANC stalwarts, Aids activists, rabbis, priests, imams, diviners, sangomas, astrologers, graphic designers, web developers, opposition politicians, and Johnny Clegg, in order to take down one man and save us from destruction?

Answer: Zuma fucked with the national piggy bank.

And so Save SA is undergirded by something called The CEO Initiative Pledge. It’s a sort of double-sided samizdat that informs us that the country’s richest citizens have drawn a line in the gold-dusted sand, and will accept no more silly buggers from Number One. In South Africa, where we worship celebrity and power uber alles, CEOs have become superstars. They pantomime being homeless at CEO Sleep Outs; they build our future at conferences and R10,000-a-head banquets.

We stand in support of the rule of law,” thundered Jabu Mabuza, leader of the CEO Initiative, Chairman of Business Leadership South Africa, Chairman of the Casino Association of South Africa, and Chairman of a bunch of other stuff.

Also present were former ANC deputy secretary general Cheryl Carolus, ANC stalwart and serial board member Sipho Pityana, Treatment Action Campaign’s Anele Yawa, and Warren Goldstein, South Africa’s chief rabbi, AKA CEO of the Jews. During, the latter’s short speech, he quoted Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.”

Ja sure. But why speak out now, and not, say, following the Marikana Massacre?

Mabuza: “We have been engaging with the government since Marikana. Just yesterday, the mining industry managed to settle within a strike that in previous years took five months” – a reference to the recent settlement between the platinum mining sector and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

But if it’s all been soooo secretive up ‘til now, why all of a sudden the fireworks and grandstanding and media hype? Why not just keep being clandestine and, well, business-like?

Pityana, wearing a Save SA T-shirt and a jaunty ANC ascot type thing: “This is a culmination point. In 2010, we made a submission to the president regarding corruption, saying we had the institutional capacities to deal with all this. But he refused to see us. I think that we have taken very systematic measures. But Marikana was a highlight of the securitisation of the state, the move from a police service to a police force. And we sought to engage.”

I dunno. Because the question still remained: Save South Africa for what?

Shortly after the presser, in the courtyard leading to the cathedral itself, I bumped into Maria Ramos, former struggle hero and current Chief Executive Officer of Barclays Africa Group Limited. “Look, this isn’t one event,” she said. “There’s been a programme of engagement with government for a while now. Things have just built up. In particular, the actions taken by Shaun Abrahams required some response. Ultimately, you need to take a stand. The Constitution is the embodiment of what the country is about, and the Constitution is to be defended. It’s time to reflect whether we are beginning to impinge on the cornerstones of this society.”

Did I mention that there was a cappuccino machine at this thing? No?

There was a cappuccino machine at this thing.

***

Inside St Albans, glorious stained glass windows streamed in stained sunshine, and the picket signs read: “Mr Gordhan you are our hero”. God and Money; Money and God. Drummers moved down the aisles, summoning South Africa’s snoozing deities. They sang no struggle songs here, but instead engaged in a soccer anthem.

Famous faces rolled in. Barbara Hogan was here. Bantu Holomisa was here. Terror Lekota was here. People who nearly died liberating this country were here.

But by far the most significant stir was caused by the arrival of ANC Gauteng Chairman, Paul Mashatile. This was a big move, a middle finger extended at JZ, who was at that moment cowering in Zimbabwe, trying to secure Robert Mugabe, and – I’m speculating here – another tank of virgin’s blood for his third liver. I cornered Mashatile by some religious iconography, and we had a quick chat.

We decided as Gauteng ANC to support Gordhan and his colleagues,” he told me. “We were going to come to court, but when that didn’t happen, we thought we’d join the South Africans supporting Comrade Gordhan. At Luthuli House, the Secretary General [Gwede Mantashe] knows that we are here, but unfortunately he couldn’t come, because he’s in the Eastern Cape. There might be other members of the ANC NEC joining us.”

Wouldn’t you just love to be at the ANC National Executive Committee’s Shabbas table?

The main programme kicked off at around 09:15. Churches, it must be said, are once again playing a role in the righteousness of South Africa’s political soul. Religious leaders, formerly silent or complicit, are now steadily lining up against president Zuma, himself an ordained bishop of a sub-breakaway Pentecostal sect, a man of dark and murky beliefs, a spirit-stirrer, a sinister dark lord of... you get the point.

A statement from Gordhan was read out to the Save South Africans. Religious leaders from a baffling array of confessionals spoke up against corruption and state capture.

St Albans, it must be said, was no place for an atheist.

Then Mark Heywood got up, and stood resolutely at the pulpit:

When we have overthrown state capture,” he said, “my appeal, especially to the people with power, is that we will not be done taking this country back to the constitutional principles on which it was founded. Our country is a nightmare of poverty.”

Heywood mentioned Michael Komape, a little boy who died in a pit latrine. He mentioned the 37 psychiatric patients who earlier this year died after being farmed out by the Gauteng health systems to useless NGOs. He mentioned a lot of bad shit.

Some people mistrust this movement,” said Heywood. “They say it’s just the middle class. We have to prove them wrong.”

Now, we were getting somewhere.

Meanwhile, we learnt, across town at the High Court, Zuma’s lawyers withdrew his bullshit application. The crowd erupted. Political leaders, minus a certain Julius Malema, stood up and gave addresses. Even Paul Mashatile spoke, casting suspicions on the motives of the NPA.

We want comrade Pravin now to focus on his job. We want him to lead us on growing the economy.

We say today in the loudest voice, hands off, Pravin Gordhan, hands off. We will walk with the people of South Africa,” promised Paul. “There are lots of good men and women in the leadership of the ANC.”

As Rabbi Goldstein would say: Gay kaken ofn yahm! Loose translation: gimme a freaking break.

***

If thoughts of unity and fraternity are on your mind, trust an angry crowd to come along and dispel them. The Economic Freedom Fighters, a contingent of which was making its way along Francis Baard Street, tried to rip down the vast South African flag on the gates of the church. They used sticks, they used their hands, until they were shooed away by older Fighters. “It’s the flag, man,” yelled one. “Leave it!”

And so we began the street protest chapter of this chaotic, insane, crack binge of a news day. Through apocalyptically cleared streets, populated only by the occasional armoured vehicle, we walked and sang and set rubbish bins on fire. A chopper circled overhead. And the roar of a motorcycle slammed off the Brutalist concrete canyons, echoing – if you’ll allow me a moment of poetry – the rage and frustration of the angry masses.

The vibe was, shall we say, different from the Save SA thing, a little less celebratory, a tad more pissed off. The EFF fanned out through the CBD. There, they met the heat-crazed dude waving a palm frond, the clown bearing a sign that said, “Zuma’s no clown, clowns are good people”; the kids with cardboard AKs, rows of relaxed SAPS drinking bottled water, a rangy fighter waving a five iron, a wannabe Cassper waving his music saying: “disc umlungu?”, a stall serving mutant chicken legs and boeries sizzling in fat – and then the rubbish-strewn expanse of Church Square, pigeons roosting on the top hats of bronzed apartheid gods.

Eventually Julius Malema arrived. He’d boycotted the Save SA event because white monopoly capital, and reminded his Fighters to keep Pretoria’s shops shut. He offered a gobsmacking spoiler: according to a High Court ruling, the State Capture report was to be released by 5pm, and we’d all be able to read it. But not before going to the Union Buildings and demanding Jacob Zuma’s resignation.

Off the Fighters tramped, only to find the Union Buildings locked, the cops lined up and ready. But really, who cared about this spectacle for spectacle’s sake? Around the country, the State of Capture report was being downloaded from a groaning website, its contents beamed into our mitochondria via blinking routers. Already, it was becoming a part of us, of our narrative, of our national body. And what did it say?

Summary: Jacob Zuma, Des Van Rooyen, Brian Molefe and the Guptas are big fat scumbags.

You will read much about Thuli Madonsela’s masterpiece today and in the days to come. But the real fight, it must be said, is just beginning. Allies will soon find themselves in different corners, wondering how once they danced together so intimately. We will be forced to ask, in louder and louder registers:

Save South Africa for what?

If we don’t come up with an appropriate answer, this insane cocaine-and-cough-syrup-binge of a historically unprecedented day will have dawned for no good reason. DM

Photo: Supporters of the Save South Africa movement listen to speeches in St Albans Church in Tshwane. (Shaun Swingler/Daily Maverick Chronicle)

  • 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

  • Politics

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