South Africa

South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: The Long Goodbye—Gordhan and the anti-Zuma resistance hack the Kathrada memorial

After the presidency postponed, AKA cancelled, Kathrada’s state memorial, a coalition of civil society groups, led by the Nelson Mandela and Kathrada Foundations, hastily convened one at Johannesburg City Hall. It was a raucous event, headlined by a speeches by Barbara Hogan and former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan that, as far as the latter is concerned, may define his future as a consensus builder. But still, there was lots missing. Uncle Kathy lived in an age where identifying the enemy was hardly a problem. Still, the #ZumaMustFall crew have an issue to resolve—Zuma is a bad bad man, but what will fill the vacuum when he’s gone? By RICHARD POPLAK

In this week of ostentatious and politically-loaded goodbyes: Johannesburg City Hall; 14:00; a room full of quality and hardcore lefties, along with their new friends from Big Capital. The religious types who kick off these events have now taken to “speaking out” against our very own Lord Voldemort, the entity who has replaced the devil as Jesus’s Enemy #1. The pastor opening the previously cancelled Kathrada memorial spat barely veiled invocations against sinners and their avarice and corruption. Later, a man in a beret read poems off his iPhone.

Over the course of this rollicking, historically consequential week, many wonderful things have been said about Ahmed Kathrada, who was a genuinely wonderful man, whatever the hipsters thought of his Rainbowist non-racialism. Few humans have been afforded a better send-off. But in the long tradition of political memorials in this country, at no point was it possible to pretend that this was just a friendly adios.

Indeed, we come to these things for the political sideshows, and hark!—up there on the balconies—“Do it for Madiba—Vote ANC” read the South African Commie Party banners. Lower to the ground, a “Zuma Worst President of the ANC” placard was waved. Famously, Uncle Kathy kicked off his career with the Communist Youth League; more to the point, over the course of this action-packed week, they watched in anger as Jacob Zuma installed the world’s best-dressed politician into the finance ministry. Then their cadres were bulk loaded into the new cabinet. (Miraculously, their Secretary General, Blade Nzimande, will continue as Higher Education minister).

Because loyalty is no longer a thing around these parts, they promptly found a voice, and released a statement that included the following rebuke:

The recall from an overseas trip of comrades Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas while on a promotional tour in South Africa’s interests, and now the firing of these comrades and other well-performing ministers is more than regrettable.

It is frankly outrageous, particularly while the worst performers in cabinet continue to enjoy presidential protection and even, in some cases, promotion.

Where’s the freaking love, right?

Right here in Johannesburg City Hall, if the vibe was anything to go by. Remember the 1995 Rugby World Cup? Same deal. The crowd looked like it was carefully cast to represent every aspect of South Africa’s “diverse society”; the whole thing was gloriously and charmingly out of step with Wokeness.

Me, I had already exceeded my annual permissible dosage of Rainbow rhetoric before arriving, and several minutes into the proceedings, my personal Geiger counter was fluttering dangerously into the red. I distracted myself by scanning the crowd for notables: Trevor Manuel, Ronny Kasrils, Laloo Chiba, Ebrahim Patel, Zwelinzima Vavi, Barbara Hogan (of course) and recently canned Minister of Tourism Derek Hanekom, sitting alongside recently canned Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan, sitting alongside them, Graca Machel.

Finally, the event was looking representative of average South African life—most folks were either unemployed, underemployed, or dead.


But where was President Zuma?

According to the Kathrada Foundation, the presidency had, with enormous pettiness, cancelled the official state memorial that was to take place in Soweto at 11:00 Saturday morning—a contention that the presidency subsequently denied. But if anyone was looking for Zuma, he was otherwise occupied by going full Oprah, unveiling a large social housing project in Pietermaritzburg, KZN. He cut the ribbon on the first of 3,000 or 4,000 or who-the-fuck-knows how many low cost rentals, using a pair of scissors adorned with a gold ribbon. It was a nice way of kicking off the experiment currently underway in South Africa: can the president, along with the mafia for whom he serves as a bag boy, steal the country blind while simultaneously developing genuinely transformative, pro-black, pro-poor “theories and praxis”, as the government’s Millennial spokes-hacks would put it?

Asked another way, can he deracialise the South African economy and become a dollar billionaire?

On the other side of the ring, will the rest of the country, as divided as any place on earth, be able to cobble together a coherent popular movement which a) overthrows a president, b) is defined by something other than bullshit NGO-ese and corporate flimflam, and c) is willing to acquiesce to a transformation programme that redistributes from the elite far far more than Jacob Zuma ever has?

All that is certain is, as the mayhem settles following the cabinet reshuffle from Hell, nothing is certain. The country is screwed. But it seems as if we are forever being robbed of our terminal event. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating for an apocalyptic history-ending race/class war, following which only cockroaches and Atul Gupta can survive. But it does seem as if we’re being smeared toward the abyss, like the last of the Nutella jars over the world’s biggest piece of toast.

Not that people aren’t trying. “Zuma must fall”, roared the crowd, after an enraged Barbara Hogan made a speech that honoured her late husband, but landed blow after blow against Zuma’s record. Others did the same.

But the moment belonged to Pravin Gordhan, and he seemed determined to grasp it. He teared up often during the speeches, and the crowd went nuts as he made his way to the stage. He seemed resolute and composed, but occasionally radiated what I’ll gently describe as murderous anger.

“This ANC is still our ANC,” said the newly former FM. “Uncle Kathy leaves us at a time when the problems are very clear, and who is the problem and what is the problem is very clear. Don’t read too much into the Who part.”

Ha ha.

He then presented an interrelated set of problems, and asked the crowd to decode it. How do we connect the dots, wondered Gordhan. “We need to act, and act together if we are to do something.”

Condensed, and reading between the lines: South Africa is being shorted by Zuma and his pals, the Guptas. Regarding the cabinet shuffle, “When the Secretary General, the deputy president, and the Treasurer General say they don’t know where these decisions are made, we have a real problem.”

That is no lie. The president cucked the most powerful men and women in the country, and they seem unhappy about it. The Deputy President is on record as saying that Zuma’s actions were “unacceptable”. The Treasurer General is similarly outraged. And the Speaker of Parliament has cut short an international trip, and will return home on Sunday to—convene parliament early, and allow a no confidence motion? We shall see.

But the resistance can’t only be left to government, insisted Gordhan.

“It’s also time, ladies and gentlemen, for the private sector to come to the party,” he said, and then—may God forgive him—congratulated the CEO Movement, and what remains of organized labour. He praised the Treasury. He rubbished the “unintelligent intelligence report” that was used as an excuse to fire him. He explained what a “road show” was, and he complained about the shitty coverage on the Gupta’s TV channel ANN7, although he didn’t say “ANN7”.

(Like most people who are relentlessly trolled, he pays way too much attention to the trolls.) 

It was galvanizing and rageful and correct.

It was the speech of his life.


But, again, to what end?

Let’s engage in a thought experiment: is it even remotely possible to engineer a million-person march against the Zuma presidency? Who would form the bulk of the crowd, and what would they be marching for? Who has the power and the political imagination to organize such an event? For instance, the Democratic Alliance have decided to hike to Luthuli House next Friday, which will transform resistance into a partisan thing. This is unwise for innumerable reasons, but mostly because Zuma will only fall if members of the ANC fell him in parliament, and antagonizing them is bad politics during a coalition-building initiative. Those attending the march will be forced to dodge rubber bullets, while Zille insists over Twitter that we thank colonialism for water canons and flak jackets.

The specter of Zille brings us to further questions. Who will be better off without Zuma, and why? Is Zuma even the problem? Looking at this nightmare from above—or rather from below—is the lived reality of Zupta Inc. that much different from how life would be in the perfect realization of Gordhan’s South Africa Inc.? This isn’t cheeseball stoner-grade relativism—it’s a genuine political conundrum. Perhaps the problem is that real enemy is so massive and systemic that we can’t identify it, which is why nothing close to a mass movement has developed over the last several years. After all, there are many chickenshit mafia vampire bagmen running the world—Erdogan, Temper, Duterte, May, Trump.

Zuma is our own not-so-special version of the same.

Yes, how South Africa gets rid of him matters—it sends an important message to ourselves, to our children, to future pretenders to the throne. But what we eventually replace him with matters more. In a country in which the majority has completely lost faith in government, perhaps the ranking members of the resistance need to come up with an alternative to State Capture that sounds worth buying.

Time’s running out, and so are stalwarts to memorialize. If Zuma must fall, something else—something coherent and something meaningful—must rise to fill the vacuum. DM

Photo: Sacked former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is cheered on by Graca Machel, the wife of the late former President of South Africa, Nelson Manela as they join hundreds of supporters of Ahmed Kathrada at his public memorial service in Johannesburg, South Africa, 01 April 2017. Kathrada, an anti-apartheid struggle icon and close friend of the late former South African President, Nelson Mandela died on 28 March. The memorial was supposed to be hosted by the President Zuma led government but was cancelled by them suddenly, leaving the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the South African Communist Party and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation to host the event.  EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI