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22 July 2017 20:52 (South Africa)
South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: #SecretBallet — the opposition movement dances in step to the ConCourt. For now.

  • 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: Members of the opposition EFF stand on a hill outside the Constitutional Court after they participated in a mass march to the court for the result of the hearing to decide if members of parliament can vote in a secret ballet against President Jacob Zuma, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 May 2017. Photo: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

Talk talk talk. Walk walk walk. Lawyer lawyer lawyer. By RICHARD POPLAK.

It is marching season in South Africa.

The walk in question begins last Friday, when a row of grim looking dudes (and one lady*) gathered in a Braamfontein hotel, and told us that they were, once again, teaming up to save the country. Members of South Africa’s opposition parties, along with Prince Mashele’s Freedom Movement, and the SaveSA cabal, were all serving as lay amicus curiae in the Constitutional Court hearing regarding Parliament’s looming no confidence motion against President Jacob Zuma. The United Democratic Movement had approached the court in order to impel the National Assembly to run a secret ballot, in order to protect mutinous ANC MPs from intimidation should they wish to vote Msholozi into political oblivion. And so, the ubiquitous South African march, appended to the ubiquitous South African court hearing.

As far as this opposition syndicate was concerned, as per Tolstoy, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Anna Karenina principle certainly applied to this group. Julius Malema either gazed at the pot lamps or at his shoes. Mmusi Maimane spoke by rote. There were nowhere near enough chairs in the conference room, which made it for journalists something of a pre-march. And after all, what was there to say?

We’ll talk through numbers,” growled Malema.

Indeed.

And so, come Monday morning, in a ceaseless swirl of dead leaves and dust and coldness, protesters began to gather in Mary Fitzgerald Square shortly after breakfast. Party spokespeople and civil society leaders stood around skinnering with journos, while EFF supporters danced, presumably to keep warm. There was roughly zero excitement on the ground, because how do you explain this arcane legal stuff to the average punter, when even high-end lawyers sound like knobs trying to unravel it on various media platforms.

But the idea was clearly to keep up the optics of rolling protest action. (There is, of course, uncurated protest action happening every day in this country. But the divide between hooliganism and organisation apparently comes down to the snazziness of the banners, and also tyre burning, or the lack thereof.) As usual with these endeavours, it was a largely EFF affair, a scenario the DA and the rest of the opposition had better understand will end up costing them dearly. No one else can mobilise like Malema. This whole movement is riding on his celebrity, and it burns his political capital in order to achieve — well, what? Payback will be a bitch, and payback there will be.

Anyway, one definitely gets the sense that the opposition parties have stopped having fun. The closer they get to achieving real power — Gauteng and North West, along with the Western Cape in 2019 — the more real it gets. The DA can’t stop shooting itself in the brains — there is the idiocy of Helen Zille’s endless “disciplinary process” vs. a far more activist federal executive response to former DA youth leader Mbali Ntuli having “liked” a post on her Facebook wall that referred to Zille as a racist. Meanwhile, the EFF’s founding manifesto is starting to appear, even to the faithful, as an embarrassingly jejune piece of nonsense.

As for the rest of the parties and players, they taste blood — but, as with Cope and Agang, far too often it’s their own.

And this whole thing was rife with dazzling inconsistencies.

The African Christian Democrat Party’s Kenneth Meshoe ripped it up on stage, but come on: the ACDP was the only party in Parliament to vote against the adoption of the Constitution in ’94, because it enshrined both the right of abortion and protections for homosexuals. “We are knowing that there are those in the ANC whose consciences are not dead,” said Meshoe. “They must be allowed to vote with their consciences [in a secret ballot]!”

Hoo boy.

It wasn’t all mid-level bullshit, mind you. EFF Secretary-General Godrich Gardee appeared to be MCing the event, and consulted with DA national spokesperson Phumzile van Damme on the playlist. Super groups are a nightmare to run, and yet, I even saw some handshakes and some backslaps. As per Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Forward with civil society and political party unity,” roared SaveSA and Section 27’s Mark Heywood, who had earlier told me that he’d spent a freezing night keeping a vigil outside the ConCourt, and was just at the beginning of a 24-hour fast in solidarity with Palestinians, this being Nakba Day. Do-gooders, in other words, were doing good.

But now it was time for the brand names. “When you ask for secret ballot, you are asking to protect democracy,” boomed Malema. “When those who wrote the Constitution didn’t specifically say that you could vote out a president with a secret ballot, that’s because they took it to be obvious.”

This was about defending beleaguered members of the ANC, and “protecting them from criminals who are intimidating them”, insisted Malema. “If we need to, we will take Zuma out of Parliament by force.”

Meanwhile, Malema reminded us, over in Durban the judiciary was being intimated by members of the eThekweni ANC, who were warning the people against the evils of judicial overreach, and had organised their own (subsequently washed-out) vigil/march before the High Court**. “They think judges are like them, to be captured through a plate of curry,” said Malema, referring to the Guptas and their alleged culinary wiles. “They’re the only ones who are captured. The masses are on the judiciary’s side, because you are on the side of your people.”

Maimane — sources told me that he insisted on speaking last (this is the kind of gossip traded at low-stakes marches like this one) — just about out-yelled Malema. “Zuma, it’s because of you and your incapable government that we haven’t been able to redistribute land.”

Say what now?

We are united today, black white coloured blue green red, against the tsotsi. It is Parliament that elects Zuma, and it’s Parliament that must remove Zuma,” continued the DA president.

It was time to walk. Again. The crowd was, as promised, almost entirely EFF. But it was not large — 2,500 in number, and that’s being generous.

And so but there is something psychogeographically epic about strolling through a mining town, past the Brutalist sentinels built by the apartheid lunatics, striations of concrete over striations of gold reef, on the way to a court in the vain hope of dissembling the neocolonial buggery that inevitably follows colonial thievery.

Maimane and Malema chatted amicably; Floyd Shivambu grunted at the odd reporter; Heywood looked as if he required a blood transfusion. The cold started to burn off, and then the clouds came in. A wind sent by Zuma’s sangoma whipped its way towards the Constitutional Court, always the most miserable spot in Johannesburg during inclement weather, but today an apocalyptic scourge understood only through the study of magick and signs and wonders.

The usual scuffle broke out as we attempted to bruise our way into the ConCourt grounds. Malema faced off against a white cop with a 50-year-old moustache, and finally we were filtered through. Into the court high and mighty went, while the shit-duty media sat in the wind and the cold, with only satellite dishes and police horses as company. Meanwhile, inside, the Wheels of Justice churned through taxpayer dough, to say nothing of what remains of the sanity of an anxious public.

Phumzille came out with a meh look on her face. It was not going well, apparently. “They’re not really buying it,” she said.

Perhaps not. But when court finally finished, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said judgment was reserved, but the opposition parties and civil society groups that brought the application made significant strides in their efforts to hold a motion of no-confidence by secret ballot.

Speaker Baleka Mbete had claimed Parliament’s rules don’t give her the discretion to hold a secret vote. Her counsel, Marumo Moerane, said a secret ballot can only be held according to the rules of the National Assembly, which he said did not provide for it. The National Assembly had considered exactly this issue in the past, and had rejected the idea. Later, however, he conceded that aspects of the rules appear to make provision for a secret ballot.

For Zuma, Ishmael Semenya said the court should be reluctant to give orders to the National Assembly. He disputed that MPs, as per Malema, might face reprisals for following their consciences in an open vote and said an order forcing a secret ballot on Parliament would mean the court is saying that’s the only way the executive can be held accountable.

Dali Mpofu, acting for the United Democratic Movement, closed the long-ass evening. He was upbeat. Secret ballots are used to protect the voter and employed when the National Assembly has to choose between presidential nominees, he said. Given the risks of embarrassing a president and risking the careers of 70-odd Cabinet members, Mpofu was adamant the court had to encourage a secret ballot.

We shall see.

Meanwhile, the Big Unhappy Family marches on into the land of unintended consequences, ANC voters are sold on judicial overreach, and the ConCourt labours into uncharted territory. This, one supposes, is how democracies — happy or otherwise — are supposed to work. And yet, it doesn’t quite feel like it’s working, does it? DM

* This country will not, apparently, be saved by women. They are nowhere to be seen in the opposition, and the Zuma plant currently trying to own the ANC is doing nothing for actual gender transformation in politics. It’s 2017, but in South Africa, it’s always 1817. Viva.

** Everyone who observes South African politics understands that this botched campaign is the inauspicious beginning to what promises to become a serious movement on the Zuma faction’s behalf.

Additional reporting by Greg Nicholson

Photo: Members of the opposition EFF stand on a hill outside the Constitutional Court after they participated in a mass march to the court for the result of the hearing to decide if members of parliament can vote in a secret ballet against President Jacob Zuma, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 May 2017. Photo: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

  • 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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