Bloody literary agents
17 August 2017 23:19 (South Africa)
South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Secret ballot outcome — does Zuma dream of electoral sheep?

  • 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
Original Photo: “I’ve just come to say thank you to all of you,” said President Jacob Zuma to his supporters upon taking the stage near Parliament on Tuesday evening after surviving a vote of no confidence. Image by Katie Warren.

This was the eighth no confidence motion tabled against President Jacob Zuma, and the only one by secret ballot. There was talk of something called a “conscience”. And the man in the High Castle stood by, waiting, getting weaker with every vote cast. Enjoy this complimentary Phillip K. Dick pic from the other side of political reality. By RICHARD POPLAK.

And so unfolded the eighth motion of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma. This time, unlike the other times, the ballots were cast in secret. But the outcome was never really in doubt. Except for the fact that it was, at least in its fine-grained details.

The WhatsApps hit ANC MPs' iPhones at around four in the morning—little love letters imploring the faithful to vote not with their consciences, but with their revolutionary esprit.

“There are no ROSES in a WAR,” read one. “The war Against Monopoly Capital requires a contingent of united forces of Oliver Tambo. United we STAND, Divided we FALL.” [sic]

The verbiage here is fairly important. At the 5th ANC National Policy Conference, which took place in Nasrec, Johannesburg, last month, pretty much the only thing agreed upon was that South Africa was bedeviled not by White Monopoly Capital, but by colourless Monopoly Capital. (These ancient Soviet-style arguments are what pass for policy in these parts.) If you read the terminological tealeaves, an art at which most South Africans have become immensely adept, it was clear that these notes were meant to nudge even those within the anti-Zuma camp towards some form of consensus.

And so, an unwieldy equation. Monopoly Capital, bad: Jacob Zuma, good.

The math didn’t quite wash, not by any measure. But the campaign was concerted, and every MP was invited to conflate overture with intimidation. This was D-Day, so fuck logic, right?

The strong-arming worked. By the time a bewitched moon gave way to the mighty African sun—what I’m trying to say is that it was morning—it became clear that the ANC had come to grips with the no confidence narrative. On the wireless, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula repeated his standard line equating voting for the no confidence motion with overthrowing the ANC. Secretary General Gwede Mantashe told the ANC caucus that if they did vote Zuma out, it would be near impossible to agree on a replacement candidate during the 30-day interregnum before the Constitution demanded an election. Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu told the press that if MPs were to vote in favour of Zuma’s dismissal, “it would further fracture and weaken the ANC.”

As Puleng Mabe would later say in parliament, this was an attempted coup d’état. Elsewhere, Durban mayor Zandile Gumede said that those voting against Zuma were “ruled by Satan”.

These were not profound and airtight arguments. And indeed, the usual bunch of ANC dissenters—think Pravin Gordhan, Derek Hannekom, et al—said the usual things about the usual business on the usual sympathetic forums.  But they, along with the opposition, had their backs pressed against a wall of mathematical determinism: 400 members, 249 of which were members of the ANC, two of them were dead, more of them were sick. The winning team required not a 50 percent plus one majority, as was argued for by the opposition, but a straight-up-and-down 201 ayes or nays. There was much debate about these processes—nothing like this had happened before.

That no one thought to confirm how the voting actually would work was, much like the day was itself, just fucking depressingly ridiculous.

* * *

Later in the morning, another message was sent out to the (waveringly) faithful ANC deployees: “Let’s approach the enemy with enthusiasm. Let’s gather at 13pm at porthuis and enter the house with a revolutionary song in unison.”

Shortly before 14:00, in danced the ANC MPs. If it was body language you were looking for, there was plenty on display—parliament was a veritable souk of corporeal jibber-jabber. And as far as the ANC's 920 or so limbs were concerned, there was zero stress, hombres. National spokesperson Zizi Kodwa bounced around like he had just shot a two below par on a particularly challenging back nine. In the ANC camp, a carnivalesque giddiness prevailed. Only a few of their number appeared to be taking this seriously. Even fewer seemed to think their decision here bore any gravity out there, in the wider world, where the recession bites like an unseen plague.

All just another game inside the great game of maintaining power, right?

And in the shadows, probably not even bothering to watch this debased crap on the telly, sat Darth Zuma

And so the statements unfolded, just as you’d imagine they would have. This one said what they always do. That one said the opposite. The Democratic Alliance’s president, Mmusi Maimane, was good. The EFF’s Julius Malema was very good. The DA’s spokesperson, Phumzille van Damme, was very very good. As a member of the opposition, how do you blow this moment? (Ask the IFP’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who is always ready with an answer, albeit a long one.) One could argue that the spice properly hit the bobotie during Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s statements, when she reiterated the party line—which is to say, the only thing that counts is the Congress. “My political consciousness tells me to defend the ANC,” she wailed, between numerous interruptions. Chillingly, her rhetoric echoed one of those WhatsApped injunctions sent earlier in the day:

Revolutionary consciousness means vote for the ANC and with the ANC not against, for you voting against the ANC is a betrayal to the poor masses of our country. Aluta Continua

The members became restless, Malema went so far as to call for breathalyzer tests. None of this was pleasant. None of it was smart. And then the men in black brought out cardboard voting booths, and the waiting began.

* * *

Outside, during this interminable suspension, I encountered a huddle of luminaries, backlit by the glowing mountain. Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini, along with Minister of State Security David Mahlobo and Fikile Mbalula, stood discussing, well, what? Two securocrats strolled over for a handshake. “Keep up the good work,” said Mahlobo. Mbalula gave a leader-ly nod, perhaps remembering the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training Mduduzi Manana, who was recently accused of, and more recently admitted to, beating a woman at a nightclub, and has somehow not yet been subjected to the inconvenience of arrest.

And yet Manana, the great living metaphor for the ANC’s everlasting unaccountability, was nowhere to be found. On a day in which no-shows should have been whipped into political mincemeat, Manana was given a free pass. His name crossed nary a lip. The ANC, after all, does not judge its own members for anything but dissing the party line, and nor does it censure them for their transgressions. Less a party than a syndicate, less a political entity than an economic betting pool, this was a religious fraternity that bowed before nothing so much as German automotive engineering.

Not a single ANC MP called out Jacob Zuma, and not one apologized for nor acknowledged the decade-long looting of the state at his behest.

In order for the ANC to survive, tricks would be necessary. At first, there was a scheme that would have handed out numbered ballots, which effectively rendered the votes traceable. This being a secret secret ballot-type scenario, Democratic Alliance Chief Whip John Steenhuisen objected, and the ballots were reprinted.

Cue a long afternoon.

The MPs walked and lumbered and were wheeled up to tables administered by parliamentary clerks. Then, they went to the makeshift booths. They ticked their boxes and walked back to their seats. When it was done, the counters stood around tables like crows pecking at roadkill, performing the analog equivalent of what computers so routinely screw up. 

Magical thinking bent toward the inevitable: the ANC would of course defeat the motion of no confidence. This was pure political power-lifting, muscle over mind, the consequences be damned. But still, the numbers were hellishly close, as least as far as the congress was concerned.

384 votes cast, 177 in favour of the motion, 198 votes against, and nine abstentions.

This was the eighth—eighth!—vote of no confidence against Zuma, and at no other time had a single ANC MP voted in favour.  Suddenly, if you counted abstentions, 35 had crossed into the unknown.

* * *

Everyone was giddy. Everyone believed they had won.

“This is democracy at play,” said a terrifyingly pumped Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu. “The mere fact that we had this entire process says we have mechanisms that can't be played with here. I’m very happy with the result. I'm very very very happy. There is absolutely no way the ANC can vote with that motion, whatever the motion was.”

Yes, but surely she had reservations about Zuma’s record? “President Zuma is still with us,” she said. “Look at the vote.”

“Members of the ANC have defended the Revolution,” agreed an ashen, shrunken, sickly-looking Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu,

Was DA leader Mmusi Maimane happy?

“I think so,” he told me. “We set ourselves up to say that we gave ourselves the best conditions for the motion. Look at the numbers. It became very clear that he's lost the mandate of his party. We can unseat this elephant called the ANC. He must resign. I’m encouraged by the number. Actually, I'm buoyant.”

Was the ANC damaged, I wondered?

“Damaged? Completely,” said Maimane. There is now clear evidence that they're fractured down the middle.”

Malema was even more jacked on enemy blood. “We killed them man,” he told me. “Thirty-five of them voted with us? We are very happy. We have always said that we are going to eat this elephant piece by piece. After seven motions, we never got a single vote by an ANC member in the past. They are finished. Anyone who doubted, now you've got material evidence of such.”

Elephant metaphors, it seems, are poached across the ideological divide.

But those 35 errant members of the ANC. What to do with them? Who are they? To whose reality do they belong?

Minister of State Security David Mahlobo, firmly under Zuma’s command, will likely begin looking for them, tracking them, helping to explain to them the complexities of membership. Now begins the slow creep of attrition, the war for the ANC that will happen behind the scenes, within the ANC, behind the velvet-draped confines of various premium party venues.

Zuma is almost mortally weakened, as is his faction leading into December’s electoral conference. The loss of the 35 MPs to the opposition motion is an unprecedented humiliation—worse than COPE, worse than the EFF, a form of political Ebola that is both incurable and highly disgusting. After all, projectile diarrhea in secrecy is still projectile diarrhea.

Zuma’s electoral sheep are deserting him, which means his shepherding skills will have to get far, far nastier if he is to survive the year. The peasant of Nkandla is about to show the flock what he is truly made of. DM

Original Photo: “I’ve just come to say thank you to all of you,” said President Jacob Zuma to his supporters upon taking the stage near Parliament on Tuesday evening after surviving a vote of no confidence. Image by Katie Warren.

  • 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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