With malice aforethought
20 November 2017 15:31 (South Africa)
South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: The Way we are. The Where we are.

  • 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: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and President Jacob Zuma at the ANC Policy Conference, 5 July 2017, Nasrec. (Original photo by Ihsaan Haffejee)

There are literally hundreds of rumours circulating the South African political space. Will the African National Congress’s December election conference actually go ahead, given the manufactured chaos swirling around deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa? Will ANC presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, soon to be a Member of Parliament, be sworn in as Minister of Sleeping While Dancing? How will all of this work out? RICHARD POPLAK performs an act of national gastroenterology.

In August 2009, an al-Qaeda operative named Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri, nom de guerre Abul-Khair, petitioned to see Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is referred to by the initials MBN. The prince served at time as head of the powerful Interior Ministry, and in what was perhaps a dark nod to the royal’s esteemed office, Abul-Khair inserted an improvised explosive device into his own interior, sadly not orally. As the prince greeted guests in a hotel room in Jeddah, the insurgent detonated an unspecified amount of TNT he had secured in the only crevice the guards had failed to examine. The resulting scene was beyond gruesome, but MBN was lucky to escape with only an injured hand, even if the visuals were significantly more impactful in the long run.

Shortly thereafter, the term “arsehole bomb” was etched in terrorism’s tirelessly expansive lexicon.

As it happens, the Arsehole Bomber did end up killing MBN, at least as far as his political career was concerned. Earlier this year, the prince was subjected to a palace coup due to the ministrations of his younger, more ambitious cousin, Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS). Saudi and American officials claimed that MBN’s downfall was largely due to the medication he was using in order to mitigate the memory of the assassination attempt. And so, due to the work of the Arsehole Bomber, Saudi Arabia is now managed by a 31-year-old hawk who is hammering Yemen not into the Stone Age – it was smack in the middle of that epoch before this new war – but into the largest humanitarian crisis currently unfolding on Earth.

By these standards, and by these standards only, South Africa is in pretty good shape.

That said, small to medium-sized arsehole bombs are exploding all over the country, especially as our own palace intrigue reaches insane proportions in the lead-up to the ANC’s National Electoral Conference in December. Just as it is in Saudi Arabia, South Africans can only guess at what is going on behind the be-crocodiled moats of Luthuli House. Out on the streets, however, it’s nightmarish. The week before last, dissident ANC leader and former Youth League secretary, Sindiso Magaqa, died from wounds he sustained during a July assassination attempt in Umzimkhulu, KwaZulu-Natal. So far, there have been no arrests and no prosecutions. In their stead, there have been many, many press releases lauding his “contributions to the movement”. Although over 80 people have died in political murders in KZN since Jacob Zuma rose to power, there has been roughly zero police or intelligence enforcement to stem the carnage.

This is an internecine war that Zuma and his securocrats are happy to see play out. Mayhem is their medium.

Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula, himself the focus of a recent alleged assassination plot called Operation Wonder, has in the past 48 hours tweeted an endorsement of a product called Ma’s Home Made Chili Sauce [sic], retweeted a Trevor Noah/Shakira karaoke skit, and implored South Africans to “Listen …….My resolve criminals are running amok! We will cut them to size” [again, sic]. His war against grammar has proved far more successful than his war against crime: femicide has reached epidemic proportions, and the slow grind of a shrinking economy has contributed to rising crime rates across the country. South Africa’s trendiest new atrocity appears to be cannibalism: the flesh of at least two murdered women – one abducted in broad daylight in a small town in Eastern Cape – has been consumed in the service of some ritual only the perpetrators could possibly grock.

* * *

But you know what they say about the fish: the rot begins at the head. Because of the immense power held by the executive, a constitutional architecture devised with saintly Nelson Mandela in mind, the Zuma presidency was able to dismantle the rule of law with remarkable ease and sanguinity. Having systematically captured nearly every arm of the state, Zuma and his faction are the only true power centre in this country.

But the thing is, unaccountability is baked into South Africa’s DNA. The decision to provide amnesty following the 1997/1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission was made for a number of reasons, many of which are easy to criticise from the vantage point of the present day. Regardless, the sad truth is that amnesty made apartheid a perpetrator-less crime, one that allowed those who either instigated or committed atrocities to open fancy foundations, or farm unpronounceable bovine species in the Free State. In a remarkable social experiment, we exchanged justice for testimony. It didn’t quite work out.

In this justice-lite context, where issuing a statement or ignoring a crime constitutes due process, social progress is all but impossible. Example: even after a massively expensive commission of inquiry, no one has done any time for the Marikana Massacre. Then police commissioner Riah Phiyega was suspended and has not-so-dutifully performed the role of fall person. But no one who ordered, or pulled a trigger, has been busted, and as far as Lonmin, the mining company in the centre of this debacle is concerned? They’re still operating.

No fines, no government censure, no nothing.

Our Chapter 9 institutions, those bulwarks against the might of the executive? New Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, can’t get through a day without walking into a wall. Instead of concentrating on her day job, she recently urged the government to change the Constitution as it pertains to the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank, an independent institution that may not function at a premium. None of this is Mkhwebane’s business. Imagine a country in which the ombudsman, whose job it is to with make findings and (binding) recommendations regarding the operations and activities of the government, starts tinkering with the Reserve Bank’s mandate based on the economic recommendations of a lunatic holocaust denier.

That sound you hear is another arsehole bomb exploding.

* * *

The real bad news is that no one will ever sweep in to save us again. We’re just not worth it. The opposition parties, outside of their lawyers, are basically useless. In by-election after by-election, we learn that the Economic Freedom Fighters can’t get any traction, while the Democratic Alliance’s strategic “geniuses” self-trephinate at every chance they get. There should exist in South Africa a rock-solid united resistance, with a best-by date that expires at the next election. But the DA, by far the largest and richest opposition party, don’t appear to understand this.

Even worse are the individuals hoping to succeed Zuma. The two ANC “frontrunners” are a currently unemployed ANC cadre named Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. These candidates couldn’t be less popular if they placed IEDs up the buttholes of puppies and blew them up on the floor of the National Assembly. They literally have zero natural constituency to share between them; there is no one in the ANC I’ve ever spoken with who is even remotely excited about their candidacies. Do they stand for anything other then continuing the status quos they’re associated with: NDZ and state looting; CR and corporate monopolies? Not that I can discern. Their achievements are so far in the rearview mirror, and their disasters so historically proximate, that they wouldn’t be viable political avatars in a “The Sims” game played by geeks intent on boring their computers to death.

NDZ, reportedly trailing Lindiwe Sisulu by a hilarious 29 percentage points as the most popular female candidate, will be sworn into Parliament this week, filing a vacancy left by the recently departed Pule Mabe, who is hoping to spend more time with family. This is considered to be the first move in an anticipated Cabinet shuffle, which will move more of Zuma’s pawns into attacking positions. For one thing, it will end the embarrassment of a jobless cadre being shunted around the country on taxpayers’ dime. And whatever ministry she’ll occupy will feel the full might of NDZ indifference and mediocrity – perfect for a candidate hoping to lead the ANC.

As for Ramaphosa and the recent revelations regarding his extracurricular activities, such rumours have been doing the rounds for years (along with the persistent whispers of spousal battery.) After his email server was apparently hacked some time ago – an act the Ramaphosa camp attributes to the State Security Agency – the resulting data cache apparently gives the impression that he’s been pursuing relationships with eight different women. The story broke in last weekend’s Sunday Independent, but not before a list of questions addressed to Ramaphosa, crafted by the paper’s editor, Steve Motale, had done the rounds on social media. The names of several of the alleged mistresses had not been redacted, serving as a sleazy little sidebar for what was clearly a classic smear campaign. (Meanwhile, the CR campaign team’s bumbling attempts to quash these stories was an awesome reflection of his political dilettantism, and hinted at the values his presidency would harbour. Call a publisher to kill a negative story, and then try for an interdict at the last minute? Zuma wouldn’t lower himself to that nonsense.)

Cue the fake outrage: why was it that “the media” was so obsessed with the #GuptaLeaks, and was less interested in these sizzling, porno-ish #RamaphosaLeaks. In this, Motale and his supporters became exemplary purveyors of what I call shyster relativism: as socially abhorrent as blesser culture may be, and as awful as the power dynamics it exposes undeniably are, being a randy perv is not illegal. It’s a nasty snapshot of our society, but it’s not a punishable offence. Meanwhile, the #GuptaLeaks reveal corruption on a scale that is so astonishing that God would weep, had He any competence at reading Excel spreadsheets. Put it this way: on the CSR Transnet locomotive deal alone, the Guptas stole an amount equivalent to half of what would be the necessary government subsidies required for fees to fall in 2018. Take that in for a moment: almost an entire year of tertiary education subsidies stolen on a single tender.

Making comparisons between the two data dumps is the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty.

* * *

In any case, what disqualifies Ramaphosa as a viable presidential candidate isn’t restless dick syndrome. It’s Marikana, stupid. It’s his many years of disengagement from the real issue hamstringing this country: economic apartheid. Ramaphosa should have been campaigning on a gentle, redistributive centrist ticket 10 years ago. Instead he was gentleman-farming premium livestock. Which is a fine pursuit, I suppose, but not if you want to be president of this country in this era, fighting against bullshit rhetoric that posits White Monopoly Capital against Radical Economic What-What – an ideological battle so meaningless that it twists light and time and space into a celestial pretzel.

As Jane Duncan pointed out in a recent piece for The Conversation, the dirty tricks game currently bedeviling Ramaphosa’s campaign is one that he is complicit in creating. By doing nothing, he will be remembered as one of Zuma’s primary enablers. Perhaps he believed that he’d be able to roll back the stupid once he was the anointed leader of the alliance. The deputy president is now learning an essential maxim about war: every inch of territory conceded without a fight can only be regained with an enormous outlay of blood and treasure.

The unseen, unwritten programme suggests that the deputy president may get shit-canned this week. Perhaps.

Which brings us to the blithe assumptions about what comes after the Zuma. What if Zuma follows the Zuma? What if the future is a series of never-ending Zuma clones, blathering disinterestedly through speeches pimping the slogan of the day, attributing the success of their enemies to witchcraft, while linking the achievements of the ANC to the will of Jesus H. Christ Himself. What if a spurious State of Emergency (due, I dunno, to “out of control” student protests) decrees that there will be no 2019 elections, during which the (aforementionedly useless) opposition are supposed to win Gauteng and take the ANC to the wire. Or what if NDZ wins those elections with 98% of the popular vote due to a captured Independent Electoral Commission?

What if there is no electoral conference?

The fevered imaginings of a conspiracy theorist, say you? Let’s put it this way: it should be obvious that it’s not only Zuma’s intention to stay in power for as long as possible in order to avoid prison – we’ll call that the “existential imperative”. But it’s also his aim, in keeping with a much larger movement of hyper-wealthy politically powerful global plutocrats, to completely this destroy democracy.

NDZ is an extension of this scheme, while CR is the definition of a plutocrat. They constitute a choice, certainly. But not one any sane South African should hope to make.

* * *

The upshot? South Africa is basically one big Mexican Arsehole Bomber stand-off. Everyone is packing an IED where the sun don’t shine, while threatening to blow the mother of all farts in the direction of their enemies. The smallanyana skeletons, it turns out, are not so smallanyana after all. And yet, as everyone threatens everyone else with exploding butt ordnance, there are things that can be done. In Kenya, judges overruled a flawed electoral process that even dozy international monitors signed off on. In Togo, the people are currently on the streets, demanding the president make way for free and fair elections.

We do not have to accept this shit. On any given day, someone in Africa is rising up.

Indeed, the great benefit of an arse bomber is that the bomber sustains the bulk of the blast. Mopping up is not pleasant. But mopping up political disasters is a South African specialty. It’s time to ask for – nay, demand – a bunch more options, everywhere. Because the current crop just won’t do. DM

Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and President Jacob Zuma at the ANC Policy Conference, 5 July 2017, Nasrec. (Original photo by Ihsaan Haffejee)

  • 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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