It’s hard, messy work clambering over the shoulders of giants.
Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela left this broken world two weeks ago, and in her absence South Africa nearly tore itself apart. At issue, as is so often the case during these social media-driven end-times, was a binary debate concerning the particulars of a life: Madikizela-Mandela was either a feminist icon beyond reproach, or a murderer of small children. That the truth was something far more nuanced, far more interesting, appeared to be of concern only to a very few. Winnie was being claimed – or reclaimed, or discarded, depending on whom one asked – and the process felt like heart surgery without the benefit of an anaesthetic.
This is all to say that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela became a political commodity the second she passed away, a means of legitimising certain points of view, but also of enhancing reputations, personalities and – most gruesomely – parties. The countless op-eds, memorials, services, and speeches that poured forth over the course of the past two weeks, many of them genuinely moving, have nonetheless proven something inviolable about South African life. As the novelist Milan Kundera once put it:
People are always shouting that they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reasons people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.
The point here is not to offer another interrogation of Winnie’s vastly important, entirely representative South African life, but to make sense of how political interpretations of her legacy are playing out across our national imaginarium. She passed away during a vital inflection point in history: in the middle of a land debate that will define the course of the next generation; in the middle of the forensic accounting of Jacob Zuma’s pitiful State Capture mess; in the middle of the first blush of the coalition era; in the middle of a re-upped bout of racial discord; in the middle of the realisation that our entire system – a sort of all-dressed social democracy-lite – is neither healthy nor sustainable in the long run.
Some of what has happened in the interregnum between her death and her interment has been farcical – convicted racist Vicki Momberg emerging from her first days in prison wearing cornrows. Some of it has been disgraceful – the ANC/EFF demolition derby in the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality. Some of it has been boring – the Democratic Alliance emerging from its national conference armed with an executive team nearly entirely comprised of white men.
The country is not the same place it was before she passed away, and the laboratories where the photographs are retouched are more crowded than they have ever been. But the last bitter laugh belongs to Winnie – because whoever ends up owning her memory, will end up owning the country.
* * *
Immediately following Madikizela-Mandela’s death, the governing party powered up the nuclear reactors, and however hypocritically, her mourning was an ANC-branded affair. When sufficiently motivated, the Congress can do this stuff in its sleep – there isn’t another political party in the world that can pull off two stadium events in one week with such slick competence.
But some things were difficult to paper over. As a cultural marker, Winnie’s passing represented an uncomfortable potential turning point: was it not time to reify the notion that Nelson Mandela’s reconciliation process was a failure, and that sidelining Winnie’s radicalism was an existential mistake that has mired the country in stasis? This makes many within the ANC feel deeply uncomfortable, largely because the party’s high priests never were, and nor are they now, in line with her sensibilities. Winnie left behind a coalition of centrists, technocrats, gangsters, warlords, fake radicals and genuine reactionaries, whom as a collective constitute an ideological joke, and whose record can only generously be considered mixed.
And so we arrive at a tragedy: In death, Winnie finally ascended to the highest echelons of power, and yet there was not much she could do with it. In celebrating her record, and in offering endless mea culpas for her mistreatment, the ANC attempted to open a conduit to her unofficial constituency: a generation of young people forged by the Fallist movements, by decades of unemployment, and by endless economic marginalisation – to say nothing of several generations of women beaten back by the same institutional misogyny she faced at every turn. Attempting to retroactively nip and tuck her history so that it was as vague as that of her male counterparts, the ANC welcomed her – and by extension her legions of supporters – home.
The welcoming party, however, was a mixed batch. Former Free State premier Ace Magashule, now ANC Secretary-General, represented the party at numerous events. His star remains as turgidly earthbound as ever. The same cannot be said of deputy president David Mabuza, Mpumalanga’s alleged gangster-in-chief, who continued to launder his reputation with a superb keynote address at last Wednesday’s memorial service.
The last several weeks have also underscored the provisional nature of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency, and the immensely detailed choreography required from him if he hopes to mince his way through his party’s warring impulses. On the one hand, he must assuage the constitutionalists – the men and women who believe that progress can only happen under the aegis of the document they helped draft. (This being the ANC, they don’t have the temerity to defend it, and voted along with the EFF to amend Section 25 in February.) Which brings us to those who genuinely feel that the constitution holds back black South Africans, that it is yoking them to economic and social mechanisms of the apartheid era, and that it is an impediment to creating a South African utopia.
The ANC in its current state cannot bear these contradictions; it cannot govern because it does not know itself. In their rage, Madikizela-Mandela’s daughters appeared to act as proxies for millions of South Africans railing against the party, the government, the media, the courts, the very transition process itself – the core institutions of public life that they feel have left them behind. So Ramaphosa must remake his party if he hopes to make a country.
And his salvation wears a pair or red overalls.
* * *
The current rhetoric insists that Winnie’s death has brought Ramaphosa and Julius Malema closer to some form of tentative reunion. That may be true in Ramaphosa’s case, but Malema has had this play in mind long before the moment it became apparent that the billionaire would win the ANC national electoral conference. With the endlessly giving Zuma piñata no longer there to pummel, the opposition would obviously lose its focus.
So what to do?
Go radical, Baby! Malema and his crew ramped up the histrionics, which earned the EFF president a dozen op-eds accusing him of being a fascist, while he shotgun Tweeted racism accusations at the mainstream press regarding the hiring of specific reporters, and railed against writer and editor Ferial Haffajee for the sin of becoming a successful black media professional.
Ferial Haffajee (who had recently referred to Malema as “kiddie” Amin in an op-ed piece) was taking Malema to task for race baiting, and her point was clear – there is a big difference between forcefully calling out racial power imbalances and stoking the embers of race-hatred to score cheap points. Malema was at the time doing both. And it led to the most unconscionable misstep his party has made in its short history. Welcome to Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, where, in a bout of near complete political incoherence, the EFF decided to “punish” the Democratic Alliance for not supporting their land expropriation motion in Parliament.
Malema and his party teamed up with the ANC to put their muscle behind successive no confidence motions against Executive Mayor Athol Trollip, whose tenuous coalition they had previously backed. Out of the three DA coalition mayors, Trollip was singled out by the EFF because he is white. But Trollip was born white, he will likely die white, and he was certainly white when he squeaked his way into office. And while the man is no one’s idea of teddy bear, he became mayor because Nelson Mandela Bay under the ANC was a complete shit-show, governed by a criminal syndicate who had one thing on their mind: stealing the place into eternal penury.
By rights, the ANC should be banished from Nelson Mandela Bay for a political generation. He was forced to acknowledge the absurdity of his position during a speech there, soon after. Now, the EFF/ANC team-up has been attempting to render the city ungovernable. It’s not exactly a great advertisement for things to come.
This flailing is symptomatic of a larger misfunctioning: the EFF is a tiny outfit hamstrung by a growth problem. Question: how does one formulate a genuine leftist party in South Africa without the buy-in of organized labour and the SACP? The short answer: you don’t. The EFF’s reluctance (or inability) to form a broader leftist coalition suggests that the party is only coherent when it’s considered as a component of the African National Congress – which is to say, when its properly understood as the Youth League in exile. Then, and only then, does the narrowness of their self-imposed mandate start to make sense. Then, and only then, is it possible to place some of their recent antics in context.
During the Zuma era, performing the ANCYL’s role as radical rabble-rousers easily won mainstream acceptance. Indeed, during the second half of Zuma’s tenure, the party hit the Goldilocks factor dead on the head, and even moneyed white folks were happily espousing Malema’s political “genius”, and agreeing with a number of his policies “in principle”. He wasn’t a fascist when he was banging a hard hat against a parliamentary table demanding Zuma “pay back the money”; nor was he a fascist when he tried to shut down successive State of the Nation addresses. He wasn’t a fascist when he banned from his press conferences ANN7 and The New Age reporters – black working men and women in their early-to-mid twenties; he wasn’t a fascist when he claimed, in a rather forceful fashion, that whites and Indians needed to share the wealth. He wasn’t a fascist when he gave his party a crypto-military sheen; and he wasn’t a fascist when he said that he didn’t want to kill all whites, at least “not yet”.
As long as he was gunning for Zuma, all was forgiven.
Suddenly, in the light of Ramaphosa’s New Dawn, he’s become Black Hitler. What’s changed? Nothing, except for the fact that we’re back to the ANC’s default centrist setting, with a president who is concerned with non-racialism, foreign direct investment, and the price of the rand relative to the dollar.
In other words: We’re fine now. Stop causing nonsense. Leave the nice whites alone.
But Malema faces a mightily dangerous political problem, one much larger than an angry pale-faced commentariat: he is a player with name recognition easily equivalent to that of the president’s, who cannot seem to translate his celebrity status into the commensurate number of votes. Part of this must be attributed to the lingering mistrust that is a hangover of his ANCYL “Anything For Zuma” rampage, which was so over the top that, when he finally turned on the man he helped make king, it seemed less like the principled stance of a young man who’d finally come to his senses, and more like an old-school political flip-flopping. And part of it comes down to the fact that outside of the EFF’s foundational principle – nationalisation – Juju has been far too mutable, and has changed his register on certain issues as often as Zuma changes Mandela shirts on a full day of KZN photo-ops.
For regular punters, changing one’s mind is part of the privilege that results from living in a democracy — spirited engagement with your peers, and all that good stuff. For politicians, it’s interpreted as rank expediency. And in politics, there is nothing more deadly than being labeled a flip-flopper. Malema’s central political problem is not that he’s Mussolini in overalls and a hard hat, but rather that no one believes him.
And so make no mistake: the EFF must return home if Malema is to flourish politically. And Malema must return home if the ANC hopes to once again become a dominant political force. Malema’s radical lefty noisemaking does not get enough traction without the endorsement of the congress’s broad coalition. The broad coalition has no credible force without Malema’s radical lefty noisemaking. The two sides moderate each other. And while Ramaphosa may halt the ANC’s slide into the coalition era, it seems unlikely that they’ll get over 50 percent in Gauteng in 2019, and even unlikelier that they’ll return to a two-thirds majority in parliament. Here, the EFF’s numbers become vital. Once again, the small guy could act as kingmaker.
History has a long way to go with Winnie-Malema legacy. In a Congress that has become a mess of non-ideological survival techniques, loosely adhering to a National Development Plan that no one seems to have read, reacting becomes a primary political force. As Zenani Dlamini reminded the audience during her astonishing address at Saturday’s funeral, her mother once said that, “I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.”
It’s a terrible, tragic statement, but it’s true not only of individuals, but of institutions. Yin and yang – the constant fight not to submit to the fact that the enemy always produces a mirror of itself, a version 2.0.
The ANC is currently locked in that battle. The past, once again, beckons. But there is a master at work in the laboratories. They may end up ceding the entire project to him, and sooner than they think. DM
Photo: Winnie Mandela and EFF Leader Julius Malema at the funeral service of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada, 29 March 2017, Johannesburg. (Photos GCIS)
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