We've just entered “20 years of democracy”, without Nelson Mandela, and it's an election year. Unable to figure out just what's going on, I start the march to the 2014 vote.
It was past midnight on New Year’s and we’d missed the countdown. I was at a bar, walking distance of course, in Melville. Mafikizolo blared from the speakers and I did my best impersonation of a dance move. My hips went left, one leg forward, while my hands pointed back and forth like a car guard. The bar, a haunt of students and cheapskates, mustn’t have had a clock. “Andiswa, we missed the countdown!” I said to a friend. She fell onto her haunches like a woman in mourning and screamed “10, 9, 8…” to welcome us into 2014.
But nothing felt new about 2014. It was like getting hand-me-down clothes from your brother and being told to enjoy them. Since Daily Maverick paused for the holidays, I had a strict routine. There was a pile of books on the bedside table, folders on the hard drive for movies and series, and not a cent in the bank. I spent the holidays sleeping on either the couch or the bed, my biggest worry being how often you need to roll over to avoid bed sores and how to obtain season three of Downton Abbey for free.
It took serious physical and mental effort to speak on the phone to my family for a cumulative 22 minutes. I didn’t want to do anything. If bedpans were still in vogue I may not have got up at all.
On New Year’s Eve I realised my brain dead apathy was partly financial, partly mental. My friend Mbali was there. I’d seen her two weeks before in Qunu. While Nelson Mandela’s flag-draped coffin sat ready to be lowered into the ground I greeted her, tears streamed down her face, like it was another day in Jo’burg. There wasn’t time to talk about why she was crying, why everyone was crying. I was in Qunu to take pictures of a funeral. With the media restrictions, that didn’t quite work out. So, I turned to the crying shots – friends, acquaintances, locals, decked-out ANC supporters and confused children, I didn’t care. Mandela was dead. Clouds kept a respectful distance from each other in the ocean of the Qunu sky. Mandela was about to be lowered into the ground and I needed high-quality photos of trauma expressed in tears.
We worked non-stop for 10 days before he was laid to rest. My cameras went for repairs twice, once when the rain soaked into the switches at the FNB Stadium memorial, where some photographers came from across the globe but left with dead cameras and no pictures. The other time was due to frantic stupidity. By the time I met Mbali on that Qunu hill I was a confused, tired wreck. As a journalist, how do you personally process something when you’re so focused on looking at how others cope?
Sometimes I stopped shooting. Like when Ahmed Kathrada, Rivonia trialist, Robben Island prisoner and Madiba’s friend, spoke at memorial in Lenasia. His body looked frail, a fragile piece of flesh in a sturdy chair. His eyes watered. “I was in awe of him,” said Kathrada. A week later at the funeral he broke the nation’s heart. “When Walter died, I lost a father and now I have lost a brother. My life is in a void and I don’t know who to turn to,” he told mourners.
I didn’t see that funeral speech. Far from the proceedings, I was walking around Qunu, my skin turning red in the sun, asking locals if they had a TV and whether we could check what was happening. A group of young men shared a cigarette and asked about life and jobs in Jozi. A man tending his cattle brought his radio over so we could listen to the eulogies together. Tavern drunks laughed at each other posing for photos while countless people offered me their houses for accommodation, hoping to make a quick buck from the media circus. Over 30 minutes in the hills, I told my feelings to a young man; he spoke Xhosa, me a toddler’s Zulu.
You probably have doubts about the ANC. The booing of President Zuma confirms that. The fake interpreter didn’t help. But while mourning for Mandela we remembered the party’s selfless deeds and the struggle for a better future for all, the heart of the party that beat against apartheid and offered lessons for all of us, no matter your race, class or ideology. Thabo Mbeki said it best when discounting theories about the night of the long knives: we shouldn’t fear a future without Mandela because his values are the values of his comrades and the ideals of a nation.
But there are so many problems in the country and the ANC, how do we reconcile the nostalgia with the reality, the myths the truths and everything in between? We are threatened by corruption, years of shitty education and a crap job market. South Africa is under threat from increasing state pressure on the media and a ruthless police service. There’s a lack of accountability and too few people in the ruling party ready to step outside the game of thrones and call bullshit a bullshit. Zuma’s Nkandla homestead/compound/private residence, call it what you will, is like a middle finger to the public and his lieutenants can’t do better than wrap a bow of lies around it.
I didn’t want to think about any of it over Christmas. I wouldn’t even watch local TV. I couldn’t reconcile the public pain of losing Mandela with the public outrage over, well, everything.
Welcome to 2014, “20 years of democracy”. Here, Zuma’s populist offspring Julius Malema has the ANC scared over red berets. The Democratic Alliance is starting to act like it really believes it can do real damage outside of its republic. Agang is preaching the bible of Mamphela Ramphele. And the National Union of Metal Workers South Africa is acting like Zwelinzima Vavi’s own army and in the process just might scare a few people in the ANC and give the working chance a better option than ersatz socialists.
It’s been two decades since the trajectory of many lives in this country changed course and 20 years since many promises haven’t been met. It’s also time for another election, a pretty damn important one.
“I’ll vote ANC because of what Mandela did,” said someone in my kitchen on New Year’s Day, long after I wanted to go to bed.
“What? But that’s a vote for Zuma,” said another friend.
“The important thing is that we need to engage citizens so that they have the right information relevant to their lives and can become active in our politics,” said someone else.
The countdown to the elections has already begun and this time it’s more complicated. While the ruling party does its best to hold on to its majority, politics is a basket case of sometimes difficult to reconcile issues. As easy as it is to pretend things are the same as always, they’re not. We just don’t know which way they’re actually going. That’s what’s threatening us. That’s why I was so confused over Christmas I’d rather turn into Howard Hughes than read a newspaper. And that’s why 2014 will be so interesting.
Happy new year. DM
Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.
The 2016 Rio Olympic medals are already showing defects including rusting and chipping.