Knowledge is the new black.
17 December 2017 16:10 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

South African politics: Big Brother meets the Kardashians

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

What does one say about a week like this? We have become a nation enamoured of celebrity politics and all the reality television sideshow dramas that accompany the lifestyles of the rich and famous. From the maligning of Thuli Madonsela to the culpable homicide judgement in the Oscar Pistorius trial, to COSATU’s call for South Africans to boycott Generations, the nation’s attention has been captured by the cult of celebrity.

We obsess about Oscar and Reeva, rather than the systems and processes that produced their relationship and the structures that have the power to deliberate on gender justice. We are taken with the persona of Kebby Maphatsoe and his utterances; indeed we are equally drawn to what we see in Thuli Madonsela the person, when we should be deeply concerned with the ways in which their offices are either elevated or undermined by the cult of celebrity. And as we fixate on creating minor celebrities, the structural drivers of inequality and the whittling away of our democratic foundations remain largely ignored.

As the nation laugh-cried about the Deputy Minister of Defence’s insults against the Pubic Protector, a number of her senior staff left. Their departures were the result of a sustained attack on her office that has included more dangerous weapons than just sticks and stones: Madonsela is on the record as having asking Parliament (more on that august institution below) for more resources to pay her staff and to fund her investigations. The bravery of the Public Protector may make headlines. Indeed, it makes many of us extremely proud, but her courage doesn’t pay the bills and keep the lights on at her offices. Sadly, the ANC does that.

The ruling party has wisely figured out that its real power lies in its ability to slowly diminish budgets and deny increased staffing levels. Administrative strangulation may not make headlines but its effect is pernicious. A media focused on the dramatic utterances and conspiracy theories of celebrity politicians like Gwede Mantashe and Julius Malema doesn’t have the time, resources or strategic foresight to cover the daily details. And so we don’t notice the growing cracks where power has been eroded, we fail to see the fissures where crucial elements of our democracy used to stand on solid ground.

President Zuma’s letter to the Public Protector is an example of this. While our heads were swivelled in the direction of Judge Masipa’s ruling in the Pistorius case, as we debated Dolus Eventualis, Zuma made some interesting and important arguments about the powers of the Public Protector. The president rightly pointed out that there are areas of the Public Protector’s mandate and scope that are unclear. These will need to be tested in court at some stage. But he dangerously (and seemingly un-ironically) arrived at the conclusion that “[i]n the present instance and regarding whether or not I am liable for any repayments, I should not be a judge in my own case unless and to the degree I am institutionally compelled (my emphasis).” That is a pretty extraordinary fragment of a sentence. In other words, I can be the player and the referee if I write the rules in such a way as to determine that the rules say that I can be the ballplayer and the referee.

That massive brain fart was released as we were mulling over the Masipa judgement and we didn’t even notice that someone had introduced a silent-but-deadly toxin into the air.

A few days later, while the Twitterati were glued to the farcical debate in Parliament about whether or not Baleka Mbete is fit to serve as the Speaker or not, the Marikana Commission was quietly wrapping up the evidence in its investigation of the biggest massacre in the democratic era. While the Honourable members were shooting from the hip, none of them seem to have thought about how best to mark the end of the Farlam Commission’s work.

I will be impressed – but shocked – if our MPs decide to observe a moment of silence out of respect for the dead miners when the Commission finally draws to a close. The House is far livelier than it ever has been before, but it risks becoming too self-involved, too taken with its own internal workings and rivalries – sort of like a soapie. The proceedings were covered live by a number of stations. Where was the public interest as Lonmin executives conceded that they had lied in the public domain, and admitted that they built only three (3!) of the 5,500 houses they were legally obliged to build between 2007 and 2011? No collective gasp as we discovered that a company with a market capitalisation of R21,814,714,0222 built three-quarters of a house a year over the last four years for its workforce of 30,000 living, breathing people.

Perhaps the mind-numbing scale of the country’s social and economic divisions makes it difficult to focus on what is most likely to change our political and economic trajectory. Perhaps the complexity of our reality confounds us. Perhaps we are suffering a collective madness, a terrible affliction that makes it easy to examine the hysterical rantings of politicians who see CIA agents behind every door. Perhaps this malady makes it hard for us to ask why the terrible murder of a ‘beautiful’ heterosexual white woman is dealt with in thirteen months, while the horrible rape and murder of a lesbian – covered in the report of the Khayelitsha Commission – dragged on for seven years.

We remain a country of enormous contradictions and gaping inequalities. Adopting a celebrity culture in our politics by focusing on the glamour and not on the structural drivers of inequality will only deepen our problems. The first step is to write interesting stories about the issues that really matter. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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