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Zuma’s South Africa: When shame means nothing at all


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

Our outrage is aimed at Zuma’s Nkandla failure rather than at the regression the ANC has delivered to the doorsteps of the people it claims to best represent.

I find it increasingly difficult to write about Jacob Zuma; not because I don’t care about what he has done but because I am suspicious of how much I have begun to rage against him. I see mirrored in everyone around me this same disdain for the man and his deeds and it feels like a clever and seductive trap but a trap nonetheless.

I would like him to vacate his office – there is no question about that. Yet I am worried about my preoccupation with the terms of his departure. I am disappointed that my desperation for his departure is so closely linked to a court judgment rather than to the ways in which he and his cronies have overseen the mushrooming of poverty and injustice in South Africa.

I was reminded of the hypocrisy of my outrage at Zuma over Nkandla as I listened to the radio last week; as an under-used word tumbled heavily from the mouth of Dr Pali Lehohla, our Statistician-General this week. The word was “regression”.

We are used to words like “decline” and “chaos”, with their colonial connotations. But “regression” is a robust word. It is hard and scientific and technical, used to plot and mark and measure. Our own government’s human bean-counter-in-chief – not an agent from America but a mild-mannered specialist in population studies – told us last week that young South Africans today are less educated than their parents were 20 years ago, and we were not outraged.

When I heard him talking to Thabiso Tema on PowerFM I wanted to pull the car over and weep. I did not do so because there is no place for those kinds of tears in this South Africa. There are things we cannot change; things only students dare question. We no longer ask what we will do, we only shake our heads and throw our hands up.

Maybe this is why the rest of us grow more and more shrill about the man who sits at the top: We think we can do something about him. He is only one man. The rest – the regressions in our education system because of the legacy of apartheid and the Mafia of education unions and the missteps of policy-makers and the torpor of officials in the ministry – all of these factors are too big to fight.

If the children in question – the ones the Statistician-General describes as increasingly unemployable – were of a different complexion, or if they were not so poor, then we might find it easier to fight for them. But they aren’t. So our outrage is aimed at Zuma’s Nkandla failure rather than at the regression the ANC has delivered to the doorsteps of the people it claims to best represent.

The chattering classes confine ourselves to the Guptas and Zumas and we are not wrong to do so. I agree that they stand accused of wholly outrageous things and they must go and leave us to pick up the pieces and rebuild. I am also saying that we ought to be equally angry about the perilously plummeting statistics that underpin the daily lives of poor South Africans. We ought to stop speaking in ways that imply that the poorest of our citizens are living on the periphery when they are also the most numerous. Incredible: The arrogance of the middle classes who act as though the margins are full and the centre is sparsely populated; as though our concerns are central and the concerns of the poor are marginal.

Perhaps we need to rethink this formulation. These are not the only strange terms that have made their way into our political lexicon. There are also phrases like “state capture” which obscure the truth and make ugly things look like mere theories.

I agree with others who have made the point that we can’t have a situation in which ministers are offered jobs by people who have no mandate except self-enrichment. Yet I am as offended by what lies on the other side of state capture, as I am by the capture – perhaps more offended.

What worries me is not simply that the state has been captured; it is that as a consequence, the poorest of our citizens have been dangerously neglected. The state has been captured by vampires and their victims are not well-fed ministers. No, their victims are those who require housing and schools and the basic rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

The most vulnerable people in this country are literally caught in the grip of the increasingly macabre and bizarre plans of a president who is well past shame.

I know that it is difficult for us to focus on issues like the drought because those of us who write and read articles online only suffer water shortages as a temporary inconvenience. Yet as the constitutional crisis deepens over a president who does not respect the law, I wonder what name we can give to the slowly unfolding crisis that results when the rich ignore the hunger of the poor. What language do we give to the statistics I heard Dr Lehohla speak?

President Zuma does not stand alone in his shame: We who are privileged – the middle classes who have stood aside and worked hard to build parallel systems to insulate ourselves as our schools and health systems have fallen apart – we are collectively to blame. We are to blame because still in this moment, we are not angry enough about the daily indignities.

We have betrayed ourselves.

Our betrayal has a particular smell. It is the stench of pit latrines and bodies baking in the sun in Marikana, shot down by police rifles. It smells like another murder in Bredasdorp. Our betrayal tastes like tear gas in the mouths of young women at Rhodes and across the country who have had enough of the stultifying processes of universities that pretend to investigate sexual assault when really they are only waiting for the boys to graduate into men who will leave and become somebody else’s problem.

And yes, betrayal smells like the cabin of a private jet bound for Dubai. And yes, betrayal also emanates just as powerfully from the sight of a blind woman begging unsuccessfully in traffic. Betrayal smells like trash and we all know that only those who are paid to do so will Pikitup. The rest of us walk past South Africa’s everyday betrayals as though they don’t exist. We pick our way across the detritus and hold our breath to avoid the reality of how much South Africa stinks.

Those who speak up and point out the trash are treated with a ferocity that grows more intense by the day. Poor people in communities that are fed up are told that they are funded by a third force. Investigations are commissioned into why people don’t turn up to hear the lies of a party that has betrayed them. Our leaders have become cruel and full of vengeance. They attack those who use their voices in service of integrity; they call them agents and question their loyalty all the while defending the indefensible and speeding up the regression.

I wonder what these people will say one day when the full extent of their sins is revealed. What will they say when one day we finally know who – other than the Guptas – wined and dined them? For that day is surely coming. When we see the full list of those who captured them with velvet gloves and extended holidays, I wonder then, whether shame will finally quiet their mouths.

Sadly, like their president, they appear to be well past shame. If the death of a boy in a pit latrine at his school does not shame them; and if the shooting on national television of Andries Tatane did not shame them, if 40,000 rapes a year do not shame them, then what will?

It bears repeating. After 20 years the children are worse off than their parents who suffered directly at the hands of apartheid. Our skin is pitted and greying and we are not replacing the old with newer and brighter versions of ourselves. We are simply remaking our society in the image of apartheid’s post-independence fantasies. This is what they hoped for.

We are on the edge of something though. It might be hope. It is not yet clear. All I know is that we are living in the almost-times. The ratings agencies – who are no friends to any of us – are circling and we are almost at junk status but we are not yet there. The president is holding on but he may soon be gone. Yet we are not yet there. The hyenas around him are emboldened but their howls are too loud, too voracious and so there is a sense that perhaps they are afraid of something. But maybe not.

We are living in the almost-times. We are a bird photographed in flight. It is not clear whether we are ascending or descending. We may soar into greatness or land on a barren piece of land. In a short while we may be proud of ourselves and we may look back on this time and cackle in triumph. “My how we soared,” we will say. Proudly and a thousand articles will be written about how South Africa came back from the brink because its citizens reclaimed their schools and took back their clinics. They ignored their bloated state and stopped entrusting their votes to people in blue and green and yellow. They fielded independent candidates and breathed new air.


We are living in the almost-times and so perhaps we will look back in shame and not pride. “Ah,” we may say, looking forlorn, “We were not sure what to do and so we did nothing at all.” We are living in the almost-times so we are still deciding whether or not we will fly.

We’d best not leave it too late. DM


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