Defend Truth


Durban July: Long live Conspicuous Consumption, long live!


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

This reflection is not meant to canonise the Vodacom Durban July or the VDJ as it is now popularly known. The object is to locate its apparent popularity in the broader context of the unfolding crises of consumption and production especially as it affects black people in South Africa.

These are sensitive matters for some, hence one generally avoids venturing into such social commentary. Well, it all took a different turn following a frantic note from a female acquaintance lamenting how her friend had been cheated by her partner in the week leading to VDJ.

Desperate to save what remains of their union, the fellow turned to friends asking them to raise apology decibels to the annoyed wife – lamenting the diversion of scarce family resources to entertain a blessee only two years older than their 18-year-old matriculant daughter. She got designer clothes for both day and evening events. As the spoof goes, she’s got Brazilian human hair yet she doesn’t have a passport and doesn’t know the capital city of Brazil (hope you see the oxymoron).

What did they expect really? The VDJ is after all characterised by indiscretions and conspicuous consumption. It is not a YMCA convention. No one goes there alone, not even our LGBTI friends, bothers and sisters. Even fewer take their spouses there. I have no sympathy for neither.

Borrowing from another evolving treatise on “Africa and the Crises of Consumption and Production”, I argue that the VDJ, at a subnational level, best represents the crises unfolding before us.

Brief elaboration: by crisis of production we mean Africans are not producing enough food, consumer and capital goods, services and children. We rely on imports for our essential needs as well as capital goods. For many reasons in the realms of political economy and rampant imperialism (disguised as globalisation), our productive capacity continues to diminish as the unfavourable terms of trade continue to shift production away from the continent. With such vast acres of arable land, we consume food products from North America genetically modified by Monsanto with prices set at the Chicago exchange.

It is a matter of public record that Africans have a negative fertility incidence – although neoliberal scholarship would have us believe that too many girls are having too many children. Evidence suggests otherwise. As education, urbanisation and labour market participation levels rise in Africa, fertility rates are declining; unless the question is who is getting pregnant.

As for consumption, look no further than what we eat and spend money on. We consume too many imports and products we do not need physiologically and materially. As new American franchises open in Johannesburg, we scrabble to beat the queue for burgers and deadly doughnuts.

The less said about politicians who shout “down with white monopoly capital” while flaunting Stellenbosch-owned Cartier and Mont Blanc the better. For it is all part of the ideological schizophrenia characterising our polity.

In the contemporary moment, the VDJ demonstrates the internal logic of rampant capitalism characterised by conspicuous consumption and all the misdemeanours that accompany it. How morality can be expected from an inherently immoral system defies logic. The whole razzmatazz is about consumption, casual sex and flaunting. After all, what use will be the selfies at the race course without its core utility – narcissistic self-promotion which benefits the same monopoly capital we yearn for its Armaggedon.

Ask everyone who goes to that spectacle; at best it represents five symbols of coloniality or western modernity as referred to in popular parlance.

  • Beauty: although some among the attendees are generally not easy on the eye and wear nasty outfits, people still boast and parade “beauty”, much like the competing horses. Check in with the fashion police in the tabloid newsrooms and be the witness! Social media has become a Dutch Disease for our people, a curse of note. It has created space for us to exaggerate our notions of beauty and sexuality. All to no meaningful consequence.
  • Sexual indiscretions: most of the post-mortems of the Durban July are about who slept with whom, how I got the ‘visa’ (permission from the spouse/partner), who was caught in the act, the “new release” etc. Believe me, there’ll be no cliffhangers in VDJ stories without such sexual escapades. At least this is the talk of the town among macho mobile men money, otherwise now known as blessers. You pay premium mavuso at VDJ, not airtime and Kulula flight tickets to Cape Town.
  • Liquor: what would the VDJ be without floods of waters of dizziness in VIP marquees, Florida Road, KwaMax, Eyadini, Tashas and other venues: you wouldn’t be serious about consolidating your brand position in the growing middle class market without splashing millions, promoting single malts whiskeys and French bubble at this mid-winter extravaganza.
  • Personality cults: these have become a feature of the Durban July. What would the event be without my homeboy Mabheleni the original blesser and Khanyi Mbau the flag bearer of blessees! Pity that the organisers do not really recognise and reward the value of personalities who contribute vastly to the legend this event has become. Otherwise we would now have a wall of fame for blessers and blessees whose iconography is built around mega events like the Durban July, Metro FM Music Awards and Cape Town’s J&B Met.
  • Patriarchy: everything about the event undermines the true value of women. They are objectified and reduced to beauty trophies for the enthralment of men who abuse their financial position to further patriarchy. Yes, we have a few paid models and waitresses but the majority of women there fall prey to masculinity and capitalism which are intersectionally linked. As for safe sex and the risk of HIV infection, the less said the better.

All these demonstrate an unprecedented crisis of identity still haunting the previously oppressed, raging along the struggle for recognition.

We shouldn’t be surprised really for we have already noted that the VDJ demonstrates the highest form of the poverty of internal logic (and racial nature) of capitalism in South Africa today.

It exposes modernist capture with Euro-America culture, subjecting us to conspicuous consumption on the terms defined by the cultural majority (white capital) over the political majority (black people). People go there to be seen and to spend money they (don’t) have. Someone quipped that some among us would spend in one weekend what we would have earned in four months.

The stakes are always high in the fashion and partying departments. Liquor flows endlessly. Even some politicians have become regulars at the races, competing with care-free celebrities who profit from what I have come to call Kardashdianomics – a recent phenomenon where people make money from living their lives, documenting and selling it to hungry reality TV viewers.

By the way, fellas, besides retailers, hotels and bottle stores scoring big, which horse won last year and what was the prize money?

Take a deep honest look. Capitalist capture is all over us, much like it has captured the state. We cry radical economic transformation and yet we volunteer ourselves as purveyors of colonial culture left behind by the conquering British imperialists who started the union of money and horses called the Durban July Handicap and miraculously went on to handicap themselves by voting to exit the European Union decades later.

Woza Durban July, the blessers are here, let the good times roll! DM

Ngcaweni is editor of the forthcoming books Sizonqoba: Outliving AIDS in Southern Africa (AISA) and Nelson Mandela: Decolonial Ethics of Liberation and Servant Leadership (Africa World Press). In his day job, he is Deputy Director-General & Head of the Private Office of the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.