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Woza Durban July – let’s get on with Conspicuous Consumption


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

We cry radical economic transformation and yet we volunteer ourselves as purveyors of a 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.

This reflection is not meant to canonise the Vodacom Durban July, or 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 on 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 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, brothers and sisters. Even fewer take their spouses there. I have no sympathy for either.

Borrowing from another evolving treatise on “Africa and the Crises of Consumption and Production”, I argue that the VDJ, at a sub-national 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 Louis Vuitton 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 whose Armaggedon we yearn for.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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 with money, otherwise now known as blessers. You pay premium mavuso at VDJ, not airtime and Kulula flight tickets to Cape Town. Or have you not heard of Faith Khensi or listened to Zodwa Wabantu?

  3. Liquor: What would the VDJ be without floods of waters of dizziness in VIP marquees, Florida Road, KwaMax, Eyadini, Tashas and other venues of after-parties featuring copious amounts of single malts and French bubbles? 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 bubbles at this mid-winter extravaganza.

  4. Personality cults: these have become a feature of the Durban July. What would the event be without my home boy Mabheleni the original blesser and Khanyi Mbau the flagbearer of blessees – until pimps like Faith and crew came along. 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.

  5. 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 demonstrates an unprecedented crises of identity still haunting the previously oppressed raging along in 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 we’ve 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 Kardashianomics – 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 a 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.


The slay kings are here too. They who in critical numbers make money through crime and corruption. They who wantonly spend money on liquor, food and fashion, blessing their way into sexual favours.

In young women they see objects of sexual entertainment. In young women they exercise their ultra-masculinity.

These being the macho-mobile-men-with-money who, science tells us, feature prominently in the spread of HIV owing to their uncondomising ways (too much binge drinking and violence makes young women vulnerable to unprotected sex).

But now in our society of hypocrites, we blame slay queens and call them all sorts of names – even labelling them glorified prostitutes who can’t tell a donkey from a horse. We condemn them as unthinking adherents of Kardashianism (those who make a living through public nudity).

Well, the truth is, slay kings through various (media) mediums and means (crime and corruption) manufacture the culture of conspicuous consumption that has become our national zeitgeist.

Let’s be honest, very few brothers have accumulated massive loads of money in our post-colony to the extent of affording all the splashes we see in electronic media and on display at the Vodacom Durban July today. Hence the assertion that crime and corruption are the means through which slay kings rapidly accumulate, and blesser life is a channel of money laundering.

Woza VDJ, the heists are done, tenders rigged, here come the slay kings with loads of cash.

Open them doors Cubana, KwaMax and Eyadini, let’s launder those Madibas. DM

This column is a reworking of this column written by Ngcaweni in July 2016.


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