Those yet to discover Richard Poplak are in for a treat. This gifted writer’s words flow as fluently through his books as in regular contributions, like this one, written for the Daily Maverick, Poplak has the rare ability to focus our attention on what really matters. And in this superb piece, shows us there is no level to which SA president Jacob Zuma won’t stoop. A tour de force which deserves the widest possible audience. In the words of the Joburger’s fellow author Neil Gaiman, this is truly “good art”. Today’s must read. – Alec Hogg
By Richard Poplak*
In the East Rand’s industrial ass-end, where decades from now robots will wander through the remnants of South Africa’s degraded industrial economy, and where energy from Russian nuclear reactors will fizzle uselessly in the drought-swirled dust—a memorial service for a fallen comrade.
Twenty-four years ago, Chris Hani was murdered by Janusz Waluś and Clive Derby-Lewis, during another of those terminal events that was intended to push SA over the brink, but instead left us staring into an abyss that appears bottomless. Hani, the quintessential victim of swart gevaar/communist/racist paranoia, was an actual communist and an actual armed-resistance veteran, and if his speeches and writings are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that he’d have much good to say about the chaos capitalism that has arisen since he was assassinated.
Indeed, relations have become grim between the South African Communist Party and the industrial grade looting machine to which it has been allied for so many years. During the recent cabinet “reshuffle”, although members of the SACP for the most part emerged with their portfolios and salaries intact, they were unimpressed by how it all unfolded. Their deputy general secretary, the excessively genial Solly Mapaila, has been rather vocal in his demands for the president to step down. Meanwhile, the ANC has sort of rallied around Zuma, because what else are they going to do? Stand on principle? When you’re living inside the beast’s intestinal tract, it’s impossible to know whether the host you’re leaching from is dead or alive—until, of course, it’s too late.
Well, it is too late.
And so here we were, in another of the ANC’s nostalgia loops, another one of its reactionary celebrations of a stalwart who would likely find no place in, and indeed would not recognize, the organization celebrating his memory. To cover the ANC in 2017 is to become complicit in drafting their Trümmerliteratur—the genre of historical revisionism that scrutinizes the rubble of a movement or civilization that has caved in on itself. In this particular case, the ANC laments the purity of a liberation movement that has been destroyed by the politics of the belly—whose belly happens to depend on the faction one belongs to. “The once proud ANC,” and all that crap. Just a couple of tweaks, just get rid of the right/wrong people, and the khongolose is back in the game.
Well, no. “Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia,” writes the American political scientist Mark Lilla. “And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.”
Which is exactly what has made the recent memorial orgy, despite the undeniable goodness of the men being memorialized, so utterly reprehensible. The Hani tent was full of fake communists, fake women’s leaders, fake religious types, along with the occasional real struggle vet—none of whom participate in the same narrative any longer. We’ve become so inured to this idiotic incoherence that it no longer registers as parody. But imagine you’d been dead for 24 years, and you lurched up from the Highveld loam into this madness, with Jacob Zuma—of all people—standing on the presidential podium, addressing a country in which the pittance earned from being bussed into political events likely registers as a decent portion of the GDP, and where the crowds sing “My president! My president!” in the praise of man unpicking the country from the inside out.
According to the presiding Reverend Maphatsoe, Zuma had asked that no one—no one, hear!—was to use this platform to extend the factional fighting. “Who are we to judge,” asked the pastor. “Because God judges.” Then, Zuma laid wreath. (He is still astonishingly spry when he bends down to attend to such matters.) Fikile “Razzmatazz” Mbalula laid a wreath. Solly Mapaila laid a wreath. Limpho Hani laid a wreath. Whether or not they felt awkward, I cannot say. But I certainly did. It felt like a shabbas dinner following a catastrophic and bitter divorce, during which the cook burns the tsimis. Zuma stared into the middle distance, at—what? What does a budding dictator in the middle of a coup think about during photo-ops, other than the fact that photo-ops will soon be a thing of the past?
He then took his seat, and listened to the early going, which was devoted to Ekurhuleni pimping itself as a “smart, connected, development city—the aerotropolis”, which is the sort of technocratic gobbledygook the ANC has always intoxicated itself with.
“At the moment we are loving at a time of extreme paranoia and factionalism,” she said. She told of going to a church service following the cabinet reshuffle, prayed for the country, and was promptly accused of being against Zuma. “I come from a church family, and God has never failed me,” she said. “Comrades, I do not belong to a faction. I belong to the ANC, and there is only one ANC. I will not respond to those who ask, What would Chris do? I do not know.”
Why did no one march after over a hundred poor black people were left to die during the Life Esidimeni tragedy, she wanted to know? What about the taxi gang rapes recently reported in Soweto? The answer, of course, is that almost no one cares about poor people or the victims of sexual violence—the latter having been normalized, I might add, by the man preparing to address the crowd. Such is the way of things in vicious, zero-sum societies. Then Hani thanked Zuma for helping her through troubled times with her daughter’s “cocaine addiction”.
“President, I have no words.”
Oh, and I think I failed to mention her big reveal: Zuma was the last ANC leader to see Hani alive, said his widow. Surprise, surprise, history books!
Do you see how pliantly the past crawls toward the powerful?
Then the King strode to the stage. His body language gave no indication that this was to be one of the signature speeches of his long political career. The rent-a-crowd sang. “Amandla,” he roared. And he began to tell a story that became a parable.
[Comrade Hani’s] killers wanted to plunge the country into civil war so as to prevent us from achieving a democracy in which government would be built by the majority will of the people. [He] demonstrated throughout his life and at the hour of his death that he lived for his people. He taught many young men and women within the ANC and the Alliance that personal suffering was the price to be paid in defence of the interests of the oppressed black people. In their actions, the killers of Chris Hani, sought to sow division amongst the people of South Africa so that they could protect minority interests. However, the leadership of President Nelson Mandela rose to the occasion and called on all of us not to allow minority interests and the actions of disruptors to shift our focus. President Mandela called on all of us to honour the sacrifice of Comrade Chris Hani by uniting and accelerating our advance towards democratic elections. Indeed, we used that sombre occasion as a platform to push harder for freedom and democracy and eventually held our first democratic election on 27 April 1994; on the principle of one person, one vote.
This—or a version of it—was now happening again. And why? Because, as Zuma noted earlier this year to his State of the Nation Address, the long arc of South African was bending toward radical socio-economic transformation, and “minority interests” were trying to halt its progress.
Zuma referred to the sanctity of the Constitution. (And it was only Monday). He quoted OR Tambo. He spoke about the black middle class he’d just screwed with a downgrade entirely engineered by him. He spoke about the black business his recently evacuated Treasury DG admitted the government used as “cashflow management”, another way of saying they don’t get paid. He spoke of the poor, “the majority of whom are black and female”—traditionally a huge concern of Zuma’s. He spoke about structural racism in the private sector, and other serious transformation issues that could not be ignored.
I respect Limpho Hani's choice to standby Zuma, but with all due respect, she can't tell us what/what not to protest against. #ChrisHani
— Pelisa Cossie (@Pheli7812) April 10, 2017
He’s right, of course. South Africa needs to change now, and not in some halcyon future. And he is the one that will change it. But, versions of Hani’s killers are once again on the loose, looking to derail the national democratic project. And it was in the final movements of the speech where the parable found its meaning:
We have sadly not yet succeeded in building the non-racial society that we envisaged. There is a resurgence of racism in our country. It is also clear that racists have become more emboldened. The marches that took place last week demonstrated that racism is real and exists in our country. Many placards and posters displayed beliefs that we thought had been buried in 1994, with some posters depicting black people as baboons. It is clear that some of our white compatriots regard black people as being lesser human beings or sub-human. The racist onslaught has become more direct and is no longer hidden as was the case in the early years of our constitutional democratic order. Racists no longer fear being caught or exposed. In the fight to combat racism, we should look beyond only overt racist utterances and public displays that we saw during the marches last week. We should also look at the ideological and institutional machinations that continue to give racism more traction. Racism is a gross violation of human rights and plunged this country into decades of conflict in the past. We cannot allow and assist racists to take our country backwards.
It was a beautiful, elegant, and supremely dangerous counter-attack, delivered with zero passion, as if he was reading the instructions to a Furby. Yes, racists marched. As did Sufis, Baha’i, ghosts, insufferable white liberals, insufferable black liberals, insufferable coloured liberals, and bespoke puppies. Freedumb of expression was on proud display. But baboon placards?
Solly Mapaila—no one’s idea of a upper-class Camp’s Bay anti-poor mass murderer, and who spoke with such fire at the Pretoria event—sat stone-faced, looking out at the crowd that would later boo him as he attempted to speak. Zuma was then whisked off into power’s bosom. Immediately thereafter, the heavens burped, and then emptied with deluge that can only be described as Biblical. This country is clearly some celestial screenwriter’s idea of a good time.
Is this what constitutes an honour in South Africa? To have your final resting place used as the opening salvo in a race war that will function as cover for robbing the country into eternal penury? As a means of answering that question, perhaps we should take a moment to bring up a little historical moment that both Zuma and his latest hagiographer, Limpho Hani, neglected to mention. In 2004 and 2005, Zuma took time out of his busy schedule to meet the architect of Hani’s assassination, Clive Derby-Lewis. No one is precisely sure as to why they engaged in some friendly facetime. Was Zuma going to collect smallanyana skeletons on his many enemies? Was Derby-Lewis trying to influence a spoiler in order to rustle up a presidential pardon? Was the future president trying to solicit a killer’s (very good) lawyers to represent him in his innumerable legal battles?
All good theories—but in final reckoning, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the two men met, and that according to the extant pictures, their encounters were pleasant and recrimination-free. We mustn’t get too sentimental about politics. But we also can’t pretend away the past. In other words, the memorial was not the first time Zuma had used Hani’s assassination to further his own purpose.
So: this is the ANC, and this is the man who has captured it wholesale.
In the past 48 hours, Zuma and his minion henchmen have used the memorials of two legendary ANC stalwarts in order to further an agenda that neither man – that no one sane, really – would support. It doesn’t matter how many widows, comrades, friends or followers get churned up in the process – onward into the past!
South Africa’s past is monstrous; there is no fresh Eden to return to. If there is to be any hope, the country has to begin making the future instead of submitting to Zuma’s increasingly aggressive revisionism. “Nostalgia is irrefutable”, said the professor. And yet refute it we must, and loudly.
- Richard Poplak is the author of five highly acclaimed books, the most recent of which, Continental Shift: A Journey Through Africa’s Changing Fortunes, was published in 2016 after nine years of research. He is a regular contributor to the Daily Maverick with whose permission this article is republished.