Our saviour, who art in red
Daily Maverick journalist Richard Poplak’s vignettes of Julius Malema go from hilarious and tragic to terrifying in his new biography about the EFF commander in chief, Until Julius Comes. This is an edited extract
Ihave just visited the selfie capital of the universe. I witnessed roughly 1 200 South Africans in their business best stretching out their arms and snapping away, each click of a camera phone forging a digital bond that confirmed a political affiliation which, if all goes well, will one day lead to a business opportunity.
This was the Gauteng ANC manifesto endorsement reach-around, where the faithful gathered to pay fealty before the iron throne, a sort of ANC speed dating event that engulfed the fifth floor of the Sandton Convention Centre with faux excitement.
The joint was full of people who used to be called Black Diamonds, but are now called “rich”. The ANC, we forget, is a broad church, and broader still when there is free food and networking opportunities available. The smell of power hovered in the air like Cohiba cigar smoke, and while the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was inhaling exhaust fumes on a protest march to the SABC, we at the manifesto launch were inhaling veggie samoosas and beef satays while swapping business cards.
This was the ANC bubble, and within it all were safe. The white guys wore their finest mining-logo fleeces, the young black dudes wore township chic, the gogos wore flowered hats, and no one in attendance was under any illusions about where the power lies in this country. You are either inside being blessed, or outside scrabbling through your neighbours’ recycling bin.
The event was organised by the Forum of Professionals, Academics and Business, and served, according to the preamble, “as a culmination of the work we’ve been doing in Gauteng since June last year”. I wasn’t aware that any work had been done in Gauteng since June last year, but as we were ushered into the main hall, before a stage with multiple screens and a big lighting rack, I understood what I’d been missing.
“In the recent past,” we were reminded, “it has been said that the professional classes are not those who are with the ANC, that we’ve lost touch with you. Tonight, we want to thank you for your support, emotional and material.”
Paul Mashatile, in his capacity as ANC’s Gauteng provincial chairperson, noted that this event was “the final push to victory. Your presence here is actually an endorsement of the ANC.” And then we were off down the Good Story to Tell road – a slogan I am convinced will be remembered as one of the finest election ploys in the history of democracy. The ANC has become expert at crafting its own reality, at shutting out what it doesn’t want to know – or doesn’t want you to know.
A sample of this party-mandated schizophrenia: President Jacob Zuma was supposed to be present at this event, but there was no apology or explanation for his absence. Reality was reconvened, and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was subbed in. The country has become Fantasia and Jacob Zuma is Mickey Mouse. He snaps his fingers and the brooms start dancing.
The other superb stroke of ANC-minted genius is the party’s co-opting of the struggle. At the impressive swag table, there was a bedazzled leather jacket embossed with a Long Walk to Freedom logo – the most baffling piece of clothing I’ve encountered since break dance pants were all the rage in Orange Grove in the 1980s.
In a similar vein, after Mashatile had done his thing, we were treated to a sneak peek of the Bala Brothers’ new musical, about “life on Robben Island”. A Bala Brother wanted us to imagine Madiba alone in his cell, a spotlight illuminating his forlorn figure. “The words in this song talk about a light that survives,” he said in a stage whisper.
Regarding the song, if Laurie Anderson was correct, and writing about music is indeed like dancing about architecture, then let me just say this: picture Miley Cyrus twerking about the Voortrekker Monument. The ANC and its enablers are endeavouring to turn the struggle into a theme park, scraping out alternate narratives and slathering it all in yellow, black and green.
And this was a night for the enablers. We heard an endorsement from Jimmy Manyi – was his support ever in doubt? – in which he actually said: “We, as black business, we are happy with where BEE is headed.”
The party dragged out one of those old mustachioed Afrikaner dudes who always gets the floor rocking, in this case Chris van Biljon, CEO of the Ekurhuleni Business Initiative. To whistles and yells, he said: “Go and talk to people – we’ve got seven days left to vote. And let them vote ANC. We don’t want to vote for someone else and go back to 1994 and start all over again. No! No!” The room went wild. Then came the Chinese community representative, followed by the Jewish community representative and the women’s business representative. They all celebrated a Good Story to Tell, repeating the slogan like it was tattooed under their eyelids. The sleaze, the back-room deals, the corruption, the gunk that has jammed up the South African machine and pushed us to the edge once again? This was a night for the collaborators to collaborate, and collaborate they did.
Finally: Ramaphosa, every businessperson’s favourite African politician. It had been a big day for Cyril – he had told a joke that morning. When asked at an ANC breakfast what his aspirations were, he said: “I want to be president [long pause] ... of my golf club.” I pictured portly Cyril pounding out 12 putts on a par three while his quislings commended him on making par, and the whole thing felt right – Cyril for President [long pause] ... of South Africa. He’s up for it.
“Ask not what your government can do for you,” said Cyril, “but what you can do for your country.” Well, jeez, Cyril F Kennedy! Citizen-government engagement belongs to a different age. This is the age in which an incident like Marikana is certain to be co-opted by the ANC and turned into a branded musical; when there are no Bad Stories to Tell; when 1 200 prominent Gauteng citizens don’t have the minerals to do anything but fill a room, eat canapés and applaud the loud Afrikaans guy who runs a business institute by the airport.
The ANC has perfected the art of living in the possible. Its version of reality is as immutable as actual reality. When I left, I looked around for the unicorns and the fairies. I guess they were hanging in the VIP room, taking selfies.
PEARLY WHITES Julius Malema was all smiles at the Economic Freedom Fighters’ first anniversary celebration at Thokoza Park in Soweto last month
Until Julius Comes by Richard Poplak; Tafelberg; 240 pages; R156 at kalahari.com