Tag Archives: malema

South Africa, rise!

I’ve been grappling with more posts from my Botswana trip this past week, and I suspect I’ll continue to grapple with them in the weeks ahead, hoping to flesh out the highs and lows of what was, ultimately, a memorable month north of the border. This will take time; bear with me. If nothing else, my return to Joburg – kinetic, frenzied, mile-a-minute Jozi – has reminded me that I seem to have infinite pressures exerted on my very finite amount of time. The extravagant expenses I racked up in the Kalahari need to bear some sort of journalistic fruit now; I want to keep this blog moving forward, too – to comment on events here in SA, even as I unpack the baggage of my time in Botswana. The result will probably be a messy grab-bag of travel across time and space – a shifting from the frontlines of the union protests in Joburg to the shifting sands of the Kalahari. Be brave, dear reader! Hopefully this will all make sense in the end.

My re-entry into South African life has, on the surface at least, been as smooth as the tarmac from Gaborone. Chez Nous has largely been spared, this past month, the political intrigues and internecine conflicts one might expect from the combustible mix of nine twenty-somethings living in close quarters. Sweet, soft-spoken Amy has found a boyfriend; poker-playing Ryan has found an actual job; Wendy – much absent for most of my three months living in Auckland Park – has finally moved out, fed up with communal life. Otherwise, not a ripple to trouble the surface of our life on Finsbury Lane – Big Brother Africa, this ain’t.

(As a parting gift, Wendy left behind her wobbly, Ikea-style desk – the second piece of furniture to grace my room, and the first to give it the trappings of a genuine workspace. Exciting stuff!)

Meanwhile the usual rites of the young academic year are being piously observed – much cramming in the library, much braai-ing in the yard – while spring, after one last bluster from Old Man Winter, is upon us with all the spryness and fresh-faced vigor of teenage girls in tank tops. The change is swift and dramatic. Clothes are shed; flowers are in bloom; the haze that prefigures the coming rains stretches like cotton wool across the sky. One afternoon I find Jean and Llewelyn toplessly strumming their guitars in the yard, drinking cheap table wine and puffing on their water pipes. Bitten by the bug of college students for whom life – so full of possibilities; so bereft of disappointments – feels like an eternal spring, they seem to offer a reproach to this wizened narrator, who is only just coming to the age at which you start to know a whole lot better.

On the surface, youth, eternal spring, etc.; just below that, turmoil. The old troubles and doubts are creeping in, now that my free-wheeling ride through Botswana is over, and the stresses and obligations of my South African life have returned. Chastened by my financial strife, I’ve fortified myself against the coming month and its temptations – a jazz festival my first weekend back! – with a library’s worth of reading material: newspapers and pan-African magazines and my long-neglected collection of American fiction (Bellow, Hemingway, Salter: I’m back, old friends). Like a good little Raskolnikov I’m holed up thusly, fretting over next month’s rent, fretting over this month’s rent, looking to push my Bushman story on media houses big and small, feeling somewhat sullied by the fact that the Bushman’s plight seems to concern me only in as much as it might translate to an appreciable rise in my income, feeling cheap, feeling broke, feeling that Joburg life – a veritable pleasure dome of long nights, short skirts, and drink specials that might push even the most zealous teetotaler off the bandwagon – is on the other side of a very thick pane of glass, feeling that the entire system of life I’ve constructed these past few years has been built on shoddy foundations, that I would do just about anything for a steady income and dental insurance, that a good lay might change everything, that I feel fat in this shirt, and that the prospect that stretches out before me is of a long, anxious life – or a short, anxious life – of past-due bills, worn-out sneakers, unfurnished rooms and relentless stress, occasionally punctuated by the marvelous joys and epiphanies of life on the road.

This is a shitty reality to come home to. No, Joburg has not gone down well these past few days. The old restlessness has come over me, a manic scurrying of desires in every direction. Maybe it’s the spring. Maybe it’s just the occasional longing I have for home – a place I know and, in some small way, understand, for all its vast lunacy.

Or maybe it’s the dark national mood that has again come over this country. (Remember how bleak things looked a few months ago?) Discontent, malice, fear: they inhabit the air like the smell of a coming storm. Yes, the World Cup honeymoon is over here in South Africa. And Africa’s most turbulent, energetic, schizophrenic and, ultimately, hopeful democracy is once again lurching about in search of its own identity.

The most visible sign of something rotten in the state of Zuma has, of course, been the massive civil service strike that is now entering its third week. More than a million public employees have taken to the streets so far, over demands of increased wages and housing allowances; according to local media, that number is expected to grow this week. There have been ugly reports of clashes between strikers and police; between strikers and those daring to cross the picket line; even between strikers and hospital patients, who have been turned back at healthcare facilities across the country by angry mobs. This is the ugly face of democracy-run-amok – a bitter pill to swallow for those who, having grown with the apartheid struggle, remember the days when labor unions were seen as an important voice of social protest for blacks – one of the few entries into the political space not banned by the apartheid government.

Political protest has given way to political theater, if not outright farce. COSATU – the largest of this country’s labor unions – is flexing its muscles; as part of the tripartite alliance (with the South African Communist Party and the ruling ANC), it still feels itself owed by President Zuma after helping to deliver the presidency to him at the ANC’s historic Polokwane conference three years ago. Now the alliance is under strain, “dysfunctional,” in the words of COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi last week. “The center cannot hold,” Vavi told the press. More political shuffling, retrenchment, realignment ahead. (Unraveling the history of shifting allegiances, back-stabbing, front-stabbing, broken promises, kept promises, reneged promise, hopes and disillusionments between and within each of the alliance members is more than this reporter can manage.) The government insists that the strikers’ demands are unreasonable, that they threaten to bankrupt its already overtaxed coffers. (World Cup stadium in Port Elizabeth, anybody?) Meanwhile more reports of government misdeeds: ANC cronies linked to a corrupt waste management deal in Limpopo province; President Zuma’s own son implicated in a scandal involving the South African arm of the steel giant, ArcelorMittal. Bitterness, fear, fury. How quickly the dreams of the World Cup have dimmed and faded, like the last gasps of fireworks bursting over Soccer City six weeks ago. It’s back to the dirty business of politics now, to the trench warfare of negotiated settlements – neither line willing to give an inch.

Striking teachers demand a wage increase.

Mad as hell: 8.6% wage increase or bust!

Construction workers join the strike...

...or maybe they're just on a lunch break.

A victim of strike-related violence.

It is important here to remember the good as well as the bad; a recent editorial reminded its readers, after President Zuma and his 300-strong business delegation returned from China, that despite the ANC’s fawning over that country’s state-driven development model, it was India – another vibrant, restive, contradictory democracy – that served as a more relevant lodestar on the Asian continent. The post-apartheid growing pains aren’t easily remedied – what’s sixteen years in the life of a country? There is still much to applaud in South Africa c. 2010: one of the most progressive constitutions on the planet; an active and vocal civil society; a free press that is the envy of journalists and editorial boards across Africa.

And so the ANC now has to tread with caution. President Zuma is on shaky legs; Youth League rabble-rouser Julius Malema last week warned that “if this president is determined to serve a second term, that will be determined by the next congress.” (And elsewhere, to the ANC: “adapt or die.”) Looming in the background, too, are the proposed media regulations that have sent the chattering classes into a frenzy. The Protection of Information Bill being discussed before Parliament – which would empower the government to classify any information it considers to be against something broadly defined as the “national interest” – would be a massive step back for this country. (The journalist R.W. Johnson, in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, warned of a return to “the dark ages” – also known as the era of apartheid.) Likewise the proposed media tribunal, which would ultimately make the print media answerable to an ANC-controlled Parliament, seems like a transparent attempt to muzzle a press that, for all its flaws, has done a courageous and necessary job of exposing the corrupt heart of the ANC. As high-profile scandals continue to hit the front pages every day, the government seems hell-bent on finding a way to constrain the press. (Not surprisingly, a report in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor made it clear that, on the question of a tribunal, the government is not about to budge.) So the question now is: South Africa, what next?

As the Mail & Guardian shouted from its pulpit:

This is not just a question of the profits of mining firms, or of abstract free-speech rights; it goes to the heart of a progressive and democratic reconstruction of South Africa. It is time to make your voice heard through every avenue available — business and civil society organisations, opposition parties and ANC branches, schools and residents’ associations. As the great Desmond Tutu recently admonished in a more cheerful context: South Africa, rise!

The quest for excellence.

These cold Highveld mornings. 7am. 8am. Muffled under two blankets, pulling aside the curtains. Joburg’s palette today is gray. Somber streets under a sky like battle armor. The rain is steady. In the living room, no sign of my technophiliac German friend, no sign of the Irishman. The old-timers were up late last night; today they’re sleeping off the whiskey and schnapps and cans of Castle beer. I have not yet asked what brings these two old salty dogs to this youth hostel. Later in the day I will see them in the armchairs, on the couches, staring blankly at the TV screen. It seems like a shitty way to travel.

Outside the raindrops dimple the pool. The sky is gray and more gray. I have plans to go shopping in the morning, to see an apartment in the afternoon. Texts with Etienne, a CouchSurfer, who wants to show me a house in a neighborhood that’s not on any of my maps. I have a hard time starting the day. My body shuts down on these cold, wet mornings. I make an extra-strong mug of Ricoffy and sit waiting for the sky to clear.

It is a public holiday, Freedom Day – embarrassing to think I’ve just discovered this fact now. This is the day that commemorates the first post-apartheid elections of 1994 – a day for national reflection, self-reckoning. There is a TEDx conference in Soweto, with activists, musicians, filmmakers gathered at the Apartheid Museum to discuss the way forward for the nation. All day the Twittosphere is abuzz with 140-character reflections on the state of South Africa. @brodiegal says, “#16yearsago i really believed in the ANC. That is no longer the case. But I still believe in South Africa, and in South Africans.” Not one to be left out, I add, “#16yearsago I never dreamed I’d end up in South Africa. Life is funny like that.”

It’s not always easy to gauge the mood in this country, if only because, as one South African friend put it, “We’re a very self-critical people.” A commenter on one blog observed that “South Africans are never happy unless they are on the horns of a dilemma. As a nation, we exemplify the saying that there is a problem for every solution.” The spotlight of the World Cup – hyped as a defining moment not simply for the country, but the entire continent – has brought with it an even greater level of scrutiny. South Africans are prickly at concerns over the country’s readiness. The “image-making burden,” read a commentary in The Guardian,

has led the local organising committee at times to interpret natural concerns about practicalities – the preparedness of stadiums, ticket arrangements, security, transport and accommodation – as attacks on Africa itself by a patronising European media.

The anxieties over the hosting of a successful World Cup – with some officials now suggesting as few as 300,000 international visitors are expected, after initial estimates of 450,000 – are being played out against a broader backdrop of fear and insecurity – one that cuts to the heart, on this Freedom Day, of what South Africa has achieved in the sixteen years since Nelson Mandela became this country’s first black president.

“It is now widely agreed that “black economic empowerment” (BEE) and affirmative-action laws brought in after apartheid as the star policies of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) have failed,” began a recent column in The Economist, which described how plans for “redistributing wealth and positions to the black majority…have resulted mainly in ‘a few individuals benefiting a lot,'” according to President Jacob Zuma. South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the growing disillusionment with the ruling ANC – as well as the antics of its chief provocateur, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema – has given the impression of a rudderless ship drifting on an uncertain course.

There remain, too, unhealed wounds over this country’s deep racial divide, which have been boiling over in recent months. In February, The New York Times reported on the heated public debate over a new bus line linking Joburg’s poor, black townships with the more affluent, largely white suburbs to the north. In March, storm clouds gathered over the revival of an apartheid-era song with an inflammatory refrain to “Kill the Boers.” Earlier this month, the brutal murder of the white supremacist Eugene TerreBlanche by workers on his farm prompted President Zuma to publicly call for calm. Days later, a BBC reporter was expelled from an ANC Youth League conference during a race-tinged tirade by Malema. And a confrontation between the leader of a far-right paramilitary group and a black commentator blew up during a live TV debate, prompting the memorable refrain, “(Don’t) touch me on my studio” (itself to become a viral hit after a number of YouTube remixes). With the World Cup just six weeks away, tensions are high in the Rainbow Nation, with one analyst saying South Africans were in a state of “hysterical pessimism” over the future of the nation.

On the street the sky low, the air cold – an early taste of winter. I’m told this is atypical weather for April in Jozi (only to be assured that this will be quite typical in June). The hostel is on the outskirts of Randburg, a once-autonomous city that has since been gathered into Joburg’s sprawl. The CBD is a series of linked pedestrian malls and rundown shopping centers. Not for Randburg the glitz of Joburg’s famous commercial precincts, like Sandton. On the sidewalk a man arranges Christian books on a table: Heaven Is So Real, DVDs by the preacher T.D. Jakes. Two men in overcoats beneath an umbrella, selling apples the size of a big man’s fist. In a shopping center I buy an outlet adapter, deodorant, the newspaper. “Trusted friend attacked baby,” reads the headline in the day’s Star. The attack on a one-year-old has riveted the nation. Also, a story on a criminal syndicate posing as the police. Their cars were outfitted with lights and sirens, they had uniforms, a small arsenal. Men in a brightly lit gambling parlor, holding pencils over small slips of paper, watching the horses on the big screen. Outside a painted signboard for herbalist healer Dr. Zungusm. WE MAKE MEN’S PENIS BIG AND STRONG. WE REMOVE BAD LUCK. WE HELP PREGNANT WOMEN. BUSINESS ATTRACTION & MORE CUSTOMERS. HELP PEOPLE WITH HIV/AIDS. PROTECTION OF CARS, HOUSE & BUSINESS.

Moving from mall to mall – Joburg life. This one flashier, more modern. Expensive handbags, splashy sneakers by Adidas and Nike. In the supermarket I buy bread and a brick of cheddar cheese and a disreputable package of something called “chicken ham.” Children in sweatpants kicking little soccer balls. Boys blasting South African horns, the vuvuzelas. On the classifieds board, women offering their services as cleaners, cooks, nannies. Nessie from Malawi. Precious Nsimbi. A woman named Lindiwe. Gertrude. An advertisement on the wall – hotlines for HIV and animal cruelty, for drug abuse and child abuse, for human trafficking. The poster reads, “Wild Island Smoothie supports the fight against crime.”

On the way back to the hostel, SUVs and BMWs and a Hummer muscling down the road. A woman waits for the bus holding her cell phone and a single red rose. Another in a ski hat and heavy coat, a quilted blanked wrapped around her legs.

After lunch I have an hour to kill before meeting Etienne. Outside the hostel, I flag down a minibus-taxi. It is large and roomy and generally a few steps above its east African cousins. Music I’ve never heard before. Single gents, a young mother, older women. Money passes to the front, where the driver keeps one eye on the road. “Four,” they say, or, “Two.” The driver makes change for four or two and passes it back, saying, “Two,” or “Four,” until it reaches the right hands.

Hyde Park, jacaranda streets. Another mall, this one a fortress, hermetically sealed against the universe. I circle the building, looking for an entrance. Not for pedestrians, the Hyde Park Mall – I have to walk through an underground lot to get inside. Holiday shoppers, families eating at restaurants designed to look like Italian trattorias and Parisian cafes. The life of suburban Joburg, its walls and malls – enclaves of privilege and safety. The families are blond and red-cheeked, with a few handsome black couples mixed in. You would come here and think the demographic reality of South Africa was something like 85 percent white, and not the other way around.

In a vaulted atrium a slick car, the Renault Laguna Coupe, the prize in some promotional give-away. Two men bent under the hood, talking shop. A young blond with wind-blown hair, chin upturned, answering questions. No doubt his body was enbuffened surfing the swells outside Durban, or Jeffries Bay. A tall, grave black man in a belted overcoat is watching. On the promotional billboard, over a skyline of New York, the words, “The Quest for Excellence.”

Upstairs, in the bookshop, children in strollers, young women in puffy winter boots. Stacks of books on pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. Tell-alls by former soldiers and generals and special-ops commandos on the low, dishonest regional wars of the ’70s and ’80s. At the Front: A General’s Account of South Africa’s Border War. The Covert War. The Silent War. Beefy Boer men flipping through the pages, faces grim with honor and remembrance, thumbs like soda cans.

Outside the rain is steady. Three women standing under an umbrella. A panhandler on crutches. And me, a white guy, waiting in the rain. Minibus-taxis shuttling by, tooting their horns. Bystanders flag them down with hand signals – a finger pointing up, or to the right, or five fingers extended. These I am yet to decipher. This afternoon I won’t have to worry – Etienne arrives in a compact, rescues me from the rainfall and the whims of public transport.

In the backseat songbooks, a guitar case. His band is leaving on a two-week tour in the morning. They’re playing eleven shows in fourteen days, working their way down the coast until they reach Cape Town. In Joburg, he says, there are just a few good live-music venues – they’re lucky to get a gig once every two weeks. He drives us through the tony suburb of Rosebank, through Parkhurst, with its galleries and sidewalk cafes. At the traffic lights young men selling flags and soccer jerseys. Some holding garbage bags, offering to collect your car’s trash for a few rand.

Westdene. Students from the university walking with their backpacks slung over their shoulders. A rundown shopping mall. Trash piling on the sidewalks – the sanitation workers have been on strike, Etienne assures me, “It’s not usually like this.” The house is a work-in-progress. The renovation is behind schedule, there are still ladders and cans of paint and dropcloths on the floor. It’s a beautiful house, early-20th century, with hammered-tin ceilings. The rooms are large and full of light. Etienne is still unsure – he might want to keep the house for himself. It’s as good a place as any, but the timing is off – it will be a month, I think, before it’s inhabitable. We agree to take a few days to think it over. If I decide to move in – even if it’s just for a few weeks – Etienne’s roommate, Abi, will have a set of keys for me.

Afternoon. Skies like wet cotton. Etienne takes me to Melville, Joburg’s famous bohemian quarter – long a home to artists, writers, intellectuals. 7th Street, with its bookshops and restaurants and cafes. We stop at a sushi restaurant, plates of salmon and tuna and California rolls circling on a conveyor belt. Porcelain pots of green tea. Even mediocre sushi, after all this time, sets my heart racing. Etienne is telling me about the South African music scene – there has been a revival in recent years, sales of Afrikaans music are booming. There seems to be an important subtext to this – disillusionment with the Rainbow Nation, a reclaiming of Afrikaans heritage. Etienne doesn’t disagree with this assessment. Most of the music is trashy – an Afrikaans version of Euro-pop. David Hasselhoff on the Highveld, I imagine. The song currently tearing up the charts has a catchy refrain – it translates, roughly, to: “We will sail to a land full of women in bikinis.” I can understand the appeal, I say.

I ask Etienne about the dangers of life in Joburg. Like the other Joburgers I’ve asked so far, he laughs and rolls his eyes.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t go around downtown with my camera around my neck, asking a homeless guy with a broken bottle for directions to the nearest bank,” he says.

“It’s as dangerous as you make it.”