Save the last dance for me
Music and fighting—double whammy potency! Or would you rather I said music and pugilism of a political nature? But why be so obvious about it?
These two simple words arouse and give life to two of the most powerful of human emotions and, of course, spectacle. Each brings feelings that have, in other settings, cultures and eras, propelled whole nations to war.
They are not to be taken at face value. Separately, or together, they define life.
Casting an eye back on history, it is not for nothing that military strategists in ancient nations sent their nations’ leading lyricists, poets, drummers and “voices” to accompany their regiments to the frontiers to battle for king, kith and kin alike.
Take Sundiata Keita, the all-conquering emperor of 12th-century Mali empire. Lore has it that his feared regiments were bejuiced by the spirit-rousing voices his marabouts invested in the epic war song Mandjoa.
The year is 2005. Enter Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma (the Zulu name signifies “of feigned cheerfulness”).
Any drama worth the stage it is played out on needs tension, a central narrative anchor and breaker even to move forward. But also the best of theatrical engagements, say those of Brechtian nature—interactive theatre—need something even more important than theatre: they need an audience.
In between the impepho (incense) burning—in fact, fuelling the impepho burning—was a new political figure in the South African political scape: the victim-cum-hero, the joker-cum-dancer, the intelligence insider-cum-target.
Here was a man gifted at pairing essential impossibilities to create an unorthodox, township-style political PR genius to shame the best of marketing and PR graduates. Besides, of course, the victim rhetoric, the man’s much more lethal weapon was his much spoken about affinity “with the people”.
The truth be told, most politicians have an affinity with the people but many lack charm. Like style, charm ain’t a purchasable commodity, hon—either you have it or you don’t.
Although his always felt conceited, slightly knowing, slightly put on, slightly masking something dangerous, his charm offensive and, you can say, genuine relaxed demeanour, was a breath of fresh air to millions.
Many among our people who, then, felt that here is an opportunity to have a say in how our country is run, in a language and style we feel comfortable with. Which is why, Zuma was a hit within such constituencies as taxi drivers, among others.
Although crisis, or perceptions of it, clung to him like second nature—crisis indeed spurs him on—the man has floated from one to another, bopping and weaving like a pro. Like the best of matadors, danger gets the best out of him. Natural-born fighter, you can say; natural-born entertainer, an acute observation.
Although both history and fiction might be brimful of his sort, personally I can’t think of any character Zuma evokes more than “The Trickster” in Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man.
Published on the eve of the American Civil War in 1857, when the country was on a knife’s edge, facing both huge moral and political challenges unlike any other in its history, the character of a man who charmed his way into people’s hearts, promising them a respite and a catharsis all in one, altered the landscape of both political and literary narratives in the fractured country forever.
Although it did not really win much mileage back with his “people”, back when Inkatha and the ANC were locked in a vice grip of violence, charm was one of the key weapons in Gedle’s armoury.
Sure, other than serving as the poster boy of the disgruntled (both in his party and what we shall call the SMS community—the Sulking Media Society), all feeling bullied by Thabo Mbeki in the political playground, Zuma knew better—to rely on victimhood, or, his forte, intelligent acumen alone.
For him to fight Goliath, which is basically how he succeeded in casting Mbeki, he had to appeal to the heart of Joe Blog and Mary Poppins in Soweto and Ga Mashashane.
And to appeal to Mary Poppins and MaMthembu alike, he had to express himself in the way they did, hence it was neither a once-off or an accident that he rolled into town with a repertoire of never ever seen before song and dance that spoke to their joy and pain. Sneer as much as you want at song and dance as a political analogy.
The thing is, our people love to sing and dance. Both are intrinsically linked virtues going deeper than what the visual and sonic expression will let you. They speak to the heart and have been at the centre of this country’s liberation narratives way back to the Difecane and recent evocations of General de la Rey.
The late Chris Hani had the toyi-toyi on the lockdown. Alas, it wasn’t his to stamp a signature on. It was and still is the masses’ dance. Peter Mokaba even invested a more method madness to it. Nelson Mandela had only one: the fabled Madiba dance. Fair enough.
Zuma has a bag bursting with ‘em for every occasion. The dude could get down to just about any dance style as per his audience’s demographic.
It helped that, when addressing large-scale KwaZulu-Natal events, he’d whip out indlamu; when talking to taxi drivers, he would sneak in remnants of Vusi Ximba’s kitaza jive; and township audiences would be dished a remix of any of these.
But almost five years on since he went on what could easily have been sold as the National Victimhood Tour, as powerful as the Jackson Five’s Victory Tour, the dance has lost its potency. The man needs to retire his choreographer.
Recent internecine battles in Zuma’s own party, recent Human Rights Day service delivery upheavals, general service delivery gatvolness tells us something: we are in the age of uprising!
With or without Julius Malema in their corner, the average South African youth just can’t be bothered with the colour of Zuma’s dancing shoes no more. Like an ageing stand-up comedian, his routine quickly needs a punchline before he can even attempt the gag.
Still, they just don’t give a rat’s ass. They want simple things in life: jobs, water and lights. That’s all—in that order, almost. Can it be so impossible to hear those cries?
Clearly, the first act is over and, besides, it was dragged on for a wee bit long. Fire the scriptwriter, too!
The curtains have closed. End of the show. Questions abound. Will the Zulu Fred Astaire return with a much more believable second act?
Act II. Scene 1: The weather is overcast. Dark balls of anger clouds have been spotted all over the country. ‘Tis a winter of discontent: the youth are warming themselves up with left-over supplies of stolen fuel, after lidding Mzansi’s home-made grenades, aka petrol bombs. Will the dancer quell the fire in their eyes? We wait. Is the dancer still in costume? Depends on what your eyes wish to see.
Bongani Madondo is a writer and contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine