Zumandla — The Year of the Meme
A sensation of living inside an endless series of memes is the surreal experience that South Africans shared in 2016. It’s a crowded bubble of escapism used to find meaning in the often perplexing political milieu.
On the day that former public protector Thuli Madonsela released the State of Capture report, one meme synthesised succinctly the national mood. In it, crowds were seen gathering outside the president’s office calling for him to vacate it. The deputy president tells Jacob Zuma: “The people have come to say goodbye,” to which JZ asks: “Where are they going?” This imperviousness has been typical of Zuma’s presidency and his regime’s resistance to public opinion, which broke new ground this past year.
South Africa left early adulthood to take unclear and sometimes ill-advised steps towards redefining its sociopolitical praxis. In many cases, the attempts were discouraging — the ANC’s combative stance regarding the Constitution — and others simply disastrous — the Hawks’ unfounded pursuit of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. At the centre of this, Zuma and the Teflon machinery around him are central to much of the quagmire that South African politics is facing.
A few years ago I wrote: “Zuma has presided over a year of turmoil in the economy, uncertainty of markets, industrial action, community uprisings, increasingly obvious internal party strife. At the same time, the judiciary has yet to recover from the credibility it lost trying to protect the president.” Sadly nothing has changed since.
At that time, the Economic Freedom Fighters did not exist. Zwelinzima Vavi was still secretary general of a stronger Cosatu union federation and the key cheer leader of the Zuma tsunami. The term Fallists had not been coined and the finance minister had not been charged by the Hawks. The Guptas did not swallow news headlines.
The spectre of the 783 corruption charges against Zuma still hung in the air and the incredible woman known as Khwezi was alive and in hiding. Fezeka Ntsukela Kuzwayo’s death, after four women memorably called for rape allegations to be remembered at the election results centre when Zuma rose to speak, was a potent reminder of a long and unforgotten shadow of the president’s tenure.
What occurred in the intervening years, as another meme expressed, is not that Zuma failed but rather that he found 10 000 new ways not to succeed. The years since his incumbency have been marked by constant spin doctoring, which in 2016 was stretched to full capacity and often found wanting and incoherent.
The wreckage that began at the close of 2015 with what another meme described as “extreme job creation” — three finance ministers hired in a week — continued to reap chaotic dividends last year. The population responded angrily, analysts and economists analysed the carnage daily and our economy reacted with disdain as the rand refused to strengthen.
Zuma’s 2016 closing shot that “business, government and society must work together on this national imperative” seems inexplicable after having presided over a year of deep and definitive decline. As another meme suggests, Zuma’s problem with running the country will be solved if he just turns it on and off again. Oh, that rebooting South African politics and the rather ragged economy were incredibly rudimentary.
The year of the meme concealed a new cynicism and deeper fragmentation in South African politics. Other than South Africa’s diminished international footprint, severely felt in Burundi, South Sudan and Ethiopia among others, the neopatrimonialism begun in 1994 reached new velocity in 2016. Granted, global politics has collectively lost its compass as illustrated by Brexit when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the shadow of a Donald Trump presidency in the United States and the Dilma Rousseff impeachment in Brazil.
Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, with blithe dishonesty claimed that Cabinet intended to investigate the big banks’ links to the Gupta clan. That he still retains his position is a reflection of the Zuma regime’s disinterest in maintaining even the most elastic standard of public service ethics. The term regime rather than administration is used deliberately. The blitheness has not served the ANC or the Zuma legacy effectively this past year.
The one person who has constantly upheld the ethical benchmark despite being vilified by some members of the ANC, Thuli Madonsela, ended her term and fired heavy missives in her wake. Although inconclusive, the former public protector’s interview with the president revealed the malleable ethical framework that circumscribes the current political landscape. Thankfully, attempts by the president, Zwane and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Des van Rooyen (the former four-day finance minister) to prevent the State of Capture report from receiving the oxygen of public exposure failed. Even the CIA could not avert its release.
Nevertheless, the report’s release could not assuage the deep crevices in our state machinery. The idea that even this steep descent to madness is not entirely of our own making but is conducted from the Gupta’s Saxonwold home disturbs the sensible. When Brian Molefe’s once sturdy career left the Eskom building for a yet-to-be traced shebeen, deeper problems about the efficacy of the nuclear deal were muffled under meme-dom. The slippery link between the high turnover of finance ministers, the overpriced nuclear deal and the luxury northern suburb illustrates that the government, the ANC and the president have a rare talent for obfuscating the essential issues from broad scrutiny.
The information laundering has been conspicuous throughout the bruising battle for the public broadcaster and its mandate to report news fairly and fearlessly. Vigorous attempts to airbrush social protest from TV screens illustrate South Africa’s diminishing ability to tolerate being systematically told untruths. The #SABC8 have distinguished themselves as champions of journalism and in doing so, have encouraged South Africans to be more vested citizens.
The #FeesMustFall movement was an emblematic recipient of SABC’s skewed and mischievous misreporting with some media describing the protests as “rampages and anarchic”. All this while failing to analyse the extent of police brutality and incarceration on the Falllists. This includes the many women in the movement whose role has all but been erased. The response to this this was the president’s rejoinder that he is not afraid of jail.
The Constitutional Court under the leadership of another solid pillar, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, stated that even the president is not above accountability regarding the upgrades to Zuma’s Nkandla home. By implication this means he is not above the law and legal sanction — including the same jail he does not fear. Although the Nkandla saga now feels like chewed-out Chappies, it is a red rag to be waved as a reminder of the president’s capacity to delay legal processes and subvert constitutional instruments.
The National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) attempt to prosecute Gordhan seems to have been a bridge too far. The spectre of the finance minister being summoned on national television did not only alarm markets but, more importantly, illustrated Zuma and his regime’s capacity to divest themselves of ethical accountability. The essay that Zuma asked NPA boss Shaun Abrahams to write to prove his fitness to hold office, having appointed him, was one of the deepest low points of many valleys we traversed in 2016.
Possibly the deepest was the mediocre showing that the still ruling (or governing if you prefer) party made at the local government elections. The ANC lost major metropoles and despite the contested numbers, the fact remains that this was a mortal blow to the invincibility of the ANC and the president’s leadership. Although Zuma survived two votes of no confidence, the margin of survival has narrowed slightly and open discussions about a dignified exit are made on any given day on any radio talk show. The plethora of pithy “Jesus came early” memes alone should have been sobering. Sadly the ANC taking stock seemed to be a blame-seeking exercise constructed around reasons not to hold Zuma accountable for the election loss.
South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande described the succession debate as disruptive to the ANC, saying: “It cannot be that each time there is a talk of succession, we have this turbulence.” Is it worse than the current turbulence? The levels of visceral violence inflicted on South Africa rendered it almost impossible to retrieve our political innocence.
In responding to another of the president’s misteps, that the clergy refrain from politics, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said: “I have so far not joined the call for our president to resign, but said that he should step aside while his party leaders address their crisis. But our situation compels us to ask when do we name the gluttony, the inability to control the pursuit of excess? When do we name the fraudsters who are unable to control their insatiable appetite for obscene wealth accumulated at the expense of the poorest of the poor?”
The man of the cloth has spoken. Amen.
Lebohang Liepollo Pheko is a policy and economic analyst as well as senior research fellow and political economist at the Trade Collective.