/ 28 November 2008

At the rainbow’s end

It was a bizarre experience to go straight from a screening of the documentary Behind the Rainbow to Leon Schuster's new opus, Mr Bones II: Back from the Past. It felt like one was warping between mutually exclusive worlds, as they do in Star Trek. Yet both of these worlds are some version of South Africa: the one a world of high-level political conflict, the other a universe in which a white sangoma, part of a tribe apparently called the Kibuki, is transported by a magic bauble from the late 1800s to present-day Durban.

Behind the Rainbow traces the background to the antagonism between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, close struggle comrades who ended up causing something of a split in the African National Congress. The early section is basically a retread of the "battle for the soul of the ANC" argument — the move away from a socialist agenda towards a market-led economy when the ANC came to power, based in the historic compromises of Codesa.

On the way we have the arms deal, the carnage of Polokwane, and so forth, finally ending with a little note to say that the ANC has discharged Mbeki from his duties as president. On the arms deal, the narrator of Behind the Rainbow uses Mark Gevisser's phrase, "the poisoned well of South African politics", without direct acknowledgement. Perhaps it would be better to talk about how the ANC lost — or sold — its soul.

Both Mbeki and Zuma are interviewed, along with other interesting characters such as the always incisive Mac Maharaj and a one-time ANC propagandist who became a Telkom exec. Neither Mbeki nor Zuma say anything unexpected, though Zuma's encapsulated self-defence on the charges of corruption is fun to see. It's all a conspiracy, of course. He doesn't explain why his bosom buddy Thabo turned against him all of a sudden, after years of protecting him. Addressing any of the actual charges, or the aspersions that echo from the conviction of Zuma's financier Schabir Shaik, seems as unlikely as his ability to say no when faced by a young woman in a kanga.

There are oddities such as Pallo Jordan suavely refighting an old battle — that of the "sunset clauses" which gave white South African bureaucrats a five-year lease on life after the new democracy was established. Jordan blames the sunset clauses for the general populace's present lack of trust in the judiciary, which seems a bit thick, especially a decade after those sunset clauses lapsed and were replaced by a programme of affirmative action across the entire criminal justice system. It was a white judge who cleared Zuma of rape charges and another who, more recently, threw out the corruption case against him — did the general populace mistrust that?

But it's invidious to talk of the "general populace" in this way. It's a bit like the way the ANC talks of "the masses" or "the people", employing the language of old Marxist revolutionary movements while leaving its own authoritarian practices unexamined. I suppose that's what you call Leninism. (And the populism of Zuma, one might add, is really just authoritarianism with more singing and dancing.) Remember how in the 1970s the ANC visited Vietnam and came over all Maoist for a bit, or for at least as long as it took to write a position paper? The revolutionary must move through the people like a fish through water — but first the revolutionary must learn to swim.

Behind the Rainbow doesn't delve deeply into such ideological contradictions, which might have been useful. We keep trying to understand the problems and confusions in today's ANC, to see if they go beyond personalities and/or greed, and to do so we might have to interrogate some fundamental, structuring ideological assumptions. I think we need to go further back than the socialism/capitalism split or the Codesa compromises. I'd argue that the ANC's mouthing of phrases such as "the masses" and "the people", while simultaneously presuming the masses will do as they are told, is part of the problem of South Africa's present ungovernability. The ANC doesn't seem to grasp that the people does not equal the party does not equal the state.

That's a debate for another day, or another space, perhaps; at least Behind the Rainbow gets one pondering such things once more, and in that respect it should be seen. I think Behind the Rainbow tries to jam too much history into its two hours and could profitably have focused on the present disarray in the ruling party — sorry, I mean the National Democratic Revolution. Perhaps that would help us figure out why the ANC, which has been in power for 14 years, is acting like the opposition while attacking Cope as though it were the ruling party. Or maybe it's a case of two new opposition parties and no ruling party at all. It's all very confusing. Behind the Rainbow does, however, give us a privileged view of the remarkable consistency of Ronnie Kasrils's eyebrows.

And at least Behind the Rainbow exists in the real world, unlike Mr Bones II, about which I find it hard to find anything to say except that six-year-olds may enjoy some of the slapstick. I heard a titter or two at the screening I attended, but otherwise we all sat there stony-faced and, I suspect, with ever-sinking hearts. Perhaps Schuster would be better employed making fantasy docudramas about the ANC — he could impersonate the famous witchdoctor Kader Asmal coming to the rescue of his constitutionally and democratically challenged tribe. Maybe then we'd have something to smile at.