/ 5 November 2012

Nkandla and The Satanic Verses

DA leader Helen Zille.
DA leader Helen Zille.

In Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, the story thread about "the messenger" – a transparent reference to the Prophet Muhammad – hogged all the attention in the subsequent outrage around the book.

But it wasn't the so-called blasphemy of the messenger's life or the verses themselves that stayed with me afterwards. Instead, it was a small parallel story in that sprawling novel about a peasant girl turned prophetess: Ayesha.

She tries to cross the Arabian Sea on the word of an angel who leads her village to a possible watery death. Or to redemption; it's not clear. The image of Ayesha, clothed with butterflies and walking with firm resolve towards the sea haunted me. Her resolve shines out like a beacon but there is no resolution for us, the reader. Her bravery cuts us to the heart but we're not sure if she is a saviour or a mad woman.

So when I heard about DA leader Helen Zille's thwarted march to Nkandla on Sunday I couldn't help but smile. Was she clothed in butterflies the blue hue of the DA shirts? Did she walk up to that sea of ANC supporters and police vehicles without hesitating or blinking an eye? Probably not.

Rushdie's magical realism imbues his story with just that: a surrealism that makes madness, chaos and falling from grace beautiful and somehow meaningful.

South African politics couldn't be further from that. Especially not the story of Zille's ill-fated journey on Sunday, with its thin film of dust over the proceedings, the glaring sun beating down on her beige safari hat and MK vets lying in the road trying to stop her progress.

Photos circulated of Zille waving a school-marmish finger at the unyielding police officers in her way. Grand concepts were invoked in the altercation: freedom of movement, of gathering and access to information. But in the moment it was reduced to a slightly ridiculous impasse: a woman lecturing a sea of men who refused to budge.

We are told she is a "puppy barking at the moon". We debate whether it was a publicity stunt. And we are left with farce and the uneasy sense there is nothing we can do to stop the slow slide down a slope of mediocrity.

We are left with Nkandla, all R240-million worth of it. The upgrade to the compound – with its private clinic, multiple houses and underground bunkers and helipad – is being paid for mostly with state funds.

Zuma, who will get exclusive use of the place as far as we can tell, is only footing 5% of the bill. Remember, this is not a presidential residence. It is unlikely it will be used by anyone except the Zuma family, after he is president. "Not even a dictator can be this brazen," remarked a colleague.

And in our collective conscience looms Nkandla, this monument being built to all we can't stop and can only bitterly laugh at. In another democracy, the one we would like ourselves to be, one would imagine that little more than a month before our president faces a crucial election his image would have been polished to a shiny, squeaky clean veneer.

In this other democracy he would have come off the back of two or three other governance victories by now, designed to turn public sympathies in his favour. But in a political system as compromised as ours, Zuma needs no such help. In a system like the ANC's stunted internal democracy Zuma can amble along to Mangaung with one scandal after the other breaking harmlessly around him as he remains pretty much assured of victory at the party's electoral conference in December.

I wish I could take all the aspects of Zuma's story of late and put them in a novel. That's where they should be: the spy tapes revealing political interference ahead of his original ascent to power; the uproar around the traditional courts Bill and how it sells rural women down the river to secure the support of traditional chieftains; the casual dismissal of the blatant massacre of miners at Marikana, who posed a threat to established power structures. And, of course, Nkandla. But I can't. They are our despairing, and decidedly unmagical, reality.

But still, Rushdie's story speaks to me in the fall-out of Zille's trudge (not a march, the DA insist, and "trek" is a bit too historically loaded) and spurs me on to keep hoping for better.

"The future, even when it was only a question-shrouded glimmer, would not be eclipsed by the past," he writes. "Even when death moved towards the centre of the stage, life went on fighting for equal rights."

Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. You can read her column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.