​Slime and other matters of importance to South Africans

Say what? As Pravin Gordhan delivered his mid-term budget speech last week, hundreds of South African were more interested in British football bosses Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. (John Sibley, Reuters)

Say what? As Pravin Gordhan delivered his mid-term budget speech last week, hundreds of South African were more interested in British football bosses Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. (John Sibley, Reuters)

As I write this, South Africa is in a febrile state. A court has ordered that the public protector report into state capture must be released in a few hours’ time. Opposition parties, lawyers and campaigning groups are jostling to take credit.

The air is heady with the possibility of President Jacob Zuma’s demise. I’ve already refreshed the public protector website so many times I’ve developed a repetitive strain injury in my refreshing finger.

Social media is “lit”, as the youth would say. And not just social media, in fairness: central Pretoria has been brought to a standstill by the Economic Freedom Fighters. Protests in several cities this week have seen ordinary South Africans take to the streets to demand that the president must go.

Except … how “ordinary” are these South Africans, really? In a country of more than 50-million inhabitants, we have seen a tiny minority of the population express vocal outrage over state capture, or the charges against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, or student fees. These are the issues dominating the news currently, but are they the concerns preoccupying most South Africans?

I was considering this question the other day when I was reading some data gathered by Google in South Africa.

During Gordhan’s medium-term budget speech last week, the top question South Africans were typing into Google was: “What did [José] Mourinho [manager of British Premier League club Manchester United] say to [Antonio] Conte [manager of Chelsea]?” I am the person who could most benefit from such an inquiry, since the only thing I know is that this has something to do with football.

Among the other top 10 searches were “How to make slime” (answer: get Shaun Abrahams to wipe his forehead on a hankie for you) and “How to change your name on Facebook” (Shaun Abrahams, was that you?). Nary a mention of Gordhan, budgets, Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority or anything else that the media would have you believe is a matter of life or death for our country right now.

You may well say that the Google results aren’t indicative of much more than the preoccupations of metropolitan elites, who are the South Africans with greatest access to data and time to mess around on the internet. This would seem to be borne out by the fact that one of the most googled queries in South Africa the previous week was “How to prepare prawns”. If you took that as a reflection of the national mood, apparently we’re a country of Marie Antoinettes.

But it’s also telling that the 10th most-googled inquiry last week was: “What day does the [social] grant come in?” — which I imagine is not a burning question on the minds of most of South Africa’s prawn-shucking amateur chefs.

Regardless, the point is that most South Africans are not currently holding their breath and cursing the slowness of the public protector’s website.

They are thinking about football. They are contemplating the plots of their favourite TV shows. They are apparently manufacturing their own slime.

They are trying to work out whether they have enough money to last them until the next grant payment.

This might seem like an obvious point to make, but I think it’s an important one. When the media present us with visuals of a few thousand people sweeping towards the Union Buildings carrying political placards, it is easy to believe that some form of seismic change is nigh. Commentators are constantly telling us that we are at a “tipping point”. We are at a “crossroads”. But what does this actually mean to the average South African?

Perhaps it would be helpful to consider who the average South African actually is. Statistically, that person is a black isiZulu-speaking woman in her mid-20s who lives in Gauteng, has no tertiary education, limited income and limited access to the internet.

Such a person is not glued to social media for breaking news on the Hawks — statistics show that only one in 10 urban South Africans rely on social media as a news source. Figures from the SABC suggest that about 12-million people watch free-to-air television during prime time, when news bulletins are aired: about a quarter of the population.

I am no fan of the Institute of Race Relations, but a representative survey of South Africans the organisation ran late last year produced some interesting results.

In answer to the question: “What are the two most serious problems not yet resolved since 1994?”, the two most popular answers were “unemployment” and “crime”.

If Zuma goes, his successor will inherit a nation to run where unemployment is still critical and crime is still rife. If an opposition party wrests power from the ANC, it will face the same challenges.

It would be foolish to think that any one person or organisation could win the approval of the nation by compelling a report to be released or pushing for charges against a blameless minister to be dropped.

We may need these things to happen in order to root out the rot in our political system and regain the trust of the people.

But next time you hear the phrase “the people”, ask yourself who’s really being referred to there.

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis has a master’s in English literature from Rhodes and a master’s in linguistics from Oxford University, UK. After a stint at the Oxford English Dictionary, she returned to South Africa, where she has been writing stories and columns for various publications, including the M&G. Her first book, Best White (And Other Anxious Delusions), came out in 2015. Read more from Rebecca Davis

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