All that is solid turns to currency

“Yes, I heard of it, like everybody else. Whether there is such a plan or not, I don’t know. All I can say is I hope the rumour is unfounded. My position is quite straightforward, especially now that I don’t have to worry about being editor of the [National] Gazette. My view is that any serving president foolish enough to lay his head on a coin should know he is inciting people to take it off; the head, I mean.” — Ikem, a character in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.

I can only recall witnessing the “Mandela effect” once in my life. At a children’s party, a mother said the spelling of “tumeric” had been changed, under nefarious circumstances, to “turmeric”. All of us at the party were convinced that we remembered the “correct” spelling, and that something trippy was up.

I had yet to hear the term “Mandela effect”, a phrase apparently coined by people who thought they had seen images of Nelson Mandela’s funeral in the 1980s, a period when he was in prison. One of them, Fiona Broome, a paranormal consultant, describes the phenomenon as “several people remembering events that may have never happened in the same way”.

In the 1980s, the mystique, and therefore the currency, of Mandela lay not in his death but in his absence. His strong pre-Robben Island oratorical performance, his long prison term coupled with the mounting pressure against the apartheid regime, rendered him a symbol more powerful than Oliver Tambo, the party’s president at the time.

The songs themselves suggested this: Tambo was to speak to state president PW Botha to release Mandela. The staging of his release to create a climactic spectacle meant he became a bargaining chip for the supposed enemy as well, who themselves were masters of obfuscation.

The mythology of Jan van Riebeeck as a founding father of apartheid South Africa was itself based on false imagery and obfuscation. According to historian Patric Tariq Mellet, Van Riebeeck was too ugly to front
the colonial project that presaged apartheid.

Writing about a history of European contact with Southern Africa predating 1652, Mellet writes that, “so desperate were the apartheid ideologues in going to great lengths to build up the notion of Jan van Riebeeck as the romantic ‘Founder of Civilised South Africa’ that they propagated plagiarised false images of him and his wife that were the images of two other Dutch people — Mr Vermuyden and Ms Kettingh.

“Statues, paintings, stamps, coinage and bank notes were created to project Van Riebeeck in this glamourised version of the man.”

It follows then that, in the present, the myth of Madiba magic is used to sew the incongruous patches of South African reality together. In 2012 Mandela appeared on the country’s currency, together with the Big Five.

When the Randelas were rolled out, parts of the country were being renamed Marikana and Mandela was in frail health. The cherubic sidelong half-glance that adorns the Randelas is a signal of the failures of silently cherished apartheid exceptionalism.

“In terms of the symbolism of putting of figures on the currency, that’s what leaders have done while in power and while living,” says Adekeye Adebajo, professor with experience in conflict resolution. “Nkrumah did it, as did others too. It’s a case of playing out their own insecurities.

“Mandela himself would not have allowed it, as he was against statues and the cult of personality. But obviously the ANC used the act to legitimise its own rule. Mandela is the closest thing you have in terms of a founding father, like George Washington is to America, or Gandhi to India, so it was a move that even the opposition parties could not question. The DA [Democratic Alliance] even tried to appropriate Mandela, which led to some disputes in past elections.”

But it seems as if Mandela is worth more to South Africans alive than dead. The passage of time has brought with it a reassessment of Mandela as a statesman. The continued scrutiny and analysis, Adebajo believes, is a function of the troubling trajectory of the country, but brand Mandela may be hard to tarnish significantly.

“The fact that he spent 27 years in prison cannot be easily brushed aside,” said Adebajo. “He will still be respected for avoiding civil war and promoting reconciliation. If you look at America, its founding fathers are still revered as gods, even though some were despicable people and slave owners.”

But, if South Africa’s most recent local government elections are anything to go by, the country’s politicians may be realising the social currency of niche influencers, hence the abortive ANC “war room” and the co-option of celebrities and rappers.

And the currency in professions such as acting is social media.

Actress Thalitha Ndima recently went public about a disturbing trend in casting circles. “Why I started to talk about it was because I had been to a couple of auditions where on the form that you fill out before you start the audition they ask you what your social media following is like.

“The first time it happened I didn’t even understand what it meant, but they obviously somehow make a correlation between your social media following and you getting the job, which was very jarring for me.

“After that, I started paying attention to my industry. I would go to more auditions and then they would ask you, ‘How many followers [do you have]?,’ and then you see how many followers the person has that got the job. Then you go, ‘Oh, so that’s the situation’.”

When people are selling shows to advertisers, the numbers obviously speak a lot, says Ndima. “If you have three million followers, a million-and-a-half are going to watch purely based on the fact that you are on the show. But, after a while, people go: ‘This is pretty crappy. I don’t want to watch this show.’ The audiences aren’t complete idiots either. It can’t last forever and advertisers would have to think of a long-term plan than a situation where people are watching just the first six weeks.”

Ndima refers to a show with beautiful aesthetics, socialite actors and a multidimensional story line. It looks like a glimpse into a cold, dystopian future, where everyone has brunch at the gym but all have lost the ability to cry.

And in recession-hit places the currency has reverted to bartering. In the Greek village of Volos, unemployment has skyrocketed and the residents have turned to a currency known as the local alternative unit (the TEM), pegged to the euro.

Members sign up to the bartering website and exchange goods and services and amass online TEM credits, which are accepted by some shops.

In a National Public Radio feature in the town, teacher Alexandra Tsabouris says she has glimpsed the future when recalling her parents’ self-sufficiency. “If you have a garden, if you cultivate things, if you reduce your needs, if you don’t have needs anymore, this is the only way,” she says.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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