Zuma didn’t end load-shedding, but it could be gospel before you ...

Ideas

Zuma didn’t end load-shedding, but it could be gospel before you know it

As SA rushes to return to normality without taking the time to retell the story of July’s upheaval, someone else will

Columnist
A member of the SANDF patrols in Soweto after violent protests and looting.
A DIFFERENT STORY A member of the SANDF patrols in Soweto after violent protests and looting.
Image: Alon Skuy/Sunday Times

Three weeks ago, as SA felt the first shocks of an eruption that has since been described as everything from a failed coup and a proto-revolution by the poor to a meaningful catalyst for positive change, a tweet by a certain polymath seemed particularly cynical.

“Prediction,” wrote security and economics guru Antony Altbeker. “Not a single person in SA will rethink a single long-held view about anything important about government, politics or policy despite the massive social upheaval we are seeing.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure Altbeker was entirely correct: I think it’s possible that there are three or even four people who are rethinking their long-held beliefs about government, politics and policy.

Julius Malema, for example, has surely had it explained to him how spectacularly his party botched its response to the crisis, and that he will now have to shift plans for his month-long coronation from the mid-2050s to the early 2060s.

Cyril Ramaphosa, too, must be rethinking his policy of hiring pot plants to head up his security cluster.

For the rest, however, I can’t help thinking of Altbeker’s tweet as we stampede back towards the comforting embrace of that busily curated mess of projection, hope and denial we call normality.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about that stampede in this column, suggesting it was natural to want to settle on one clear narrative as quickly as possible to soothe our anxieties.

What’s notable, however, is that we don’t seem to be settling on either of the two leading contenders.

Cyril Ramaphosa, too, must be rethinking his policy of hiring pot plants to head up his security cluster.

Certainly, judging by the response from the state, the press and social media, very few of us believe that the eruption was an insurrection or an attempted coup. The army is not on the streets. There is no dawn-to-dusk curfew. You might have assumed the largest public outcry of the last week might have been a call to prosecute the alleged plotters. Instead it was about refereeing in a rugby match.

Not even the hacking and crippling of three of our largest ports seemed to register as something to get particularly vexed about.

In Cape Town, Covid spreaders marched down the Sea Point promenade, denouncing vaccines as a key ingredient of “satanic rituals”. (Damn that Beelzebub and his monstrous scheme to keep us healthy!) On Radical Economic Transformation Twitter, shills and suckers punted a delirious mashup of anti-vax and anti-Oppenheimer pabulum.

But despite being a country primed for paranoia, almost nobody seemed to wonder whether a direct attack on SA’s economic arteries had anything to do with an alleged insurrection a week earlier.

Clearly, the coup narrative is not gaining traction, at least not in a way that encourages the sort of responses you might expect.

The other prominent version of events, however – that the looting was the first shot fired in an inevitable and imminent revolution by the poor – seems even less galvanising.

If the revolution has begun, then it has been heralded by a stock market reaching all-time highs and a rand dramatically stronger than a year ago. Of emergency bread and circuses there is almost no sign: according to the Sunday Times, discussions about the introduction of a basic income grant are “at an advanced stage” but any real plans to roll it out are at least six months away.

In the void between these two narratives, bizarre distractions have started coming up like weeds between paving stones.

Consider, for example, Naomi Campbell’s letter to Jacob Zuma, which, if you missed it, is an Instagram sermon on doing the right thing delivered by someone who once accepted a blood diamond from Charles Taylor.

Consider, for example, Naomi Campbell’s letter to Jacob Zuma, which, if you missed it, is an Instagram sermon on doing the right thing delivered by someone who once accepted a blood diamond from Charles Taylor.

Determined not to be outshone by Campbell, Zuma’s daughter Jabu hit back in an open letter, explaining to Campbell that “South Africans are hungry, impoverished, unemployed and tired of living whereby the government marginalises them”.

At first glance it seemed like a rather peculiar way to defend a man who, until very recently, was the bloke supervising the impoverishing, un-employing and marginalising. But if you’ve spent any time wading through the intellectual fraud and outright fantasy on RET Twitter, you will have recognised this as entirely on brand.

The ANC has a long and proud history of historical revisionism, best exemplified by its almost total erasure of the PAC from the history of Sharpeville. Recently, however, the Zuma faction has gone into revisionist overdrive, concocting an absurdly counterfactual history of his presidency in which he ended load-shedding (I kid you not) and turned SA into an economic powerhouse.

As far as I can make out, however, this golden age ended instantly on that fateful night at Nasrec in 2017. On the afternoon of Monday the 18th of December, the ANC was a strong, honest, well-run, pro-poor government adored by the masses. By midnight, it had hollowed out the state, looted the fiscus, embedded cronies and doomed poor patriots like Jacob Zuma to monstrous abuses like having to appear before the commission he set up.

I’m not really joking, and neither is Jabu Zuma.

These inventions are silly. But as the weeks tick past and we still don’t know exactly what happened, or why, or whether it will happen again, they’re also inevitable: the longer the state remains silent, the more that silence will be filled by voices best ignored, and the less likely we are to rethink anything at all.

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