South Africa: Let them have a ridiculously large luminous flag

Friday, 20 May 2022 — New Frame

The ANC is so out of touch with reality that it is now firmly ensconced in the realm of farce. The need for credible alternatives could hardly be more urgent.

The ANC has destroyed or severely damaged the post office, the national airline, the railways, the electricity system and some of our most crucial hospitals. It was recently announced that the deterioration of the country’s network of weather stations has reached a critical point. Many public buildings, as well as other infrastructure, have been abandoned and then taken apart, sometimes brick by brick, by people who have no stake in the established order – such as it is – and take what they can, when they can, to get by.

The failure of the ANC when it comes to education, land reform, building an inclusive economy and housing is staggering. Three-quarters of young people do not have a job. One in four people lives in a shack. Millions go hungry and the growth of around three in 10 children is stunted because of malnutrition. Less than a third of potential voters participated in the most recent election.

Xenophobic mobs roam the streets with impunity and people who stand up to the political mafias that use the state to accumulate wealth are assassinated with grim regularity. It has become hackneyed to describe all this as a crisis, but for most people in South Africa the inescapable reality is that everyday life is conducted in a state of permanent crisis. And then there are the power outages, fires, riots and floods.

The forces driving this decline exceed the kleptocratic elements of the ruling party and the allocation of jobs based on patronage rather than professional excellence. A vital factor, often ignored by the liberal consensus that dominates much of the media, is that funding for crucial state functions – including healthcare, education and more – is being systemically cut. Austerity, which is now taking on the form of a self-imposed structural adjustment programme, is a central element of the ongoing spiral of decline.

Marching to Heaven

There are also international factors beyond the immediate control of the state. Without significant solidarity being rebuilt between countries in the Global South, perhaps in the form of a new non-aligned movement, the domination of the world by the West in general – the United States in particular – will always make real economic sovereignty impossible.

But these realities offer no alibi for the failures of the ANC, failures that mean the liberal hope Cyril Ramaphosa offers as a socially viable alternative to Jacob Zuma is at best a comforting illusion. Austerity does not offer a workable alternative to kleptocracy. On the contrary, what is required is to simultaneously build a capable and professional state and invest massively in society, in hospitals, schools, housing and job-creation programmes.

Neither faction of the ANC can provide this. Neither faction can even provide any rhetorical inspiration. Ramaphosa’s speeches could hardly be more insipid, while the cynically misnamed radical economic transformation or RET faction wallows in the sort of crudities and conspiracy theories that are accurately described as Trumpian.

In this morass, Cabinet decided it would be a good idea to allocate R22 million to build a 120m tall flagpole that glows in the dark. Most of us couldn’t make this up. But great Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o did make up something along these lines in his 2006 novel Wizard of the Crow. In the fictional country of Aburĩria, The Ruler runs a cabinet of toadies all bent on accumulating personal wealth and power and sharing a casual contempt for the ordinary people of the country. Against a backdrop of growing dissent, one of these toadies, the foreign minister, proposes to build the tallest tower in the world.

The planned tower comes to be known as Marching to Heaven and becomes the object of collective mania, with two endless queues forming outside the office of the official tasked with building it. One queue is made of people hoping to get tenders, the other of impoverished people hoping for work. At the same time, protests against the tower grow and are met with paranoia, incomprehension and brutality. It’s as if Marie Antoinette had, on the eve of the French Revolution, said, “Let them gaze on a giant cake.”

A hapless minister

The idea of erecting a 120m, glow-in-the-dark flagpole in this moment of crisis doesn’t only sound like something out of a magical realism novel. It also evokes the excoriation of the crudity of post-colonial elites in a set of theoretical texts ranging from classic works by Frantz Fanon to the contemporary contributions of Achille Mbembe.

It is Nathi Mthethwa’s hapless Department of Sports, Arts and Culture that was, until a recent climbdown, pushing ahead with this farce. Mthethwa is a man singularly lacking in charisma and vision, who speaks in random cliches that mean little other than that he has nothing meaningful to say.

Mthethwa also has an appalling record as a minister. Artists are still reeling from Covid-19 lockdowns, during which they received scant support and had to reckon with the disappearance of R300 million allocated for financial relief. Only two in every five schools have sports infrastructure. There’s also the matter of the stadium that was built in Mamelodi at a cost of R140 million and then never used because it was so badly constructed. After people began to remove building material from the stadium, a decision was taken to demolish it at a further cost of R84.9 million. This all too real story would have slotted right into Ngũgĩ’s novel.

Nations are not built by vapid spectacle. They are built by developing a common sense of inclusion in the symbolic and material realms. That this farce of a flagpole was ever taken seriously is just one more indication among many that the ANC ran out of ideas years ago. But we can take no comfort in any of the parties competing for the space that the steady collapse of the ANC is opening up. Julius Malema, Herman Mashaba and John Steenhuisen could all have made appearances as minor characters in Ngũgĩ’s novel.

Update: The decision to erect the flag is being reviewed following public outcry.

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