When reality seems like satire

Posted on July 31, 2013


(Initial publication: Bulletin & Record, Zambia)

The South African political scene is becoming increasingly bizarre; reporting reality here can often seem like satire of the most extreme sort. Take the traditional king of one of the largest local tribes, the abaThembu, one of whose nobles is none other than Nelson Mandela.

King Bulelekhaya Dalinyebo who openly smokes marijuana, is still out of jail appealing against a 15-year sentence passed in 2009 for arson, culpable homicide and assault, emerged on July 15 to announce to a gathering of traditional leaders that he had left the governing ANC to join the opposition Democratic Alliance. The son of King Sabata Dalinyebo, one of the heroes of the ANC and anti-apartheid struggle, Bulelekhaya had earlier launched a series of verbal attacks on President Jacob Zuma.

Apart from referring to the president as “a hooligan who eats out of the dustbins of the Guptas”, he also claimed that Zuma only seems to remain out of prison for corruption because of his position. The reference to the Guptas is to the wealthy Indian family that is very close to Zuma and for whom several members of Zuma’s family work.

And when, earlier in July, Zuma carried out a cabinet reshuffle, the king remarked: “He flushes people like condoms” before going on to remark that Zuma, who has fathered 23 children, several out of wedlock, “is a liar who doesn’t use condoms”.

The king also attacked one of his minor royal bretheren, Chief Mandla Mandela of Mveso, who was handed the traditional chiefdom by his grandfather, the international anti-apartheid icon, Nelson. It was an appointment that, say some of his disgruntled subjects, seemed to go rapidly to the head of the young chief.

But if nothing else, 39-year-old Mandla is ambitious: an ANC member of parliament, he brokered deals with the tourism department to build a travel complex at Mveso, the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. However, the Mandela home is on the main highway, in Qunu, some 25km to the north of Mveso.

And it was at Qunu, in a hillside graveyard, that three of Nelson Mandela’s children, an infant girl who died in 1948, a boy, Thembi, who died in a road accident in 1969 while Mandela was in prison and Mandla Mandela’s father, Makgatho, who died in 2005 were buried. Nelson Mandela apparently made only one final provision in his will: he wanted to be buried “alongside my children”.

And it was this provision, say several members of the now bitterly squabbling Mandela clan, that turned Mandla into “a grave robber”. Certainly, in circumstances that still remain unclear, he exhumed the bodies of the three children one night in 2011 and reinterred them in the graveyard at Mveso.

It took a much publicised court case, with much dirty family linen flapping about in the media breeze, before a posse, led a the sheriff of the court, forced open the chained gates of Mveso. There the three graves were dug up, the bodies were removed for DNA testing and were then finally reinterred at Qunu.

While this was going on, the self proclaimed leaders of the chattering and labouring classes were also on the move. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have now arrived on the South African political scene, their uniform, a red beret in deference to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, but worn with considerably less panache.

Heading the EFF is Julius Malema, expelled former leader of the ANC Youth League who once pledged to “kill for Zuma”, but who has now decided that both Zuma and the ANC must make way for him and the EFF. Like Zuma, however, he does have corruption charges hanging over his head — and he still has to deal with a bill for R16 million in unpaid taxes.

The revenue service has already claimed a farm, a house in the northern province of Limpopo, and the R16 million mansion Malema was building in Johannesburg. So, as a newly self-declared member of the urban poor, the EFF leader has announced that he is a socialist who stands for the nationalisation of the banks, mines and land of South Africa, demands that have considerable popular appeal in South Africa.

He has also given up his Gucci suits and shoes and no longer sports the R250,000 watches he was famous for only two years ago. Sitting beside him at the launch of the EFF was one of his major millionaire backers and a member of the EFF executive, Kenny Kunene.

Kunene, like Dalinyebo, recently launched a scathing personal attack on President Jacob Zuma. This one-time fraudster and jailbird who made a fortune running nightclubs, is notorious locally. And not only for his numerous female companions, but also for staging parties at which he ate sushi off the bodies of semi-naked women.

All that, he now says, is behind him as he and Malema go on the campaign trail with the EFF to “save South Africa”. But whether the bulk of mostly poor South Africa wishes to be saved by them or whether they really care about any Mandelas except Nelson Rolihlahla is entirely another matter.

Poverty and joblessness are the main concern of the masses — concerns taken up as campaigning cries by the politicians. Yet, in the midst of this satirical reality show in July, few seemed to notice that the fifth annual report on local executive pay was published.

The report revealed that the top five directors of South African companies shared R158 million in guaranteed pay last year. Whitey Basson, the Shoprite chief executive, who notched up more than R160 million (including perks and bonuses) a year ago, was in second place, with a basic pay packet of R40 million.

And so the show goes on.  As leading local media commentator Max du Preez noted on July 16:  “If we, as a country, were a person, a psychoanalyst would certainly have a field day exploring our condition.”

Posted in: Commentary