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Personal Mandelas

by Phumlani Pikoli, illustration by Jason Bronkhorst / 26.08.2010

Smuts Ngonyama once infamously, symptomatically said: “I didn’t join the struggle to be poor”. We know all about that now! Shit Julius wasn’t even a part of the Struggle – and he’s definitely not struggling being poor. As erroneous and conceited as that statement is though – I get it. Smuts and many others like him heroically “faced the evils of an oppressive system” put in place long before their parents even made eye contact. They deserve acknowledgement, fuck they deserve way more than that, they should be revered. They suffered their entire lives growing up poor categorized like chattel – then channeled their anger into collective political consciousness – taking on a universally reviled system that threatened death and torture (and way more than you and I can ever imagine). These guys are heroes. They ought to be rich, right? They ought to be rewarded. The real question is how does a liberation movement – full of heroes – become a functioning government – full of selflessly efficient servers of the people? Given the sad historical litany of ones that have tried (and mostly failed) throughout the African continent – it apparently doesn’t.

The ANC and corruption seem to walk hand in hand. No escaping it. Look at our President. Schabir Shaik’s get-out-of-jail-free-card. Thabo and his government at least tried to cover up their shit (that labyrinthine arms deal). uMsholozis’ just don’t care anymore. It looks like Bheki Cele, National Commissioner of the SAP, just had a reporter arrested for what we still don’t really know. Something to do with Mpumalanga and a forged document. But in the week of his arrest he reported that the Commish acquired a R500 million estate at the expense of tax payers. Money surely better spent on actually training the police. Why are you entitled to such lavish splendour, Herr Commissioner, when you are barely doing your job? Why should you get to go on not doing it in such comfort? Does it make it easier to shoot to kill?

The ANC and “entitlement” make love like two varsity first years. Often, badly and with messy technique. Julius Malema. The genius. Secreting entitlement-sickness into the mind of the already entitled – the new elite. He’s the guy who uses apartheid speech like “eliminate the opposition”. Calling rival parties cockroaches, as of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. He’s also a guy who didn’t play a role in the Liberation Movement. Who isn’t an entitled hero of the Struggle – coasting on past glories he had no hand in. His piddly Youth League presidency is in a Gucci cloud of controversy. Malema’s predecessor handpicked him for the job, the results of the poll were contested so they adjourned the conference and it only resumed once his leadership was “officially accepted”. The integrity of that election, like so many in Africa, is still contested. So much for the democratic process. That’s right. South Africa’s most dangerous village idiot is a plant. He has no formal legitimacy. He was never voted in. Here he is with Deborah Patter. Decide who’s smarter. See it as a sort of advertisement for Heineken paid for by the tax payer.

But Black entitlement has a kissing cousin – white guilt. They need each other. They feed on each other like cannibals. White Guilt plays truth or dare, like late blooming teenagers. Truth is admitting guilt (if any – and there ought to be for most white South Africans). Dare is actually doing something about it (actively redressing the wrong in your community and working to alleviate it).

Good DA supporting, Mandela loving liberals don’t even mind being led by a woman – as long as she’s surrounded by a “harem” of male advisors! Sexist? Who cares as long as she gets people out of the Khayelitsha toilet system. As long as real change happens in people’s everyday lives. Liberals need to act for change now (conditions are just as bad if not worse) and get over feeling frozen about what happened back then. It’s a karma thing. They feel bad, but not bad enough to share their assets. Whatever that would mean. They’re guilty not stupid! White liberals (and really most white people here, now, are in effect “liberals”, purely by accepting the progressive constitutional framework of the country) know what’s going on – but do nothing except feel bad – which makes them feel good.

Lucky for them they’ve been given a sort of get out of jail free card – BEE. It’s a nice way of saying “Well although most of the country’s fucked up we can fix it by giving the already educated a high position in business. That way it looks like we’re rectifying a broken system!” Even Helen – voted best mayor in the world – is hot for black leadership.

But BEE isn’t working. Firstly it only caters to a few. “Few” being those already expensively educated. The few – with good contacts – good family backgrounds – with money – who got past Bantu Education, a system designed to educate them into being gardeners and maids. Secondly black executives often do little more than dance metaphorical jigs for their white bosses. While they get paid well – bosses and shareholders reap the real profits. Does the coordinated exploitation of black labour ever stop? Like Chester Williams playing for the Springboks all over again. It’s tokenism without real mass ownership and control.

Guilt is a way of justifying inaction – it excuses the more pressing need to change what is happening right now. Press restrictions, police brutality, rampant corruption. Guilt is useless to the country, it keeps you frozen in place looking back. It’s also one of the “indulgent pleasures” of being a member of the Lucky Sperm Club. The privilege of guilt. White guilt. You better believe poor black communities aren’t guilty. They’re fucking angry.

Not for them regular international travel and holiday homes. They can’t flee. Australia is a notorious refuge for disgruntled whites who’ve swallowed the hype of a failed South Africa.

It doesn’t have to be Australia either. Troops of Afrikaaners are being granted passage back to The Netherlands!
“Okay manne – now that we’ve gotten what we needed there’s nothing left here for us. The natives grow restless – let’s give it back to them. We’ve taken all the good shit anyway.”
Imagine that said in a dik Afrikaans accent to a huge gathering of armed men (armed with Castle beers) in khakis (by Country Road) while women in doeks (by Gavin Rajah) clear out beautiful Cape Dutch homes and load ox-drawn carts (gas-chomping 4X4’s) – making ready for the great trek (a flight to Antwerp) that is to follow. Full circle. History repeated as farce.

Remember Madam and Eve – when it was still funny? Around the first democratic elections. Now that was the new South Africa in action. The dream of a nation tired of slaving for less than minimum wage being given the opportunity to stick it to the Man. Or Madam. Running up a massive telephone bill, sleeping on the ironing board and pissing off the old and alcoholic racist crone. Black people loved spurring Eve on. Whites resented the depiction coming to pass. It’s all funny until somebody has to pay the maid. Or worse, fire her.

White Guilt and Black Entitlement is a dynamic – a double helix at the heart of new South African identity – which lets the truly culpable hide from responsibility. Look at how we go on letting Zuma cover over his mistakes.

Are there things that we really should care about? That we really shouldn’t go on letting anyone get away with? What about: Health care, education, housing – you know, “service delivery”? There is supposed to be a delivery of service right? What gets whole communities out on the streets and in the faces of the police? Legitimate, genuine wants and needs not being met by the State. That’s the root of the problem. The truth behind it all.

Did the rot set in centuries ago? Was it the Verwoerdian annus mirabilis of 1948? Whatever the roots, that stinging legacy of deprivation is very real for black people. Very much alive and well in this country. It explains a hell of a lot. Both black entitlement and white guilt.

It’s why our current leadership are so gluttonous – attempting to eat a country’s wealth, a country that, until very recently, systematically treated them like shit. A Charter with a snappy name – Freedom something – was once drafted in a place called Kliptown. “All shall share in the country’s wealth” was one of its abidingly powerful fever dreams. Yet to come to pass. Yet to be fulfilled. In fact we’re drifting further and further from it. The Freedom Charter has never been more urgent.

How do you tell someone they’re not entitled to the things they need – just to have a normal life? The things we take for granted. Shelter, opportunity, enlightenment, a full belly. The basic middle class niceties. Someone who doesn’t know whether or not they’re going to eat that day is not entitled to the food you can afford to buy. Why not? Who’s responsibility is that?

The Ruling Party has gone from “A better life for all” to “creating connections for a few.”
We need to stop waiting on another Mandela. They only manufacture those – world historical spirits – every 92 years or so. Wouldn’t it be nice if each household in the country had one? A Personal Mandela to make everything alright. If we did have one – he might whisper in our ears: Stop feeling entitled to what you haven’t worked for. Stop feeling guilty for what you haven’t done. Get involved. Fight the power. Inspirational shit like that.

If Diego Rivera – the great Revolutionary painter of the 1930s – was painting a picture of Black Entitlement and White Guilt – he might have depicted an embarrassed Zebra being served crisp green grass on a platter by a mule. Would we get the allegory though?

*Illustration © Jason Bronkhorst.

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