Ace: The Opera

Andrew Donaldson unveils his masterpiece "Die Entlassung des Generalsekretärs"


I DON'T know who cares about such things, but Robert Wilson’s The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin is considered the world’s longest opera. Performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December 1973, its seven acts lasted 13 hours and 25 minutes, with the final act deemed by some to be the best.

Doughty New York free-sheet The Village Voice sent along a music critic but, as it turned out, he couldn’t manage it all. “I went out to dinner during the third act,” Michael Smith wrote. “When I came back Medea had apparently just murdered her children and their bodies were being carried out by Joseph Stalin. The forest scene [in the fourth act] is extraordinarily beautiful, strange, and long, lasting a good three hours and tripping everybody right out…”

The world’s longest commonly performed opera is Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Productions are usually longer than five hours. But such is the texture, orchestration and tonal sturm und drang of Wagner’s work, that they feel as if they last several days, sometimes weeks. 

Besides, given the caterwauling within the divided ANC, it is clear we have moved on from the Globe and are now firmly in the realm of German opera. So much so that an entire production, Die Entlassung des Generalsekretärs, or Shafting the Secretary-General, came to me unbidden in the wee, wee hours of Tuesday morning. I was woozy on painkillers at the time, dealing with a pinched nerve, and make no apology for what follows.

We open with a traditional chorus, played by the editors of the Independent newspapers, singing the praises of rapid economic transformation. It is clear they are blind and deaf, as blood streams from their eyes and ears. They wander around the stage in circles until they fall into the orchestra pit.

Enter Cyril Ramaphosa and the Squirrel faction. Skilful plot exposition follows in the form of a lively discussion belted out basso profundo. There are enemies, it seems, on the sixth floor of the House of Luthuli. Various strategies are discussed on countering this threat.

Every now and then, a bloated figure in traditional Zulu garb appears, suspended from the proscenium. It is Jacob Zuma. He laughs in a disquieting manner, unnerving Squirrel and his friends. Students of classical Greek drama will recognise this convention as deus ex machina. Only, that’s not how we spell d**s.

Next act, and enter Ace Magashule. After a moving solo in which he argues that whatever has happened in the Free State should perhaps just stay there, a Gollum-like troll emerges from under a bridge and starts to toyi-toyi. It could be Carl Niehaus, although one can never be sure, what with the use of camouflage and all.

Nevertheless, and being slippery of tongue, the troll boasts of hordes of cadres who are loyal unto death in their support of RET. A curtain is parted to reveal sunlit pastures and bare-breasted maidens, an earthly paradise that awaits all true comrades who would march on white monopoly capital and expropriate their lands.

Ace is now convinced he has an army at his disposal and, more importantly, a powerful vision of the future: if he is forced step aside as secretary-general, in accordance with the party integrity commission’s wishes, well, then he’ll just leave — and take the party with him. A hastily assembled leadership conference shall then see him returned as party leader — and all will be his for the taking.

The curtain falls. It is interval. A very dry interval. Prime minister Nkosazana Dancing Queen-Zuma has banned the sale of alcohol in the theatre.

The third act opens with Ace and chums marching with confidence into a meeting of the party’s national executive. There is suitably jaunty music. One by one, various soloists step forward to bother the audience with loud declarations of fealty to Ace and the RET cause.

Next thing, Squirrel reaches into his squirrel pouch and starts dispensing promissory notes of largesse. Choirs emerge to sing of great blessings. One by one, Ace’s supporters change their tune. Why stick their necks out for this bum? They skip off to join Squirrel’s lot. Eventually, Ace is left alone in the spotlight.

In the closing act, Ace is forced to accept a banishing order, and must now make his way, friendless, into the wilderness. Squirrel and his chums then consolid––

Sorry, but at this point the theatre is plunged into darkness. Load-shedding. Eskom is apparently working on the problem. And we have been spared a final tune from Jessie Duarte.

Verbal diarrhoea and beige manners

News reaches the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) of research on the language used by Jacob Zuma in defiance of a Constitutional Court order that he appear before the Zondo commission of inquiry. 

The work, Linking the dots: metaphors in the narrative of self-justification by former president Zuma, will be published in the journal Language Matters later this year. Authors Ansie Maritz, who lectures in Afrikaans linguistics at the University of Pretoria, and Bertus van Rooy, professor of English linguistics at the University of Amsterdam, demonstrate how Accused Number One uses metaphors associated with warfare to defend his actions and to persuade his supporters to continue backing him.

Cynics suggest there’s an element of turning a pig’s ear into a silk purse about such an exercise. As one put it, “Metaphor? More like ‘but what for?’ Such in the impunity…”   

That could however be the sporran sap talking, for Maritz and Van Rooy are on to something here. Writing in The Conversation, they state that metaphors are used in politics to persuade audiences to accept a point of view, and act accordingly. Zuma is adept at this, as he has convinced loyalists to continue “defending” him. However, this strategy is also effectively used to shield him from accountability:

“[The] metaphor of warfare, with its familiar role definitions, allows Zuma to evade those aspects of reality that do not fit the narrative. He is the good warrior for the cause of those in poverty. The idea that he and his associates would do anything to harm the cause of ‘radical economic transformation’ does not fit his narrative. His warfare metaphor simply offers no room for conflicting facts or the possibility that he is prosecuted due to alleged violations of the law or the constitution.”

The Thief-in-Chief is already claiming that he is a “conscientious objector” and that, should he be sent to chokey, he will go down as a prisoner of conscience. In this light, Maritz and Van Rooy suggest (as, indeed, do so many others), that the former president was able to cast himself as the protagonist of a “Shakespearean tragedy” and tell the commission in July 2019: “Zuma must go. What has he done? Nobody can tell. He’s corrupt. What has he done? Nothing.” 

They write: “This ‘nothing’ is the point — in terms of the warfare metaphor — that paints him in the defenceless victim role. There is no rhetorical room for evidence of alleged wrongdoing. Allegations and evidence of wrongdoing are, therefore, strategically excluded from consideration.”

Another opera could be in the offing.

Shrinking violets

More research, this time of the sort routinely categorised by Mrs Donaldson as being of the “kinda thought we got there on our own” variety: findings suggest raging narcissists are often beset by doubt and their behaviour may be a form of overcompensating.

Certain young lions of the revolution spring to mind. It may well be symptomatic of Instagram and the selfie era, but many of these young bloods have strong opinions on personal grooming. Hair care and Clicks-baiting, for example, are now practically synonymous in our discourse, and little encouragement is needed when it comes to voicing concerns in this regard on social media.

We digress. The study by New York University’s Pascal Wallisch, published in Personality and Individual Differences, has excited psychologists, as it adds to a growing belief that narcissism encompasses two very different traits. As Wallisch was quoted as saying: “It’s long been speculated whether narcissism might be misnamed. The name implies excessive self-love. What if that is wrong? What if there are two facets of this?” 

One group consists of those who genuinely believe their own propaganda. Think only of Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s immutable self-regard. 

In other narcissists, however, “self-loathing leads to overcompensation” — which would help explain one of the weirder aspects of the condition: that it is self-defeating. “If I think I’m amazing,” Wallisch explains, “would it be wise for me to tell you that? That’s been the puzzle. Even if you accept I’m God’s gift to humanity, it still raises the question, why would I say that? Other people think less of you and it causes all sorts of awkward and cringey situations. It’s quite tragic.”

That may be. But (I hear you ask) what of Julius Malema? 

On Tuesday, for example, the commander banged on at a media briefing about judicial dictatorships, white monopoly capital, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s affection for public enterprise minister Pravin Gordhan, the hounding of Ace Magashule, public prosecutions national director Shamila Batohi’s selective targeting and the very existence of billionaire Johann Rupert, among other things. 

It was all very noisy and, despite strenuous denials that the redshirts supported “any faction in any political party”, much of this chuntering echoed that of the ANC’s RET bunch. It all seemed very odd, in a schizoid kind of way.

Most politicians are extreme narcissists. What type is Malema? God’s gift to militancy, or a man crippled by radical self-loathing?

I was once under the impression that, when commentators referred to his “gut-level” political style, they meant that Malema based his decisions on his stomach grumbling and not innate cunning or instinct. This was a conclusion based on personal experience. 

Some years ago, wandering about the parliamentary precinct, I witnessed Malema lose his temper with some redshirt MPs because a food order hadn’t arrived. Nasty stuff, this hyperglycaemic rage, I thought. Elsewhere, I recall he threatened a march from Alexandra to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange — stopping only to raid refrigerators in the kitchens of Sandton homes. This, and his considerable chunkiness, convinced me never to be caught between the man and a buffet table.

Then he lost a lot of weight. That, regretfully, put paid to the Jelly Tsotsi sobriquet. But slimming down apparently made no difference where his particular personality disorder was concerned. He remains a racist lout, but I’m leaning towards the overcompensating racist lout.

More fear and self-loathing

Furthermore, it would seem that a florid overcompensation characterises the EFF’s current programme of vilifying anyone with whom they disagree. Here, for example, is their response to Professor Salim Abdool Karim stepping down as co-chair of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19:

“The EFF welcomes the long overdue resignation of the incompetent and overrated ‘Dr Death’ … Throughout the entire pandemic in South Africa, Karim has made horribly incorrect predictions, and his advice has been centered around protecting the interests of capital over and above the protection of human life. Karim has been at the forefront of poor decisions made by government, to prematurely ease lockdown regulations, only to tighten regulations once there has been an exhibition of increased infections of death. As a scientist, he lacks foresight and operated solely on his misguided opinion, misleading not only national government but the nation…” (sic)

Linguists (and others) will note a tendency to over-spew the invective. This suggests, if not immaturity, then an aggressive imbecility. This may be deliberate. Is it libel or slander, and therefore actionable, if the courts regard one’s transgressors as lacking a certain mental capacity? 

Sadly, there’s no opera material here.