Back under the Pom gaze

Andrew Donaldson writes on an uptick of British interest in the South African story


HALF the world, we have been reminded, will vote in 2024. As Time noted in December, this is “not just an election year. It’s perhaps the election year.”

“Globally,” the news magazine said, “more voters than ever in history will head to the polls as at least 64 countries (plus the European Union) — representing a combined population of about 49% of the people in the world — are meant to hold national elections, the results of which, for many, will prove consequential for years to come.”

One of those countries is of course, South Africa and, as a consequence, the country is once more enjoying a brief moment of British media attention.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

One example is Uncertain Times for the ANC in South Africa, an “Election Special” episode in the BBC Radio 4 series, The Briefing Room. The programme was aired this morning, but has been available on the broadcaster’s online platform for a while.

Aside from the minor irritation that the ANC was unlikely to face uncertain times anywhere other than in South Africa, the programme and its “panel of experts” provided listeners with a sober, if brief overview of the political landscape ahead of the May 29 polls while posing the question: “It is 20 years since African National Congress … first won power. It has had a majority in parliament ever since. But this year it could well be different. If so, does decline of the ruling party bode well or badly for South Africa?”

The short answer (and spoiler alert): the decline is not a bad thing, irrespective of the election’s outcome. Speaking of which, one of presenter David Aaronovich’s guests, Professor David Everatt, of Wits University’s school of Governance, predicted that ANC support would fall to around 48 per cent in a low-turnout poll but a deal with one or two of the smaller parties would ensure they remain in power for another five years.

It’s worth noting that the programme was recorded before the results of the Brenthurst Foundation’s election survey was released. This survey revealed that the DA and Jacob Zuma’s MK Party would be the big winners as the ANC, EFF and IFP lost ground — a prediction somewhat at odds with those of Aaronovich’s “panel of experts”, all of whom agreed that it would be more “interesting” if the ANC was forced to enter into a coalition with one of the larger opposition parties rather than the minnows. 

As it is, Everatt did claim that there was a veteran faction within the ANC that was urging the party to join forces with the DA, given the latter’s proven track record of governance. Sadly, this was not explored in any detail. 

Other “experts” on the programme appeared to suggest that “governance”, in itself, was not much of a deal breaker with the electorate, a point of view perhaps indicating the vast distance between London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the African politics department at Leeds University, on one hand, and, let’s just say, Johannesburg and its catastrophic water crisis on the other.

But moving on. A column in last week’s Spectator by CNN correspondent Sam Kiley dwells on the Brenthurst Foundation survey’s finding that support for the ruling party has fallen to 39 per cent, and the inevitability then of a coalition government. Kiley’s main focus, though, is the Mother City. He writes:

“I’m surprised that support for the ANC is as high as it is. Across South Africa, states run by the ANC are failing. Infrastructure has collapsed and unrepaired sewage systems mean the water is polluted and poisonous. Electrical systems are down and the railways and ports are often closed. 

“Property prices in Cape Town soar as South Africans flee here from all across the rest of the country. Because South Africa’s rand has collapsed against the euro (and even post-Brexit sterling) everything’s a bargain. In Checkers, the big supermarket, Germans pile their trollies with boerewors, beer and wine. My basket of non-alcoholic beer causes consternation, mirth, then pity.”

More to the point, though, Kiley claims that the Cape has “always been a paradise — if you’re white. That hasn’t changed much since democracy came 29 years back.” 

In keeping with the tenets of South African Despatches For Outsiders 101, this assertion is counter-balanced by the requisite Establishment of Credentials. In this, Kiley cites an association with Ernie “Lastig” Solomon, the notorious 28s gang leader. He states that he and Solomon “got on well”. Despite the apparently close relationship, he gets the date of the gangster’s death wrong: Solomon was not shot dead last year, as Kiley claims, but was gunned down in November 2020. A minor error, perhaps, and possibly the result of all that non-alcoholic beer.

Kiley’s father, the journalist Dennis Kiley, also gets a mention. Kiley Sr passed away in 2018. He was a close friend of Judge Albie Sachs and Ronnie Kasrils, amusingly described here as “a founding member of the ANC”. 

Dennis Kiley was something of a hell-raiser. Before he fled into exile in the early 1960s, he would regularly haunt the night clubs and dives of District Six, “the cauldron of the nation’s demi-monde”. Here, according to his son, he partied with Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela, smoked dope with politicians (as you must) and enthusiastically violated the Immorality Act with “interracial leg-over”.

Sam Kiley writes that he met up with Sachs some weeks back when his father’s ashes were belatedly released into Kalk Bay harbour. Sachs told him the ANC would probably lose the elections. “We’ve seen corruption exposed,” he was quoted as saying, “the president interrogated, the corrupt jailed — and the army’s weak. But if they lose, the ANC will leave power peacefully.”

Hmmm. The corrupt jailed? I’m not so sure about that. Perhaps it’s that non-alcoholic beer again. 

A promised land

From the one enclave, then, and to the next: Orania. It is entirely understandable that the town should prove to be such a magnet for foreign hacks. A bastion of ultra-conservative Afrikanerdom, it ticks for obvious reasons all the right boxes in the Racist/Fascist/Apartheid South Africa column. 

The Orania story is a cakewalk for reporters, the proverbial shooting of fish in a barrel. The old archetypes practically leap unbidden into copy. Consequently, it’s not surprising that the correspondents who “investigate” the place produce such lazy journalism. Little wonder, then, that they return to this “story” time and again, with the same same predictably dreary results. It’s all so easy, and with a generous per diem thrown in as well.

The latest to do so is Ade Adepitan, a British-Nigerian journalist whose Channel 4 documentaryWhites Only: Ade’s Extremist Adventure was aired on Monday. The sub-heading is a misnomer. There wasn’t much “adventure” here; it wasn’t as if Adepitan sneaked into town to make his movie undercover. He was permitted to do, we’re told, after much negotiation. 

Adepitan’s interviews with the locals were hardly challenging. He came across as amiable and eager to avoid offence lest he be thrown out of town. This was, The Times TV critic Carol Midgley remarked, “a tricky line to walk” — an unfortunate choice of words, given that Adepitan, a former Paralympian, is confined to a wheelchair. 

Writing in the Daily Telegraph ahead of his programme’s broadcasting, Adepitan admitted an “initial anxiety” about visiting a town founded by Carel Boshoff, the son-in-law of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd:

“South Africa is a country with deep wounds created by a brutal regime based on division. Given that April of these year marks the 30th anniversary of the end of apartheid, my unease was outweighed by my curiosity to understand why this group of Afrikaners wanted to once again live in a monoculture, segregated from black South Africans…

“Because of their beliefs, I was surprised they consented to be interviewed by a black journalist. In truth, I think being a wheelchair user, and also not someone that was well known, made their PR team feel confident they could control the narrative — they thought I would be less willing to confront their ideology head on. They certainly didn’t expect me to be as spiky as I was, but also seemed to think they could convince me they were on the right track.”

This suggestion of spikiness is rather interesting, seeing as there was so little of it. The programme was panned by The Guardian’s Leila Latif, who slammed Adepitan for his “offensive” passivity and “sunny” naivety. 

As unkind as this was, it pales into insignificance when compared to the ultra-conservative columnist Simon Lincoln Reader’s splenetic reaction to this whole exercise.

“It’s one kind of provocation to put a black man [in Orania] for the sake of it; it’s another thing when he’s in a wheelchair,” Reader fumed on Substack. “This is unreconstructed identity kettling: get used to it.

“I feel sorry for Ade, because I don’t believe he originated this ridiculous idea. I’m willing to bet the lot that the concept emerged from the desk of a middle-class white executive at Channel 4, privately educated but not quite Oxbridge, gay (but married to a woman), whose idea of a perfect afternoon is a ramble through the sewage effluent slushing in the streets of The Islamic Caliphate of Brighton holding hands occasionally with his young colleague Erik when the Mullahs break for tea.”

It’s fair to say that young Simon has, uh, unresolved issues. Over and above the notion, that is, that black journalists are without agency when it comes to making documentaries — even mildly crap ones.

Orania’s burghers perhaps deserve better. They’re forever moaning that visiting reporters abuse their hospitality. They proudly show the hacks the interesting “social experiment” that is their town and the ingrates scurry off to produce “negative” TV programmes and newspaper reports. It happens every time, and they’re getting a bit fed up.

This may be true, but the fact of the matter is that Orania doesn’t do itself any favours. 

Take the statues of the old Nat prime ministers on the hill outside of town for example. This “shrine” to grand apartheid, often the first stop for the TV cameras, serves no purpose whatsoever other than to attract derision from outsiders. These craggy heads are arranged in a semi-circle, looking inward at one another, as if in discussion. You can imagine them complaining among themselves, “That dagga-smoking Dennis Kiley and his vroetelry met die meide…

It would be far more practical to replace these busts with picnic tables. Once these and all the other old apartheid icons in the town are removed, Orania would, I believe, no longer be of interest to foreign journalists. As it is, its residents insist they are not racists, and anyone is welcome to stay there, provided of course they meet certain criteria — although it’s difficult to think of anyone other than ultraconservative, Christian Afrikaners who would want to live there — or, indeed, be welcome there. 

The point, I guess, is that without the apartheid baggage, Orania’s residents would be just like any other religious separatist group. The Mennonites for instance. The Amish of Pennsylvania are perhaps a better example. No-one gives their menfolk grief regarding their strange beliefs about buttons. 

A cheerful proposal

The 2024 World Happiness Report has just been published, and reveals that South Africa is pretty glum about itself; the country is ranked 83rd out of 143 nations based on life evaluation data from 2021 to 2023. The top ten happiest countries in the world, incidentally, are Finland in first place, then Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Australia.

I wonder, though, if our happiness could greatly be improved if the minister for international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, was to indicted as an alleged accessory to war crimes and sanctioned by the United Nations for her wholehearted support of the genocidal Russian president Vladimir Putin and the mad mullahs in Iran.

Pardon Denial, as the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) anagram generator has dubbed this greying blancmange, has been in the news recently with her threats to summarily detain those South Africans who have joined the Israel Defence Force to fight in Gaza and strip them of their citizenship. “We are ready,” Denial told a Palestinian solidarity conference in Pretoria last week. “When you come home, we are going to arrest you.”

Perhaps the International Court of Justice could look into the matter. After all, sauce for the goose is sauce for the Pandor.