When deference turns to derision

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on what the Eskom disaster is doing to South African attitudes to the ANC


The slow — now accelerating — collapse of Eskom is for most South Africans the worst thing that’s happened since the Covid lockdowns rocked the economy. But it may also be a blessing in disguise, for it’s beginning to prise loose the ANC’s death grip on power.

The country has never been more united and vocal in its condemnation of the government’s venality and ineptitude. The public passivity that over the past dozen or so years saw a plunge in voter registrations, as well as in election turnouts, may be changing. 

Sure, the revelations that came out of the Zondo Commission into State Capture about the looting of national assets during the administration of former president Jacob Zuma angered people. But the scale and remoteness from the daily lives of ordinary people — billions of taxpayer money in a country where 29 million live off social grants while just over 5 million people contribute 40% of total tax revenue — meant that the fury was largely confined to the middle class.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Anecdotally, among many in the historically excluded populace, the reaction was different. There was a secret admiration and a refrain of redress, that it’s “our people’s turn to eat”. Such a response is playing a sort of political Lotto — the vague hope that through nepotism and connections, some of this free-floating dosh might somehow find its way into one’s back pocket. 

Eskom is different. Whether you sullenly but dutifully pay for your power in suburbia or gleefully and illegally tap into it in a township, virtually everyone is affected. Several times a day, every day.

Load shedding is like a vampire mosquito that cannot be gotten rid of and is drawing debilitating amounts of blood. And now it's unmistakably the blood of those who President Cyril Ramaphosa likes to refer to as “our people”, meaning black Africans, that's being suctioned up.

Last week the Sowetan had a stunning front page which —deliberately or inadvertently, I don’t know — echoed a type of front page that regularly appeared in the anti-apartheid press during the Struggle years: a black background to signify mourning and listing, in white typeface, the names of those killed by South African security forces in their most recent strike on ANC insurgents in some neighbouring nation. 

Except that now, under the edge-to-edge headline “Unplugged”, this Sowetan memorial roll honoured the victims of wanton ANC economic destruction. Solemnly listed were dozens of small black-owned businesses: creameries, laundries, bakeries, restaurants, butcheries, trading stores, farms and inns.

And in large text, immediately below the Sowetan’s masthead: “Mr President, cancelling your Davos trip is one thing. Dealing with the crisis is another. Here is a reminder of some small business crippled by every failed promise to fix Eskom.”

This week, thousands marched on ANC offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg in #PowerToThePeople protest actions by the Democratic Alliance. Such marches, says the DA, cheekily stealing its line from the anti-apartheid Mass Democratic Movement’s script, is part of a planned programme of “rolling mass action” leading up to next year’s general election.

Remarkably, by a significant margin, most of those taking part, certainly in the march on Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, were black. Equally remarkably, the usually large number of sjambok and club-wielding “defenders” that the ANC in the past mobilised and bussed in “to protect” the sacred turf of Luthuli House against the political infidels, was much reduced.

In 1994, an Inkatha Freedom Party march on the Shell House headquarters of the ANC ended with 19 of them shot dead by ANC security guards. Wednesday’s march went ahead despite blood-curdling ANC threats that it might not be able to control the righteous anger of the Luthuli House defenders in the face of such provocation.

As it turned out, except for sjambokking a few white DA supporters who had become isolated from the main body of marchers — split from the herd like antelope by predators —the ANC thugs honestly didn’t seem to have their hearts in it. I guess it’s difficult to keep one’s ferocity focused when one is increasingly confronted with the politically freaky phenomenon of ANC members, branches, structures and affiliates marching against ANC members, branches, structures and affiliates. 

There are other signs of change in the air. Previously, South Africa’s seething masses understood well the limits of disaffection. 

It’s always been acceptable to blockade public highways with burning tyres and other barriers, in response to failed service delivery. It’s even been okay to pelt hapless motorists with rocks. 

Such riots, euphemistically called “community protests” have become so commonplace that many radio stations broadcast, as part of their rush-hour traffic reports, which areas to avoid because of mob violence.

But it appears that now some public anger is becoming more directly focused on the ANC. Jan van Riebeek, apartheid, white monopoly capital, and foreign agents are no longer as readily accepted as the architects of our country’s present predicament.

On Tuesday, residents of one of the most benighted local authorities in the country, the Enoch Mgijima Municipality in the Eastern Cape, laid siege at the venue hosting the ANC's 111th birthday celebrations. Angry at being without electricity for a month — their municipality owes Eskom R743 million — they prevented ANC delegates from entering a gala dinner presided over by the party’s Secretary-General and Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula. The glitzy celebrations were delayed for hours, as the guests waited for the Public Order squad of the police to disperse the protesters forcibly.

At one stage, the residents corralled one of the honoured guests, ANC Women’s League provincial task team leader, Nokuku Dube, and bombarded her with complaints and insults. They shouted that given the misery caused by Eskom's collapse, the dinner was “an insult” to the people. The ANC wasn’t welcome and should hamba

In a video clip that afterwards went viral on social media, the residents can be heard shouting: “You bloody thieves. Go with your overdone make-up” and “We are hungry.” 

Dube can be seen remonstrating with the crowd when, out of the blue, a woman protestor sneaks up behind her and snatches her hair weave from her head. The protestor then dashed into the crowd to roars of laughter and hoots of encouragement, while Dube totters in high heels in vain pursuit.

Another video shows Dube reunited with her weave alongside ANC Chief Whip Pemmy Majodina and other ANC Women’s League members “excitedly announcing the recovery of the stolen weave”, writes News24, “in a manner which left many [on social media] in stitches”. 

The incident is not as trivial as it appears. It is another sign of the waning respect and patience of the masses towards the ANC. 

Needless to say, Africa is not the West, where politicos — except for Saint Jacinda of Aotearoa — are accustomed to being held in cheerful contempt. There’s a long and tolerated tradition in these democracies of low-level politician abuse, ranging from rude signs to the occasional egg being thrown at them.

In contrast, the Big Men of Africa demand respect and receive respect. They crack heads rather than duck eggs, as generations of opposition supporters have learned. 

The Dube comedy turn — the ANC insisted in a pompous official statement afterwards that the snatched weave was part of “the scourge of gender-based violence … [to be] harshly condemned as very insensitive, humiliating and offensive” — is a small indication of a sea change in attitudes.

When deference turns to derision. That’s the moment when a politician should start feeling nervous.

Especially if you’re a politician in Africa. And even more so if you’re a member of the governing party. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye