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President Zuma, The Market and the Spectre of Culture

by Mark Espin


Much has been written about this country’s President, his questionable morality, his prowess with machines and his potent productivity. There have no doubt been several missives from religious practitioners arguing for urgent ethical rejuvenation and admission of sin. My sense is that the recent melodramatic act of contrition was misplaced and merely a strategy for popular application anyway. All of this assumes that some period of past human existence provided us with solid upstanding civilians devoted to goodness and light. As an aside one may speculate that Mr Zuma’s counsel regarding this matter has been wholly selective, namely that it was merely the vertical rather than the virtuous position which caught his fancy. Nevertheless, the focus on our current first citizen should not mean that his predecessors have a saintly reputation. They have all been complicit in actions more dubious and duplicitous. This includes the semi-beatified figure of Nelson Mandela who must be remembered for his political commitment, his dignity and overwhelming compassion, but also for a few highly opportunistic acts, including the vile episode involving Suharto, the Indonesian dictator. Thabo Mbeki’s cynical conduct in respect of HIV and AIDS alone must remain a ghastly blight on whatever legacy we attach to his term. The intermittent flourish of anti-capitalist rhetoric notwithstanding, it is incontrovertible that there has been more than a mere relenting to the aggressive, and randomly illegal, overtures of corporate tzars. This has spawned some less than eloquent apologists for a system that operates specifically on the endless exploitation of human labour and material resources. This is nothing but an act of treachery against the vast majority still waiting patiently for the life they were promised. In fact, in some cases, a few of the party faithful have performed enthusiastic imitations of gilt-edged evangelists of the cause. The central idea upon which not only the African National Congress, but also what constitutes a parliamentary opposition, bases its economic development policy, is commonly known as the “trickle-down theory.” It is a preposterous concept connected to feudal society where serfs would be expected to gain relayed benefits from the relative wealth and privileges of their masters. As an adjunct to this we have been led to believe that the twin conduits of the Arms Deal and the Football World Club will be the vessels via which our economic activity will be accelerated. Only those who still believe that the emperor is attired in an elegantly cut suit fail to recognise that these schemes will continue to seriously undermine our attempts at alleviating the grave social inequalities and deprivations for a long time to come. The murky world of graft, corruption and bribery has proven to be more seductive than the plain labour of building houses, schools and clinics, providing school-feeding schemes for young learners and bursaries for study.  The ruling party are all equally culpable in these misadventures.

I am not, therefore, suggesting as others have done, that Zuma’s promiscuous behaviour is not inexcusable. For someone from whom we demand more cerebral preoccupations he seems to be unhealthily fixated on matters involving spurts of testosterone. What has not, I would venture, been adequately dealt with is the broader social implications of his dealings and the justifications which accompany them.

Our society is plagued by extreme difficulties with issues of gender. It is a diabolical record of violence and abuse which we have failed miserably to deal with. In this milieu it is utterly disconcerting to note a tendency towards an ethnic chauvinism within the ruling party. There are numerous cases of deeply indefensible matters being fended off with mechanical retorts about the sanctity of some vaguelyquoted cultural edicts, including stern defences of patriarchal conduct. This reflex in favour of a transcendental culture is used as a convenience; it is a dust cloth to wipe away all unwanted inconsistencies and difficulties. Dare one suggest that in some instances the cleansing instrument is replaced by a loin cloth?However, I believe the aggregate result of this spectre of an inert and inviolable culture is that modern developments in society such as gender equality, secular morality and social justice are relegated to the apparent imperatives of mythical customs. It may be that the compromise involving the recognition of feudal traditions within our modern constitution opened the way for this expediency.

There is a great irony here of course. The more we embrace the delicacies of modernity and the frenzy of technological progress, the more we seem to want to imbibe a transient pastoral past in which society was a stable and static paradise. We all in some manner or other yearn for this eden; this abundant garden of social bliss. History, though, informs us of a rather different narrative. In this little city alone there is an ever burgeoning archive of savagery, murder and social volatility. As an aside it is intriguing that some local performers wish to exploit customs and rituals as a staged spectacle. It is fundamentally ritual become commodity; custom for the purposes of consumption. This is all done under the cover of culture. Many would appreciate the contention though that culture is indeed a fluid and indeterminate phenomenon. The practises and observations which our society is in urgent need of should perhaps be based upon a shared humanity, compassion and justice, rather than unbounded avarice, spectacle, subjugation and individual triumph. Over and above all of this we should be concerned with the preponderance of a vocabulary where people are reduced to insubstantial and vacuous brands and franchises. It is a complacency which infests us all.

Our intellectual debates, or those exchanges which masquerade as weighty engagements with matters such as these, circulate around a network of stoic positions which are summarised as an imperial modern on the one hand, and a mythical indigeneity on the other. In the middle of this we also find some obsequious hand-wringing in which sombre apology abounds. The fundamental challenge of acknowledging our society as a modern, secular democracy is evaded in all of these interactions. I would venture that all of our social ills are fundamentally manifestations of modern society. As such it requires modern solutions. A major part of our failure in addressing them is because we retain notions about grand returns, or renaissance, to an imagined idyll. We are a special people, mind, involved with special problems which require special solutions. The result of this has been a nauseating series of grandiose decrees promising miraculous efficacy. The alternative to this is an approach which understands that no instant and diversionary conclusions can be attained. A perfect example of this is the absolute disaster related to literacy and reading. This issue alone demands sustained practise and incremental progress. It requires intensive work.

As a matter of course, too many in society wish to convert masses of youth into critical readers of texts within the shortest time possible. There are also, unfortunately, some who desire these youths to become immediate consumers of their book products to enlarge their shrinking markets. This vulgar collapse of humanity into vain subjects of commodity culture is a subject for another day. It is unarguably an unsustainable and nefarious fantasy. What is crucial is that we must recognise that the legislative foundation that we have fashioned and accepted is not borne of some flippant approval of the values espoused therein. It is this nightmare of history; this revolting past that has determined that we never allow for a repeat of injustices. The construction of an opportunistic and convenient edifice of culture which seeks to justify behaviour in which the rights of others are impinged upon, must be questioned. Where this confronts not only the ruling party and long-standing social arrangements but also cherished religious beliefs, it is to be expected that defences and rejoinders will be highly charged. We will fail though in our duty to not repeat history if we continue to prevaricate upon this.

Mark Espin is a poet and was a Masters Fellow of the Centre for Humanities Research at UWC in 2009. He writes in his personal capacity.