It’s a bling thing

2014-04-01 10:00

When a president who reigns like a king builds his palace in one of SA’s poorest areas, inequality becomes the new badge of honour

Songstress Roberta Flack’s classic Go Up Moses contains the following lyrics, which I have remembered since I was a little boy: “My people, let Pharaoh go/ You don’t need him/ You don’t need his tricks/ You don’t need his trinkets/ Let Pharaoh go.”

The skulduggery surrounding Nkandla has got me asking whether President Jacob Zuma has not in effect become the black community’s own Pharaoh.

You may wonder why I am addressing black people on a national matter that transcends race – the pilfering of state resources by those who are constitutionally obligated to protect them at the highest levels of our government.

My answer comes from the late Aggrey Klaaste’s seminal article, The Thinking Behind Nation-Building: “I have written somewhere that it is increasingly becoming the responsibility of blacks to help this country from certain ruination. It is our responsibility because it is also our country and we are, after all, in the majority.”

I also address black people for a reason outlined by Steve Biko in I Write What I Like: “While it may be relevant now to talk about black in relation to white, we must not make this our preoccupation, for it can be a negative exercise. As we proceed further towards the achievement of our goals, let us talk more about ourselves and our struggle, and less about whites.”

Finally, it is only when black people throw their toys out that the ANC will pay attention, especially as we get closer to the 2014 elections. More than anything else, the elections on May 7 are going to be a referendum on black values.

We generically refer to these values as ubuntu, at the heart of which is the principle of human solidarity. This principle has been expressed by our political movements throughout the ages as they sought to establish in South Africa a more equal society.

How consistent with this historical principle then is the construction of a R200?million house for one individual in one of the poorest areas in the country? Only 0.5% of the population in Nkandla have formal wages; the other 99.5% live on grants and agricultural subsistence.

But Zuma putting a R200?million house in the middle of all that poverty is a manifestation of a new value system in our communities. To possess multiples of what others possess is the new status symbol. Inequality has become the new badge of honour. Bling makes up for generations of poverty and damaged self-worth.

Cornel West describes bling as the “paraphernalia of suffering” – an attempt to distance yourself from the suffering of the past by wearing masks of accumulated wealth obtained by stealing from the poorer and weaker among us. And that is what Nkandla is – the diversion of state resources for the titillation of the president. I say “titillation” because no human being needs a R200?million house.

Instead of being a leader who uses the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to combat the materialism of the bling culture, Zuma has become its embodiment.

This crossroads between the historical principles of human solidarity and the contemporary culture of bling highlights even more the need for a “consciousness of blackness”. While “black consciousness” was mostly a political movement in a context of oppression, “consciousness of blackness” is an enquiry into our historically generated values as a guide for the way forward.

Instead of helping us locate Nkandla in relation to these historical values, the ANC leadership obfuscates. Its ministers in the government muddy the waters with technicalities such as “fire pools”.

The party sends crooks back to Parliament knowing that you and I will vote for them. If we do that, I submit, we become accomplices to our own downfall. We give up any right to complain about corruption in the future.

One African country after the other has fallen to its knees because of this nationalist blackmail. The blackmail rests on a Faustian bargain: keep us in power so we can accumulate the billions and we will guarantee you the trinkets – the social grants and the temporary jobs. Wait until they have divided the R50?billion deal to build locomotives among themselves, and tell me I did not say so.

When asked why we should have Zuma as president until 2019, ANC leaders tell us that we do not vote for the individual but the organisation in this country. Yeah, right!

The truth of our experience is that ANC leaders shape the organisation in their own image. We have a de jure party system and a de facto presidential system in which “Number 1” – a term that goes back to the Thabo Mbeki years – reigns like a king.

But even if you cannot bring yourself to vote for the white-dominated political parties, you cannot really tell me there is not a single black man or woman who can become president among the various parties.

There is also nothing to stop parliamentarians from choosing a different president among themselves. That is all the Constitution requires – not that the president should be the person whose face is on the ballot paper.

This is a long shot in a Parliament that acts like a herd of cattle. But as citizens, we need to “free ourselves from the mental slavery” of voting for corrupt individuals because they present themselves to us in certain colours like Father Christmas. That is a mockery of our intelligence, our history and our democracy.

As the 2014 elections approach, I suggest we take to heart presidential historian Richard Neustadt’s warning: “Choose your president carefully because at the end of the day, no one can save him from himself.”

Frankly, we don’t need Neustadt to tell us this.

We need to let our own Pharaoh go, with all his tricks and trinkets. We’ve been down too long with this brother. We need a break. We need to write a new history.

Mangcu is an author and associate professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town

» This article was updated after first published.

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