After the lockdown-induced stupor of the past year, South Africa’s major political parties are preparing to put on a show for the local government elections on 1 November. This is what happened at the launches of their campaigns.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
ActionSA was the first major party to launch its manifesto in the run-up to November’s local government election: fittingly efficient for a body whose political rhetoric is so corporate that its manifesto text reads in part like an insurance commercial. It’s all about “performance management” and “customer care” for ActionSA, the party started by millionaire businessperson Herman Mashaba.
The DA’s Karens did not accuse ActionSA of violating Covid-19 regulations with the size of the crowd gathered at Old Park Station in Johannesburg for the launch, which is a kind way of saying there weren’t many people there. But the faithful that did gather made up for size with enthusiasm. Someone had even brought along a vuvuzela.
There were screams of delight and toots of the vuvuzela when Mashaba got into his trademark anti-foreigner talk – but, please note, this is a very classy, MBA-having breed of xenophobia and has nothing to do with the low-class kind that smashes up Somalis’ vendor carts. A special police unit dedicated to “processing” foreigners? Vuvuzela toot! A massively expanded network of CCTV cameras monitoring their every move? Vuvuzela toot! An end to “cops hiding in the bushes with speed cameras”? Vuvuzela toot!
Mashaba could use a bit of coaching on the public speaking front, since he sometimes gave the impression of someone reading his speech for the very first time but discovering that he quite likes it. His favourite word: “unapologetic”. Mashaba ain’t saying sorry to nobody! And particularly not about making the centrepiece of the rally a lectern draped in a cloth featuring a giant print of his own face.
When it comes to slogans, ActionSA has opted for the simple and practical “Let’s fix South Africa”, which has only the slight drawback of being almost indistinguishable from the DA’s messaging around the local government elections. Simple and practical was also the name of the game for the party’s rally: a sound stage, some green and white balloons, and a bunch of posters advertising their mayoral candidates.
But if ActionSA’s major donor – tech billionaire Martin Moshal – wants to know what happened to the R2.5-million he gave the party in the last quarter, he is advised to throw open their representatives’ closets. Then he might weep like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, surveying the sheer opulence of ActionSA-branded clothing on display.
At least four differently designed ActionSA jackets were being sported by party leaders at the manifesto launch, together with at least three different lines of ActionSA polo shirts. There were green-and-white branded masks, branded caps and branded buffs. And to complete the sense that the occasion could do double duty as a corporate team-building exercise: special ActionSA bottled water. Rebecca Davis
Democratic Alliance (DA)
You will never, ever catch the DA violating lockdown regulations because the party is number one at following rules and number one at snitching on everyone else to the headmaster. So it’s no surprise that the party’s manifesto launch took place entirely virtually. The DA has embraced the online space so successfully that it’s no longer clear that the party has any existence in three dimensions.
Their virtual events are now so smooth that they make the Miss Universe broadcast look like the Juffrou Soetpatats pageant. The DA’s manifesto launch was no exception, flowing glitch-free online over the course of two magical hours. If one felt one’s eyes occasionally beginning to droop, that is only a testament to how soothingly well produced the event was.
What it did lack: any sense of real occasion. It turns out that there’s something about having actual human beings clapping animatedly – and perhaps occasionally even vocalising little yelps of excitement – that feels really fundamental to the atmosphere of a political rally.
Two praise singers accompanied the appearance of each mayoral candidate, but they failed to compensate for the fact that each new “Democrat” walked on to stage to claps from nobody.
The DA had stage-managed the manifesto launch to be a bit like a sports broadcast, with a panel of senior party representatives – Siviwe Gwarube, Richard Newton and Cilliers Brink – sitting in studio like SuperSport pundits commentating on what was to come and what had just happened. They said there was a lot of gees in the other studio – the one where people were giving speeches that they kept crossing to – but it was hard to know what they meant.
That’s not to say that the DA had not laid on entertainment. There was a scene where multicoloured youth walked around holding flags from each region of South Africa, which felt a bit like The Hunger Games. There was Kurt Darren singing Loslappie with a retinue of female dancers wearing high-waisted jeans. There was rapper Early B with a song that seemed to have been purpose-written for the rally, featuring the chorus, “Change, change, change today/ No, I won’t look the other way”.
Although the DA’s campaign slogan is the workmanlike “The DA Gets Things Done”, speakers made the party sound more like a self-help programme. “A vote for the DA will change your life,” promised mayoral candidate Refiloe Nt’sekhe. The DA’s policy head Gwen Ngwenya advised: “You owe it to yourself and your family to at least once in your lifetime experience what a DA-majority government has to offer” – a pitch that seemed better suited to a holiday timeshare. Right at the end, confetti fell on party leader John Steenhuisen while he was bathed in digital fireworks. He must have felt like he had just won Idols. Rebecca Davis
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)
The EFF’s production of Manifesto 2021 was one made for exciting, vibrant viewing, led by a performer whose range grows more revolutionary with each performance. It is a must-watch.
“This is an organic manifesto; a manifesto of the people. It expresses the aspirations and wishes of the masses.” By the time Julius Malema, in his role as command-er-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters, delivered that sentence early on in his monologue; his supporting cast had done a stellar job of preparing the audience for his arrival on stage. Over a period of 90 minutes, singers, dancers, hype-men and hype-women had worked up the crowd, who had no doubt been starved of live stage productions since the onset of the plague.
But before we get to his revolutionary performance, let’s tip our hats to what must be one of the hardest-working costume departments of any production in the country. From the red golfers and T-shirts of the Central Command Team (CCT) on stage to the red T-shirts worn by the refreshingly unmasked and compactly packed audience, through to the traditional Xhosa-style fits worn by Treasurer-General Omphile Mankoba Confidence Maotwe and EFF Chairperson Ntombovuyo Veronica Mente, this show brought some fierce lewks!
Even the musicians came through dripping. Multi-award-winning singer-songwriter Zahara, who has been a regular feature at ANC manifesto productions for years, writing and performing songs for them, decided to shove her collection of black, green and yellow dresses back in the closet. This time around, she was in red and black, with a touch of white.
True to form, she’d written a song to mark her move from the reportedly broke theatre company whose manifesto events she used to perform at. Long before she graced the stage, the speakers blasted her new EFF tune to an excited cast and audience: “i-EFF iyangena [the EFF is coming in], Khaniyinikezeni ithuba [Give them a chance], ngibon’ ilizwe elitsha [I see a new world], i-economy iyakhula [the economy is growing].”
Later on, she would give a live rendition of the famous isiXhosa hymn, Lizalis’ idinga lakho (Fulfil your promise). Actually, the number of gospel performances from various singers, including none other than William Sejake of Joyous Celebration, as well as the opening prayers, all sealed the production as a positively Christian experience. Church and would-be state were united. However, Mente did take a moment to make it clear that both Christian Sky God and the Ancestors had been invited to look over the production.
While there were several great performances from the cast, there is no denying that Mr Malema, dressed in a stunning collarless black shirt with red trimmings on the button stand and sleeve hems, gave a stellar performance that shows just how much he continues to grow as a performer.
Over the past decade and a bit, he has repeatedly displayed an unparalleled ability to embody a character and draw inspiration from the greats. His understudy, brother to the famous and fabulously wealthy Brian Shivambu, Floyd Shivambu, knows this all too well, as he demonstrated when he introduced the star of the show to the audience.
A few minutes after chanting “Long Live the Commander-in-Chief Long Live!” a spirited 12 times, he went on to introduce the talented Mr Malema as a “revolutionary; great pan-Africanist leader not only here in South Africa; a leader of the revolution in the entire African continent, in the entire African diaspora… A leader who we can count on in the same line as Patrice Lumumba, in the same line as Thomas Sankara, in the same line as Kenneth Kaunda… in the same line as Kwame Nkrumah.”
The climax of the production was, without a doubt, the reveal of the new name of EFF’s new headquarters, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela House, to a song in the style of liberation protest songs, which featured lyrics such as “Winnie Mandela, Mama wama-fighter, Mama we-EFF.” Her daughter Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, South Africa’s ambassador to South Korea, flew in for the occasion. It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if some members of the audience were found wondering if the ANC had any Mandelas left in their productions, what with the Democratic Alliance having had a go at the Mandela legacy in one of their productions a few years ago. Truly, these are exciting times for local theatre.
The EFF Manifesto Launch 2021 can be viewed on YouTube. Make sure to watch on a phone, tablet, laptop, desktop or smart TV near you. Malibongwe Tyilo
African National Congress (ANC)
At 5pm on 27 September, I sat at my desk, laptop whirring on a dry, hot Highveld evening, waiting eagerly for what was billed as the one and only Real Manifesto Launch. Five o’clock arrived and departed.
Was this a 21st century Afro-cyberpunk political version of the Theatre of the Absurd? Were we glued to our big and small screens at home for a production of Waiting for Main Ou? (For the young or the culturally deprived who may not be acquainted with the concept of “main ous” from back in the monochromatic days of our lives, “main ou” is the One Starring, the lead actor, like Bruce Lee in double-feature matinee Hong Kong martial arts flieks – the One who gets audience members jumping up from their popcorn-strewn seats, clapping and cheering whenever he donners the bad guys.)
An hour passed and, at a few minutes past 6pm as the sun sank on the administrative capital, the safely masked and distanced Veuve Clicquot crowd of immaculately groomed comrades, draped in dazzling arrays of nouveau riche couture in black, green and gold, stood to attention, while swaying to a rousing Once We Were MK Warriors gospel-like tune. The sea of faces parted for “main ou” Cyril Ramaphosa as he ambled to the packed stage festooned with a backdrop of his face.
But this was an ANC event where everybody wants to be the “main ou”. One of the contenders was ANC chair Gwede Mantashe, who did his bumbling uncle act before calling on the august Mathole Motshekga. The former chief whip made a very unconvincing attempt to resurrect the ghost of Presidents Past (remember The Captured from the State of Nkandla’s mantra that The ANC will rule till Jesus Christ Returns?).
Motshegka conflated church and state or, rather, church and governing party by tangling himself in some weird, religious, seed-germination script that went something like this: “We planted the seeds of unity at Nasrec and these seeds have been nourished by our spiritual leaders … from all faiths… Look at us, we are blessed by every Supreme Being in the Universe.” The only problem with the august One’s hyperbole is that every Supreme Being must have shuddered in disbelief as They Who Know have watched us mere Mzansi mortals bearing the brunt of the ANC’s destructive seeds of division when supporters of The Captured fomented the worst public violence since the dawn of democracy. But, sticking to the theme, Uncle Gwede kept on calling out the names of missing rabbis, priests and pundits to come up and be closer. He fêted us with a panoply of preachers, each outdoing the other with their animated donnering-the-devil-out-of-us sermons.
This being a desperate attempt to put on a brave show of universal blessing, the priests were followed by a less histrionic Tripartite Alliance supporting cast, rolled out by the ANC Youth League, Women’s League, the Veteran’s League, Young Communist League, SACP and Cosatu. Throughout this righteous assembly, our “main ou” sat coughing behind his mask, stoically perched on the podium on Tshwane’s Church Square.
When it was his time to speak, our “main ou” forgot that he was at a political rally to market his messed-up party and greeted the crowd of supporters with the Covid family meeting staple, “Fellow South Africans”. You had to feel for this man as he disarmingly laughed at himself and his other public mask-wearing gaffes.
“You have become experts at laughing at me. I can wear my mask properly now,” he endearingly joked. His delivery was not as animated as the priests who preceded him, but his mea culpa for his party’s sins was sincere.
Will he be like Bruce Lee and be able to kick out the bad guys and win the day for us fellow South Africans? The only measure of that at this show was the muted audience response to his speech in which he admitted his party’s failures and committed to cleaning up and change, contrasted with the roaring applause when he mentioned the ghost of the presidential past, wishing The Captured from Nkandla a speedy recovery.
Sadly, it takes much more than the promises and commitments of a “main ou” to make the production of a country flow. Heather Robertson DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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