The lurid dream of the present in South Africa's political economy

'To sleep, perchance to dream … and hope you’re not one of the corpses piling up on stage at the end of Act V in this post-millennial immorality play in South Africa’s political economy.'

There are times when South Africa feels like a lurid fever dream. Bobby Ewing will step out of the shower tomorrow morning, some of us sometimes imagine when we go to sleep. The long swathe of time in which so much has happened will have been the delirium of a few hours of unconsciousness. It would be jarring trying to work out what had and what had not happened, but at least you would have comfort in knowing much was just fantasy. Pamela Barnes Ewing’s life was not rosy after her dream, but at least Bobby was not dead.

Of course, we have come a long way since the mid-1980s in South Africa, even though we seem keen on resuscitating much from that old country which we thought we had abolished in 1994. But that’s the trouble with paranoia: it so easily leads to regression, for both individuals and for organisations. 

The past may be horrific, but for many it holds the comfort of familiarity in times of unfamiliar stress. And these are indeed times of extraordinary stress for many South Africans: political, economic, social, as well as moral and intellectual.

If you wrote a novel about post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa, and chose the mode of high realism, you may have difficulty getting published. Prospective editors would accuse the writer of a mad attempt to bring magic realism (back?) into African writing. They would suggest that the exaggeration is too crude even for satire, parody, and caricature.

A village of cannibals confessing to their horrific transgressions in order to be relieved of their moral burden. A descendant of Vikings has been collecting women’s genitalia for years in the heart of the country, like a character sprung from the pages of Mike Nicol’s The Powers That Be (1989). The speeches and interviews given by ministers, and the public conduct of elected officials defy credulity. Then there are the new elites who post photographs of exorbitant five-digit restaurant bills or video footage of themselves pretending to eat their money while quaffing imported Champagne.

A few years ago there were the poor young people who burned bank notes and poured long-life custard on the flames while dancing their disaffection with the materialism from which they had been so systematically excluded.  here were the pigs starving on the farm of a former minister.  And two ministers of state security seemed to have been kept in the dark: one about the activities of a spouse convicted of drug trafficking, another about the rhino horn smuggling at the massage parlour he attended. Then there was the invention of a drinking tavern in an upmarket suburb, a lie told in full glare of television cameras, live, to the whole country.

Meanwhile, the killing of the national football team’s goalkeeper, in front of witnesses, remains unsolved years later. The deaths by assassination of municipal officials and governing party members in one coastal province remain unresolved also. And the police minister paraded several people for crimes which it turned out they had no connection to, and erroneously announced his agreement with the spouse of a neighbouring head of state about allegations against her as she invoked diplomatic immunity and fled.

This had, of course, happened before. The government’s lawyers insisted before a high court judge that another visiting head of state could not be accounted for, and denied photographic evidence that his aircraft had been allowed to depart from a military air base. That same military air base had been used by a private family, friends of the head of state, to land their wedding guests, who then allegedly refused to be served by locals without gloves at one of the kitschier hangovers of the totalitarian colonial regime of the time before.

Readers would find the lines drawn too crudely. All of that cannot happen at the same time in the same novel, they’d object, not in the same country to the same people. Even as television or film fare it would be rejected. The advocate who used a non-existent home invader to explain away why his client shot and killed his partner the day before Valentine’s Day. The lawyer who proposed that raping an underage girl is not deserving of even the minimum sentence because the act was not violent and the survivor had recovered well enough to pass her school examinations again. The man accused of butchering his family with an axe insists there was a masked intruder even though the forensic investigators found no trace or evidence of such an intruder’s presence on one of the most securely guarded housing estates.

The king in a constitutional democracy convicted of fraud, murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, and arson, who wanted someone else to serve his prison sentence, was no invention. The footage of the acting police commissioner fighting off robbers at a spa, hiding behind a couch as they exchanged gunfire. Too much, too unrealistic, and yet, happening all around us as if in some lurid D-grade straight-to-video film.

More than thirty underpaid mineworkers killed in a police action and five years later no one has been convicted of any wrong-doing. More than 140 of the most vulnerable die in state care in the wealthiest province, and again, the wheels of justice turn slowly, and the civil servant on whose watch it happened seems unclear which foreign university she is studying at when called to testify. 

This is merely a partial list, as partial as the details of a dream surface in the morning upon waking. It will take time to reconstruct the dream, and we, the dreamers, will have to admit we were not asleep, not delirious. Bobby Ewing is not going to step from the shower. Even though the government seems determined to go to court again, to interdict the publication of a book which it claims violates securocratic laws. 

Meanwhile, the president sits in the labyrinth of his own making, surrounded by members of his party who are now beginning to contest succession. They are exchanging jibes and insults, questioning one another’s credentials, and playing the sort of debased Machiavellian power games which seldom have positive outcomes. Why import Hamlet at this point, readers of that novel may well ask.  Shakespearean tragedy imported into magic realism attempting to make sense in high realism of the political economy of the present? 

I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore, and no amount of heel-clicking will get us back  To sleep, perchance to dream … and hope you’re not one of the corpses piling up on stage at the end of Act V in this post-millennial immorality play in South Africa’s political economy. Also, there's no leaving this theatre of cruelty for the majority in the stalls: we've paid for our ticket, and they've locked the doors. Don't yell fire, but also, don't ignore that smell of smoke.


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