TRAINSPOTTER: President Zuma in Eldorado Park – Call Of Campaign Duty: Non-Question Question Period III
On Thursday, President Jacob Zuma took it upon himself to campaign in the maligned Democratic Alliance stronghold of Eldorado Park, Soweto. He walked around, popped into shacks, hit a frail care centre, and then hit a community meeting — which wasn’t a meeting so much as a Zuma praise session. This is the ANC: selling itself to itself inside a powerful feedback loop that is presided over by the most huggable president in the not-so-free world. By RICHARD POPLAK.
The Eldorado Park Community Centre was jacked with security: tall hacks in bad suits listening to Russian satellites whisper incomprehensible warnings into their earpieces. Hunched old women and kids placed phones and keys and trinkets into little trays, and the little trays were sent through an X-ray machine. It was a mostly a Coloured crowd, because Eldos is a mostly a Coloured community. For aeons, the sub-township has been under-resourced, underpoliced and under-cared-about, which would be a nice way of describing how ANC politicians tend to think of Coloureds as a voting bloc. Eldos is the easiest place in Gauteng to forget, and forget it they have. The results all of this neglect? The substance abuse stats are absolutely bloody tragic. And yet the people here fight back. If you want to see the worst this country is capable of, come to Eldos, and you’ll end up seeing the best.
Two words for you: Liesl. Laurie.
But anyway. I was here because I wanted to see how the old man was holding up. If I were being honest with myself, I’d missed the guy. He kills it on these absurd community walkabouts: the avuncular chuckle; the winking eyeball-to-eyeball glance that makes a man feel special; the laconic Don Corleone shuffle as he bends his way from zozo to mukhuku. Sadly, I didn’t see the first part of his performance, and by the time I caught up with him he was moving slowly, a washed out presence alongside the tall, sleek Executive Mayor, Parks Tau. Zuma could not be blamed for his exhaustion: these are the sorts of things that politicians must do during election season, sell sell sell, pitch pitch pitch, every day until the end of the endless campaign.
Even if a fellow does come away with a really big palace and probably several billion dollars from a dodgy nuke deal, I still can’t see it being worthwhile.
This particular Zumathon, to be held in the Eldorado Park Community Centre hall, was being billed as a “community meeting”. Would the prez get a proper grilling come question time? The last time Gauteng Premier David Makhura was in this hall, he got shredded down to the last mitochondria. But the local ANC structures had clearly been told that humiliation would be rewarded with humiliation, and inside an entirely partisan crowd of about 250 was gathered – this was less a community meeting than a pop-up H&M for ANC regalia.
Even so, the Amandlas and ululations were muted. This, after all, is by no means ANC territory. Most residents here speak Afrikaans, and have little cultural appreciation for where Zuma has steered the party. While the Greater Eldorado Park area includes Kliptown, home of the Freedom Charter, and local residents played a large role in the ’76 uprisings, those walk-on parts in history have not translated into ANC loyalty. Eldos is comprised of two large wards, and in 2011, a staggering 81% of ward 18 voted for the Democratic Alliance, and a marginally less staggering 64% of ward 17 did the same. (By contrast, two years ago, next door in Klipspruit, 52% voted for the ANC, 30% for the DA, and 15% for the EFF.) Soweto is a battleground, and every last vote here counts — that’s not a cliché, but an actual thing politicians say to each other. All of which is why the ANC suddenly started getting cozy with Eldos residents back in 2013, packing Zuma and other heavy hitters into a bunch of luxury cars to come over and address the gruesome substance abuse problem.
For a time, the residents saw an uptick in policing and in general provincial government interest.
According to those I spoke with, all of that had now dissipated.
The proceedings were kicked off by MP Beva Abrahams, who handed the mic over to a Coloured woman in ANC khakis named Dereleen James, councillor hopeful for ward 17. “Today we are here to celebrate the change that is at hand,” said James. “For too long we have been marginalised. It’s time for the community to rise up and take what it is ours.”
Her list of evils was the South African median: dirty streets, drugs, sexual assault, crime. “I’m not standing here for fame,” she said. “I’m here to serve you. The youth of ‘76 made so many sacrifices, and we don’t think any of that. And we give it away to drug dealers. We let drug dealers take over our communities.”
Next up, the CEO of Johannesburg, Parks Tau. He quoted his election pamphlet’s slogan: “Together we are advancing People’s Power in all our communities.” He emphasised the word “togetherness” – rolled it around his tongue like it was a tab of high-grade lysergic acid, and the trip was so groovy that he thought we were all taking it with him. He reminded the audience that he was here with JZ when they launched the Jozi at Work programme, which he claimed has proved radically successful. “Our people have the skill, the capacities, the ingenuity to help Eldos. We do not have to bring in people from outside Eldos to run Eldos.”
No cheers, obviously. Because outsourcing.
Meanwhile, Johannesburg’s boss’s boss looked wiped. He sat slumped in his chair, showing every one of his 74 years and then some. He somehow knew to nod at the appropriate moments, especially when Parks was going on about the fantastic internet opportunities that were coming Eldos way.
“It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up,” said the mayor of all these wonderful new initiatives.
Abrahams then grabbed the stage, and lectured us about how best to grab opportunities. “Hashtag-we-can!” belted out Beva. “Hashtag-we-will-participate-in-the-governments-programmes”.
Yup, this is how the ANC communicates with “the youth” – by repurposing the EFF’s old campaigns in the most embarrassing way possible.
Now came upon us question time. Thing is, President Zuma doesn’t do questions – like everything concerning our rulers, the questions were all answered a long time ago. Luckily, these were less hardball WTFs than they were encomiums. From business, from the taxi associations, from the chairperson of the greater Eldorado park, from the clergy, from the teachers forum, from the head of the chair of the Eldorado Arts and Culture festival: Zuma was Jesus Christ incarnate, and may He rule forever.
“We must stop saying what can the government do for us, but what can we do to help the government,” said one inquisitor, who then went on to ask the government for an ablution block at the taxi ranks, because junkies use the current facilities as a shooting gallery, and then as a toilet. Indeed, there was much to ask for: a satellite police station in Freedom Park, a special drug unit, education, investment, help.
“I hate to say it,” said one speaker, in the only moment that approached sincerity, “but we the Coloureds are not acknowledged. We were on the streets in ‘76. Ons is die kinders van Kliptown.”
Zuma nodded. He slumped further in his chair. Then Abrahams handed him the mic. He switched on, dug deep, ran on fumes. He was loose and easy, Zuma 1.0. This is the dude, I thought, who strolled his way as a teenager through a liberation war, went to jail, went into exile, and ended up as head of the ANC. He flirtedwith the crowd. I noted his endearing chess nerd way of pushing his spectacles up with an index finger. He extemporaneously kicked butt, and should hereafter be forbidden from reading anything – anything – and be allowed to ski happily off piste. We’d be a better country for it.
The reason for his coming, he said, was a letter written by Dereleen James, the councillor wannabe. Every time he receives a letter, he said, he responds – he was asked to come, and he came. He heard some seriously painful stories, and he wanted to do something about them. Three years had passed since he was last here, said the prez, and he sensed a change in the community. “The worry you could feel in the faces of people was less,” he said. The intervention, he insisted, was working.
He never once mentioned the words Democratic Alliance. Nor did anyone else. They were disappeared. We were in the ANC imaginarium, taking Parks Tau’s trip.
“Today I came to Thembelihle [a nearby informal settlement in Lenasia] for a very important occasion,” continued the president. Never before had the residents had electricity. Today, they did. “It was to me an exciting experience. We had come to deliver.”
But Thembelihle was where South Africa’s service delivery protests started back in 2003. For their efforts, the communityhas been systematically brutalised by the security forces, the latest mini-pogrom taking place during last year’s xenophobic attacks. But details be damned.
“There was light!” said Zuma, either quoting Yahweh or being Yahweh. The issue, of course, was not just electricity: the people of Thembelihle can be wiped away at any moment, which is why when the jackboots bash in their doors at four in the morning, they have no recourse, no law to lean on, no one to send a letter to.
But Zuma wasn’t done. He started blessing, and blessing hard. At Eldos’s frail care centre, he said that he’d “committed” himself to replace a stolen car. “We are going to look at two projects there: the broken fence, and the car to take the people every day to clinic.”
Muted cheers, the exclamations of people bracing themselves to be let down.
This, I thought, is what municipal campaigning comes down to: microsolutions for systemic governance shortfalls. Charity’s handmaiden. These gestures never usher in proper change, because they are designed to buy votes in the short term. What Zuma needed to stop doing was stealing shit. But no one here was in a position to tell him that. They needed him. They really needed a president who delivered. They couldn’t afford to piss him off. Life in Eldos is hard. It’s fragile. And here was the ANC, playing Call of Campaign Duty: Non-Question Question Period III.
Off the president sauntered, his heavily armed detail in tow, past the dealers and their prey, out into the setting sun. It was good seeing him. He’s the same old guy he’s always been. He hasn’t changed a bit.
At least that much South Africans can rely on. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma and Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau in Eldorado Park, 30 June 2016 (Richard Poplak)