South Africa’s largely peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 was feted as a “miracle,” yet 23 years later, we are not Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow children”: race and class tensions bubble on the surface, often popping angrily into the nation’s eye like blobs of fat from a frying pork sausage.
The country’s new constitution is considered one of the most progressive globally, but the scandal-ridden administration of President Jacob Zuma appears increasingly authoritarian and unconstitutional. Zuma has also set up a shadow state of spies and intelligence networks while the repressive policing of grassroots communities who organize politically is pervasive.
These are the things we live with, but often try to drink away.
Drinking is something that South Africans—according to the World Health Organization, the 19th booziest nation in the world last year—do well. This tradition stems from celebrating life—especially when it could be taken so quickly by the apartheid state’s police and army in previous decades—by living hard. This inclination now often begins with “Phuza Thursdays” (Drink Thursdays) all the way through the weekend into “No Regrets Mondays.”
South Africans’ red eyes and the bleariness of the past few weeks have not been from a typical hangover, though. It started with the national mourning of Ahmed Kathrada, the anti-apartheid struggle veteran and Robben Island prison contemporary of Nelson Mandela.
At Kathrada’s funeral, politicians and activists held him up as a paragon of the anti-apartheid struggle, a non-racialist whose ethics and morality were disappearing from a new generation of politicians more interested in self-aggrandizement and conspicuous consumption. The president was criticized for destabilizing the economy by pursuing a kleptocratic agenda of “state capture.” This was to allow his network of businessmen cronies to gain control of government through their politician lackeys and then pillage the state’s coffers.
The country was on tenterhooks, expectantly waiting for Zuma to drop the hammer on the much respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, considered one of the few remaining people in the Cabinet standing in the way of widespread looting.
A few days after the funeral, Zuma did sack Gordhan. In the dead of night. He announced a Cabinet reshuffle that sent South Africa’s currency, the Rand, plummeting, and saw ratings agencies downgrade South Africa’s credit rating to junk status.
Borrowing, and drinking, was going to be a lot more expensive.
People were riled. Leaders of Zuma’s own party, the African National Congress, broke ranks and criticized his midnight reshuffle. Opposition parties took to the streets in protest, and even the chattering classes left their dinner tables for the barricades, all calling for Zuma to resign.
Public opinion was turning against a man more interested in the fortunes of his family than that of the country. But this just sent Zuma’s own spin machine into overdrive. “White monopoly capital” had to be destroyed, his defenders said, for “radical economic transformation” to happen: hence Gordhan’s sacking. Government was going to act in radically new transformative ways so as to address socio-economic inequality, the new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, said. The ostensibly radical Black Land First movement, which had been chanting down capitalism while calling for urgent land redistribution, went off to defend the mansions of the notorious Gupta family—Zuma’s businessmen cronies—from protesters.
South Africa is a country of absurdities, my friend Master T agreed, pouring a double-shot of Glenmorangie whisky into a glass.
Absurdities, indeed. The kind that started to flow more easily than the amber nectar down our throats. The new buzzwords of “radical economic transformation” to destroy “white monopoly capital” was dreamt up by an anodyne-looking blonde working at a British publicity firm, Bell Pottinger, it was revealed. The campaign—paid for by the Gupta family—had extended to “paid Twitter” and “bots” trolling relentlessly on social media and the setting up of pro-Gupta online news sites (the family already owns a news channel and a newspaper). Even the Black Land First movement was allegedly nothing more than a Gupta front. Gigaba, the new finance minister, reprimanded one of his advisors for suggesting that the amorphous, yet to be defined, “radical economic transformation” could include nationalizing mines and the Reserve Bank and appropriating land. Then Gigaba jetted off to Western capitals to reassure investors that not much had changed.
Whisky brings warmth and lucidity, but there is never enough ethanol to act as an eraser for the absurdities of this life.
I took another glut, nevertheless, and asked Master T why he had also bagged us some 2M beers from Mozambique. “To drink to Zuma’s days in exile there,” he chuckled.
South Africa is a place of absurdities, but we have learned to laugh in the face of them. Whisky helps.