So here’s a personal/professional choice: watch the country burn in the townships of Tshwane? Or watch it implode in the township of Tembisa? On the face of it, the two options are pretty much identical: either way, it’s front row seats at the Dissolution Derby. But examined closer, even national meltdowns have their nuances. In this case, the C-grade civil war in Tshwane is a factional disagreement brought about by the ANC national structures imposing a mayoral candidate who no one in the region seems to have heard of, and who will almost certainly disrupt the queue at the feeding trough. Some wanted Mayor Sputla Ramokgopa to stay. Others hoped his deputy would be able to become King Pimp.
This, apparently, was an argument worth dying for.
No one — by which I mean no one — in Tshwane’s ANC structures wanted a former Mbeki protégé from KwaZulu-Natal, name of Thoko Didiza, to drop in and run the joint.
This, apparently, was an argument worth torching Tshwane for.
And so news outlets filmed Not Safe For SABC dystopian long shots of Tshwane in flames, two perfect plumes of smoke rising like sentinels watching over our Fall.
Meanwhile, just a shortish drive south of Pretoria’s restive streets, Tembisa was quietly waking up to another day of being Tembisa. The whole place was covered in a layer of Highveld dust, which erased all primary colours and allowed the sun to light the location in symbolic gold. And while life was just life, that was about to change. Because on Tuesday the Economic Freedom Fighters had scheduled a visit to the homes of two slain Fighters, both of whom had lost their lives campaigning in the township’s notorious Sethokga Hostels.
Sethokga, a series of horrific, pseudo torture chambers in which black humans were supposed to live, was built in the Soviet style by the previous lunatics. (Why did such avowed commie-haters keep aping Stalinist architecture? Perhaps because we realise ourselves most astutely in the systems we profess to loathe.) Tembisa’s carefully planned ethnic divisions meant that the hostel was split between Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party supporters and Xhosa ANC backers. In the days when there was such a thing as a third force, the regime pitted the two against each other. As the gerontocracy drowned in its own debt and prune juice, the hostel became a charnel house. Sethokga has never recovered, nor was it ever going to recover. It should have been razed in order to grow carnations or to build a Disney Theme Park, but instead it was maintained as a gerrymandered stronghold for old ANC warlords and their crews of rent-a-thugs.
Photo: Malema locked in an argument with a cop. Malema wanted to address the dead Fighters. Cop not so much. (Richard Poplak)
That said, all kinds of life happens inside Sethogka, and the EFF had managed to establish the place as something of a mini-moon base. Which is why two Fighters named Tsietsi Mthibe (56) and Kenny Monjomani (39) felt safe enough to campaign door-to-door there in April and May respectively. No one sent them the memo: political violence in this country is a thing. Both were allegedly bashed up by hostel residents with bricks, knobkerries, sjamboks, golf clubs, mayhem’s usual blunt apparatus. Neither man died at the scene – according to their families, they were finished off by the reprehensible non-service at Tembisa Hospital.
Regardless of the details, the EFF leadership had picked this day to come and visit the families, and to go drop in at Sethogka in order to make an impression.
You know where this is headed, right?
At around 11:00, a red Range Rover Sport pulled up to an RDP house in the middle of the township, and out leapt the incredible shrinking Commander-in-Chief. Once, Julius Sello Malema bore the hoggish heft of an ANC Big Man. Now, he makes Obama look fat. His mood was muted, sombre. He wore a mustard-coloured jacket, chinos, premium loafers, and a perfectly canted EFF branded beret. He ducked down through the doorway, and sat in the modest home with its pink walls, corrugated iron roof, and single bulb illuminating the mother, the son, the daughter, the wife.
In sotto voce, he made his sympathies plain.
Mpho Mthibe, son of the late Tsietsi,, listened intently. Mpho, who wore long dreads and a dark jacket and his own EFF beret, has a big job at a big insurance firm. Education-wise, Baba Mthibe provided. And now his ass is dead. “Politics was his passion,” Mpho Mthibe told Malema. “Since his death, there has been no communication from the cops whatsoever. We really really want justice for baba.” The murder has fallen into the gaps, into the shadows that define these affairs. “We want to thank you as a family for stopping whatever you’re doing to come here to see us,” said Mpho.
After the EFF top dogs split for the second dead Fighter’s house, Mthibe told me that he was determined to find out who had murdered his father. “We know that the cops have gotten video footage, and they know who the culprits are. But we have not been formally briefed. All I have is a case number and who is handling. So now my father has been laid to rest, justice must be done, and we won’t rest until that happens. The last thing we heard is that the police have statements, but it’s just hearsay. My father stayed in Tembisa Hospital there for three weeks, and the EFF were fighting for him the whole time.”
Some things can’t be fought for.
The second photo-op called, and I was guided by Fighters deep into the township, where the RDP houses and lower middle class homes gave way to a peri-urban nightmare. Lean-tos, shacks, medieval sanitation, dirt roads running with sewerage. Inside a cramped but clean mukhuku, there was weeping, grief. A tableau of misery, lit by TV cameras.
Photo: Malema inside the shack of murdered Fighter Kenny Manjomani. This puts a starkly human face on political violence. (Richard Poplak)
“We just heard the call that he has been injured,” Lucas Tesela, brother-in-law of the late Fighter Kenny Monjomani, would later tell me. “We get to hospital, we find that he was really bad. He cannot speak. They hit him with bricks, steel, everything. The other people who knew him took him to his room in the hostel. Then he went to Tembisa Hospital.”
That, of course, was the last anyone saw Kenny alive.
A loudhailer loud hailed. The mielies whispered in the breeze. It was time to go to go and do things that the SABC would find unfilmable.
For those who haven’t been recently, it’s almost impossible to describe how abjectly shitty is the Sethokga Hostel. Think of 15 or so three-storey concrete buildings doused with the contents of a colostomy bag, then set on fire, and then forgotten by civilisation for 20 centuries.
The place is a national embarrassment for a nation that is impossible to embarrass.
When the EFF contingent arrived at around 13:00, they did not get a rousing welcome. But they did get a welcome. About 300 men with a dazzling array of hitting devices were waiting. The Boers, in their infinite wisdom, built this place in honour of the latest generation of X-box First Person Shooters, long before there were such things as First Person Shooters. Sethokga is a run-n-gun maze, the intricacies of which favour the home team.
Photo: Massive contingent of armed anti-EFF folk. Malema said to cops: ‘Deal with the armed criminals.’ (Richard Poplak)
And the home team was winning. They chased a contingent of Fighters against the wall of a building, and dozens were hammered with clubs. A News 24 journalist named Hasan Variawa was clubbed from behind while he filmed the action. (The sucker punch remains a Sethokga specialty.) I rode a bakkie full of Fighters towards the EFF High Command, hearing the first two rubber bullets pop as we approached.
Give Julius Malema this much: the dude has brass balls of sizeable dimensions. He could have backed down. He could have gone home in that sweet Range Rover Sport. Instead, he decided to burnish his legend by standing his ground. He screamed at the cops, telling them to arrest the homeboys with weapons, rather than harass the peaceniks without weapons. He dug in at the frontlines like Hannibal, separated only by a Nyala and a contingent of crappy riot cops from the (presumably?) ANC cadres and their beating sticks. It was brilliant theatre.
“It is your job to make sure we can campaign here. There cannot be no-go areas in a democracy,” fumed the CiC.
There we stood, a genuine Mexican stand-off. The cops would not go to disarm the mob. But they did beg the EFF to leave.
“South Africa!” said Malema, to no one in particular. “The police are something else. People are throwing stones at me, and they tell me to get in the van. Why me? Deal with the criminals.”
So it went, for about an hour. Malema called for two representatives from the ANC contingent, who were eventually walked through the mud for a consultation. There was yelling, some running, some waving of sticks. Eventually, after it was clear that this was going nowhere, the scene was shifted to a field on the other side of the hostel.
“Never back down,” Malema told the faithful. “Never be intimidated. Blacks should never fight blacks. We should be in solidarity. Don’t make whites proud.”
But smart whites know that everyone fights everyone, and that civilisation is only a couple of assholes away from playing its Trump card. Malema had successfully blown open the divisions in Tembisa, and had successfully politicised the murders of his two Fighters. It was time for the Commander-in-Chief to go to the police station, and yell some more. The violence continued: the thugs in block 34 apparently stepped up their attacks, targeting Pedi people (Malema is a Pedi), injuring 33.
Watch: Malema accuses Thembisa police of inaction (eNCA)
Pot stirred. Outrage machine turned to eleven. War smouldering. More funerals to film.
I watched as a Golf GTI chased the CiC’s Range Rover out of the hostel grounds: brakes, accelerator, brakes, accelerator. In South Africa, it would be incorrect to say that politicians in their high-end vehicles frequently kill citizens. It would also be wrong to say that they don’t. DM
Main photo: Julius Malema in the home of the late Fighter Tsietsi Mthibe, paying his respects. (Richard Poplak)