The face of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa is young-ish and black. Their “redistribute now” missive has earned both valid and lazy criticism. Their tone is perceived by many to be “dangerous” and “irrational”. For Ramphele, the red-beret clad young man from Rustenburg should have been less respectful towards her. For he is “young, angry and black”. The faceless trope deprives him of agency; he is driven by dangerous impulses and anger; he is one within an uncontrollable mass, predestined to produce instability. He is a threat. In a country that oscillates between the haze of Rainbow Nation-ism and the reality of economic exclusion – “young, angry and black” is a good scarecrow.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the man that so many South Africans have come to love, even those who grew up being taught that he was a communist and a terrorist when communism was portrayed as a great evil. He achieved so much in his life, but what he achieved was for the people of South Africa–not for himself. Nelson Mandela, in his biography A Long Walk To Freedom says “It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world.” Many jazz artists have paid tribute to Nelson Mandela over the years, and I felt it fitting to dedicate one of my radio shows to this music as a tribute.
Nelson Mandela presents a complex, complicated, even contradictory set of public images that have been cycled and recycled in ways that allow many stakeholders to appropriate and mobilise his legacy. Of course corporate entities do not have a responsibility to uphold civic values; but that does not mean we cannot engage in a case-by-case scrutiny of how – and in what ways – these mediated projects seek to pay heed to the core values and ideals Nelson Mandela stood for, when they pay tribute to him. As an example, I want to look at one popular, well-intentioned and well-received South African corporate sponsored tribute dedicated by the South African retail chain, Woolworths. This tribute is framed as a flash-mob of singers from the Soweto Gospel Choir singing the struggle anthem Asimbonanga inside a Woolworths store.
A few days ago, when the story of the “fake interpreter” broke in the South African media, the ANC denied any knowledge of who he was and how he got to be on the podium, signing while world leader after world leader gave inane speeches intended to tell the world that “Yes, I more than anyone, I was close to Madiba; we had dinner together once, and he paid special attention to me. Furthermore, his saintliness is the reason why I, too, should be close to the same beatification treatment.” (Yes, Drone President, I’m looking at you.) That would have been a tough job for any veteran of sign language, who must not only convey the words, but also the emotional impact and context through a mixture of physical movements and psychological engagement with both speaker and audience. It is translation—and like translation between any two languages, it has all the attendant complexities of signs never adequately meeting the requirements of the signifier—but with an added layer of physicality essential to convey the speaker’s intended tone.