Ja Nee: South Africa in 2013
Sibusiso Tshabalala | December 31st, 2013


My favorite South Africanism is an Afrikaans expression: “Ja Nee”.
The expression – “Yes/No” in English – has contested meanings. For some, it signals agreement in a conversation, “Ja Nee, you’re right.”

The expression is also used to signal hesitation: “Ja nee, it depends.” When reality is too stark, hesitation creeps in. We hesitate not because we’re too lazy to express opinion, but because sometimes, things are usually more complex then well-packaged tabloid headlines. When someone tries to solicit a comment in this instance, “Ja Nee” comes in handy as a fallback gimmick.

Urban legend holds that the expression originated around a dinner table in an Afrikaner home. A tough question was asked to the family member with fundamentally different political views. The dude’s views probably went against the dominant narrative of Afrikaner Nationalism and the rogue Dutch Reformed Church of the day. The question was asked and the poor fellow – careful not to offend – muttered “Ja Nee”. Nothing else was said.

2013 was no ordinary year for South Africa. Our noisy body-politic, aha moments in sports and pop culture sketch a South Africa difficult to express. In trying to figure out if 2013 meant anything real – in tangible terms – for South Africa’s social order, “Ja Nee” is my response.

As common parlance goes, “things could’ve gone better” or “things could’ve gone worse.” This is perhaps South Africa’s problem, there’s always enough to make noise out of and too little of it makes sense.

1. And the Oscar goes to…

There was a missed opportunity for authentic reflection when the world learnt that Oscar Pistorius, South African paralympic champion, had shot Reeva Steenkamp. The gaze fell on Oscar as our blue-eyed boy who let us down. Chief Magistrate Nair held that Oscar’s lawyers had met the criteria for proving the “exceptional circumstances” required by South African law for Oscar’s release. Bail was granted at R 1 million ($112,000), partly revealing the bias South African’s justice system has to the wealthy. Reeva became a side-character, an unfortunate loss forgotten in the ruckus.

2. Corruption? Call it something else, man.

For the most part, South African media often reports corruption as a plague unique to the public sector. Corruption can exist nowhere else except here, for some. But there’s also a different shade of scandal, not dark enough to be scorned at, that crept up in 2013. Cartels they call them. Fifteen construction companies contravened sections of the South African Competition Act of 89 of 1998. The contracts in question, valued in R 30 billion, we rigged and fixed. The reportage of the affair was interesting. ‘Constructiongate’ – the unimaginative tag for the affair – was public knowledge as early as March 2007. South African media gave the matter a side-eye, indignation was lacking and the size of the penalties? Too small.

3. What’s your number, Number 1?

After his victory at the ANC’s National Congress in Mangaung, Jacob Zuma probably resolved that he would go all out in 2013. When the year started, Nkandla was already etched in South Africa’s vocabulary. The lad called Moral Outrage came out and shrieked: “How can one man spend R 200 million in public money for security upgrades for his own home?”

Zuma, our fall-boy, has good friends and comrades. Some help pay his bills, and some cover-up and spin for him. After a long-drawn-out investigation, the Security Cluster concluded that there was no wrong doing on Zuma’s part. Fire pools, culverts and air-conditioners were all part of ‘security upgrades’ on the Presidents’ residence. Right, hey?

We will say nothing about Zuma’s gaffe on roads in Malawi. Cause ya’ know, this is not Africa.

4. Nouveau Rooi Gevaar

‘Rooi gevaar’ was a trope used to invoke alarmism about the ‘communist forces’ and South Africa’s liberation movement during Apartheid. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and South Africa’s huggy moment in 1994, the term fell away from popular national discourse.

On 10 October 2013, a new ‘Rooi Gevaar’ was born. 250 protestors armed with red balloons paraded Pretoria. Their cause? Well, they wanted to “raise their voices against the oppression of and violence against White South African minority.” Unbelievable.

5. Free, Nelson Mandela

With the click of a button, obits, tributes and vanity shards were rolled out. The great icon of South Africa’s liberation, Nelson Mandela is dead uDalibhunga, the founding MK commander and the man once asininely called a ‘terrorist’ was hagiographed as a benign old man. For 10 days, Mandela’s memory was condensed a teddy bear – a benign old man fond of children and giving people hugs. Mandela the revolutionary and great political strategist was forgotten. Most of us milked the moment, there was a Mandela everything – from car mirror covers to concerts – we all claimed Mandela’s heirloom. Cheese.

As the story goes, the ou at the dinner table in the Afrikaner household eventually said something more substantial when his family members begged for his comment. “Nou se ek fokkol verder. Die twee woorde is mos genoeg.” [I will say nothing else. The two words are enough].

“Ja Nee” is my conversation fallback ruse for South Africa in 2013.

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Sibusiso Tshabalala

Sibusiso Tshabalala lives in Cape Town and has a keen interest in societal issues. He tweets as @sbutshabs

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