‘One more party in SA’ as a minister gets the bird

The booing of ANC leaders might become the norm and not the exception, and not only among the middle class, writes Ryland Fisher.

What do Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, British actor Idris Elba and American hip hop artist Yaasin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) have in common?

They all made unexpected appearances at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival last weekend but the minister’s was the only one that was not welcomed or without controversy.

Elba arrived on Friday night towards the end of a performance by legendary women singers Dorothy Masuka and Abigail Kubeka. Bey did quite a few songs with Canadian band BadBadNotGood, who ended the performances in one of the festival venues. Both were warmly welcomed by fans.

Elba’s entrance was most enthusiastically greeted by the crowd in Kippies, the largest of the festival venues. He did not say much but eager patrons did what most people do nowadays when confronted with a famous personality – rushed to take out their cellphones to take pictures which they might or might not have shared with friends and family.

There were rumours in the audience Bey was not listed on the programme because the festival organisers did not want to upset the government. However, it is not unusual for artists not to be on the bill. Tony Cedras, for instance, performed unannounced with Cassandra Wilson, while Simphiwe Dana performed with guitarist Themba Mokoena.

Bey is still ensnared in a court case after he was arrested for trying to leave the country on an “unrecognised world passport” and not his US passport.

Shortly after his first court appearance he posted a statement on the website of fellow American hip hop artist Kanye West, in which he famously declared “no more parties in SA”. One Saturday night, he rapped “one more party in SA”.

Mthethwa materialised on the main stage of Kippies on Saturday night, near the end of a performance by popular afropop/kwaito/house duo, Mafikizolo. It was a carbon copy of what Elba did the previous night – but the outcome was remarkably different. As soon as Mafikizolo singer Theo Kgosinki announced the presence of the minister, whose department is one of the main sponsors of the jazz festival, the crowd spontaneously broke into loud boos with some showing the substitution sign often used at soccer matches.

The SABC later reported the crowd was upset at having the music interrupted, but this was clearly not the case. It was rather an outburst of frustration with ANC leadership, which had been brewing for a while and was now reaching boiling point.

It was two days after the Constitutional Court ruled President Jacob Zuma and Parliament had violated the constitution and a day after the president apologised on national television, followed by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe accepting his apology.

There was clearly still a mood of unhappiness in the crowd and Mthethwa should have been advised not to make a public appearance.

It is one thing mingling with the crowd; It is completely different when you try to address it.

The jazz festival is a major musical event – one of the biggest in the world – but it is also a political space and a large number of ministers and deputy ministers frequent festival floors and corporate lounges. Corporates pay huge amounts of money for this access.

On Friday night, as the president was about to speak, many in the corporate village wanted the organisers to switch the television monitors – which show snippets from different jazz festival stages – to the president’s press conference.

Fortunately, the organisers resisted. It is, after all, a music festival and not a political rally.

But music is never far removed from politics and when Mthethwa tried to use the platform to relay a political message, he learnt the hard way.

I have no problem with anyone using a captive audience like this to get across a particular message – in this case I believe the minister wanted to talk about the national anti-racism campaign – because people do it all the time. However, his timing could not have been worse.

I have been thinking about the lessons one can learn from this and the main one appears to be that the ANC, which led the liberation movement in exile for so long, seems to be out of touch with the mood of middle-class people (who include jazz festival patrons).

Watching the impeachment debate in Parliament on Tuesday, one got a sense the ANC is hiding behind its interpretation of the law.

The ANC I grew up supporting never hid behind spin. It did all the necessary to promote the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa, values the organisation made sure were enshrined in our constitution, the same constitution it now appears to have difficulty with.

There appears to be a groundswell of unhappiness in ANC ranks, beyond what we see publicly. Most people I interact with nowadays – and they include many senior ANC people – feel something drastic needs to be done to return the organisation to the right road.

Hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later, otherwise the booing of ANC leaders might become the norm and not the exception, and not only among the middle class.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 9 April 2016)