On Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh’s Democracy and Delusion

South Africa’s literary scene is not in short supply of material for the pithy, analytical and diagnostic genre of book Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh writes into in his debut offering Democracy & Delusion: 10 Myths in South African Politics. While politicians like Helen Zille blithely deny it, and the ANC-led government reversion and instrumentalise our living memory of it to obscure its own complicity in its continuation, the impact of South Africa’s 350-year history and legacy of white-supremacist patriarchal violence continues to shape and reverberate through every aspect of public and private life.

From how we imagine and design socio-economic policy at the highest levels to our everyday and, seemingly, banal social interactions that both respond to and reinforce our vast racialized class-divisions, it’s not hard for any politically conscious person in South Africa with the benefit of a relatively privileged background and an elite education to aggregate, reformulate and definitively regurgitate the exact size and shape of our country’s present and pressing problems in the echo-chamber of some of our most popular essayist faves. Certainly, we’ve seen it in the memoirs of audacious and exuberant twenty-two year old “born-frees” which form the prescribed reading lists of international contemporary South African politics courses, alongside best-selling expositions of the “bantu problem” presented in comfortable and familiar ways to engage “ordinary” South Africans in “reasoned” and “critical” debate on what our liberal constitutional democracy ought to look and feel like.

Even at some critical moments in this genre’s literary project to “elevate” the level of national debate and “deepen” our interrogation of what is knowable about the complexity of today’s expression of the 350 year-old “bantu problem”, we have also been disappointed by the rushed-and-ready publication of long-form tweets where authors quote themselves while building social capital and climb the fatuous ladder of influencers. As well as by challenges to Blacks to imagine a world without Our not-so erstwhile oppressors without honestly engaging the insidious and far-reaching ways in which what is imaginable is inherently shaped by our memory of our colonial-apartheid past- and present continuous.

And it is here, that Mpofu-Walsh’s offering takes the less-popular and traversed road. From his opening essay, in which he contests the claim that forms the very basis of the governing party’s political legitimacy, as well as Our elders’ self-congratulatory delusions that living conditions are steadily improving in South Africa, Mpofu-Walsh displaces what the reader thinks they know about how the confused South African social imaginary and precarious socio-economic landscape is constituted through meticulous research and both compelling and terrifying proposals for what it requires of all of us to honestly reckon with and address some of our country’s most immediate problems.

The disruptive Fallist he has been stylised to be in our media and mentions, Mpofu-Walsh is ominously measured and restrained in the book. It is in his companion album of the same name that he casts off the mantle of “pure” logic and “objective” reason ingrained in us from our shared elite education in whiteness, and fiercely challenges us to confront the manifest contradictions in our social fabric, and do very specific things about them. Like in his anthemic call-to-action, Born to Fight, in which he seems to challenge the listener to respond directly and rise to political philosopher Frantz Fanon’s imperative that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”

Compromised as his positionality has and will likely continue to be described (being born into the family he is, and the passports to privilege this may or may not grant him) Mpofu-Walsh makes no apologies about this accident of his birth. He claims its materiality in how he sees and experiences South Africa, its location in the world, and his place in it. We hear this from him in his autobiographical opening track, Thina Sizwe, which continues the unsurprisingly familiar narrative on his experience of the assemblage of being Black and-, that he begins weaving in his essay on whether Elite Schools Benefit Society, and reprises in his track, Mambush, featuring VANGO and Linomtha.

It is really only when he locates himself in the work that Mpofu-Walsh’s crisp voice, and the urgency of his project with Democracy and Delusion shines, even while a book like this can only skimacross the surface of our collective commitment to the delusion of our democratic exceptionalism, and how it is actually lived and experienced when juxtaposed against the frightful levels of material, social and economic exclusion of the working-poor “masses” who, as with many of us in the professionalised Black middle-income classes, are also his kin. This is not a report on a 30-day township tour from a privileged messianic yellow-bone Oxford PhD scholar, but his life, that he’s talking about.

The strength of Democracy and Delusion as a cultural project is how it requires us to face up to the realities of the institutional arrangements that both respond to and inform South Africa’s racialised class-divide – our media industrial complex and its commitment to the status quo being one of them, which he describes infinitely more effectively in his track We Don’t Care featuring ultra-kwaai rapper, Dope Saint Jude, than he does in the dense but expository myth-busting essay on whether South Africa Has a Free Media. More than that, and unlike his literary forebears and contemporaries, in this lit popular genre, he goes beyond the established tradition of woke socio-political diagnosis of the sickness in our society, and challenges anyone with the will and constitution to suspend their investment in the delusion of our prevailing understandings of power, freedom and democracy in South Africa with robust treatment options. So shall we begin?

An edited version of this review was first published in City Press on Sunday 15 October 2017.

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