Of satire and accountability

Frog in boiling water

Anyone familiar with Animal Farm, the political satire penned by George Orwell in the 1940s, will recall that the animals organise a revolution, led by the pigs, to overthrow and drive the humans from the farm; to create a society where the animals are all equal and free.

After driving the humans out, the pigs declare themselves leaders and keep most of the resources of the farm for themselves. However, the struggle is betrayed when the pigs fight amongst each other over the kickbacks from tenders; and a very small elite assume control over the rest, to establish a dictatorship, under the guise of ‘radical economic transformation’. The struggle is betrayed and the farm deteriorates to be as badly run as it was by the humans.

Much of the farm has no water and all the piggy-run enterprises collapse – the electricity supply is unreliable, broadcasting, air and rail carriers are all bankrupt. Then a pandemic strikes and the pigs lockdown all the animals – all frogs of varying shades of green. The frogs are forced to stay at home – not allowed to go to work, or even to church. They’re also not allowed to buy alcohol or cigarettes, but the pigs have their own supplies.

Image by: Zapiro

Announcing the details of the Regulations for level 3, on 29 May, Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma, the controversial Minister of Co-operative Government and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), defended the decision to allow people back to church, saying: “some people have said government is ‘sending people to the slaughterhouse by opening churches’ but government is not forcing people to go to church, it is a choice”.

It seems bizarre, to say the least, that people can go to church (to celebrate an imaginary friend, as Zapiro points out), but are still prohibited from seeing their loved ones – family and friends.

The Minister was also magnanimous to recognise the autonomy of church-goers; but does she really think that smokers are forcing themselves?

On 20 April Mrs Dlamini-Zuma said “Even in the public comments, there was quite a lot of opposition. More than 2,000 people opposed it,” yet she has never been able to produce the public comments. In stark contrast, a petition in opposition to the ban has currently registered well over 300 000 signatures. The lady invites ridicule … and ridicule is the point of this story.

Image by: Supplied

A creative young musician, David Scott (aka The Kiffness) parodies the Minister by taking her personal prescription for our good health and putting that and its consequences, against the background of our national anthem. It demonstrates the absurdity, created by the Minister, of denying people their right to buy (and thus smoke) cigarettes under the pretext that this will prevent the spread of the virus, when in fact it stimulates illicit trafficking (with whom the Minister is  ‘associated’), denies the State coffers of much needed taxes and does nothing to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This absurdity is illustrated by juxtaposing our Constitution, represented by the anthem, against the sentiments and prescriptions of the Minister and their consequences.

Then, the Mayor of the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality, Mr. Mzwandile Masina, tweeted a reference to Mr Scott, saying : “Who know this little racist?” Did Mr Masina see racism in the words – which words were an accurate reflection of Mrs Dlamini-Zuma. Or does he see racism in the Constitution?

If the words and sentiments of Mrs Dlamini-Zuma do not fit with the national anthem, then perhaps the Mayor should take issue with Mrs Dlamini-Zuma, rather than Mr Scott.

Ironically, the day before Mr Masina lashed out at David Scott, George Floyd died at the hands of a police officer in Minneaplolis, in the United States – another case of police brutality against Black citizens; and over the last few days the country has erupted into widespread civil unrest.

Since 2016, some Black footballers have protested police brutality (and the ‘Black lives matter’ movement) by bending on one knee to the US national anthem, much to the ire of President Trump. Like Mr Masina, Trump claims they’re being disrespectful, but what they are really doing (intend to do) is to say ‘here we are singing the national anthem, which represents our Constitution but the reality is police brutality’. It’s not very funny, but it serves the purpose of illustrating what needs to be said: police brutality is a contradiction of our Constitution.

Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter
Image by: Supplied

Mr Masina says David Scott is ‘insulting the anthem’, but David Scott did not just make up the words he used – they were given to him by the Minister and the absurdity she created by forcing her prescriptions on the nation; it is in fact Mrs Dlamini-Zuma who is insulting our Constitution; and Mr Scott is simply presenting us with that absurdity.

Satirists are not generally involved in fantasy. Politicians create the material for political satire, which is how Pieter dirk Uys was able to make a living out of PW Botha; and Zapiro did so well out of Jacob Zuma and how others like Trevor Noah do so well.

Satire also plays a very important role in political life; particularly when institutions and mechanisms of oversight and accountability (Parliament) are shut down, or muzzled.

Satire is powerful – better than laborious, long-winded analyses as I’m inclined to write. It is sharp and insightful, because it cuts through to the heart of an issue, by juxtaposing the two sides of a contradiction, to expose the absurd.

In oppressive circumstances, satire is also politically functional, especially where authorities distort meaning to maintain a contradiction and where accountability is lacking. Because what fuels satire is incompetence, hypocrisy, double standards. Where authority is involved, satire implies ridicule and appeals to moral conscience, to transcend and resolve the contradiction, if only to escape the ridicule. And to repeat a cliche: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” because the ridicule not at your person, but at the performance of your office, which carries with it the highest responsibilities.

Most of all, satire is funny … and comforting. It empowers us to recognise the absurdities of life and to develop strategies to manage the contradictions. Satire is form of accountability … our way of letting you know that though you insult us, we don’t buy it … we see you.

And on the animal farm, the pigs morphed into humans, walking upright, carrying whips, drinking alcohol and smoking zols.

PS: I don’t smoke … cigarettes that is; and have no links to the tobacco lobbyists.

Tred Magill

Tred Magill worked as a journalist in broadcast and print news rooms for 10 years, in Namibia and South Africa and was an Editor at the SWABC and Windhoek Observer; before moving into digital media. After 6 years in digital publishing, he moved to the Europe, where he managed large content management systems for a variety of private, government and NGO organisations, including the BBC. Tred is a philosophy and psychology graduate from the University of Cape Town; and also a mountain guide who enjoys chatting with Nietzsche while roaming in the mountains.


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