Pork from Mbalula, Sushi from Kunene

A Business Day column from 4 Feb 2011. Anthony Butler

Recent African National Congress (ANC) deliberations about the ethics of sushi consumption demonstrate how hard it has become to fashion a coherent moral framework for a fast-changing liberation movement.

The furore has centred on businessman Kenny Kunene who earned notoriety last year for employing bikini-clad women, adorned with sushi, as human plates at a Johannesburg party. At a Cape Town event last weekend to celebrate his new nightclub he arranged a repeat performance.

ANC leaders initially seemed uncertain whether the problem was Kunene’s crass materialism or his denigration of women. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe rather precisely demanded that cadres disengage with immediate effect from eating sushi from women’s bodies. He left it unclear whether a more substantial meal – perhaps a burger with fries — might be viewed as less counter revolutionary.

Youth League spokesman Floyd Shivambu, apparently misconceiving the matter as a health and safety complaint, stated that the League disapproves of “serving any kind of food on human bodies”.

Only the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) directly condemned “stripping women and reducing them to sex symbols for the pleasure of men”. Unfortunately women are rather thin on the ground at Cosatu House and the federation’s gallant observation that “our country will not be free until women’s dignity is protected by all genuine revolutionaries” sounded an unavoidably patronising tone.

It is tempting but unwise to celebrate the ANC leadership’s condemnation of Kunene. The businessman fell quickly into line, accepting not that he was wrong but rather that he is dependent on the ANC to make money and so will not risk offending it. The next time political leaders threaten to destroy a businessman for affronting their conservative values their gripe may concern the promotion of homosexuality or the creation of controversial artworks.

Alongside the sushi fiasco it has also been a week for pork. “Pork barrel politics” refers to the state’s provision of publicly funded goods to narrow constituencies. Two juicy examples, both concerning KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), have hit the headlines in the past few days.

First, speculation has returned that a massively expensive high-speed rail link between Johannesburg and Durban will soon be approved.

The chief executive of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa warned last year that the national rail system faces collapse within a decade. Minister for transport Sibusiso Ndebele responded that his department lacked the budget to recapitalise the system at the required annual level of R5 billion.

Ndebele’s subsequent announcement of an apparent white elephant – one that will benefit only KZN’s business and political elites at a cost of hundreds of billions of Rand — has inevitably raised eyebrows. The minister has now hilariously obliged his deputy director-general for transport logistics to formulate plans for an imaginary multi-city high-speed network, of which the Durban-Johannesburg link will purportedly just be the first stage.

A second piece of KZN pork was unveiled this week by sports minister Fikile Mbalula. The minister insisted on Tuesday that South Africans must rush into nominating a host city to bid for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. He pretended that four hosts are in the running despite Cape Town’s repeated denials and the evident lack of credibility of Nelson Mandela Bay or Johannesburg.

Although Durban is unlikely to secure the dubious right to host the games, the bid process itself will enable the diversion of bounteous public resources to KZN’s political and business class and further facilitate the political rise of Mbalula.

Special interests, notably in South Africa’s collusive construction industry, are already out in force defending these frankly ludicrous projects. Shameless consultants will soon be handsomely rewarded for preparing the required “feasibility studies” and “technical assessments”. All this pork is as morally reprehensible as Kunene’s sushi. And it is our moralising ANC leaders who are planning to distribute it.

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