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Democracy and Delusion: old problems, new solutions

The Nkandla debacle, the Marikana massacre, Fees Must Fall, GuptaGate, Zuma Must Fall and daily service delivery protests – South African politics is a roller-coaster ride. Politicians spew the same tired rhetoric and the country descends into anger or apathy once more. Enter Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh’s project Democracy and Delusion to help make sense of it all.

Mpofu-Walsh says the dual project, which features a book and a hip-hop album of the same name, is “an attempt to reshape the political conversation about South Africa which have been stale, which has been hogged by old and tired politicians”.

Mpofu-Walsh, who is currently completing a PhD in international relations at Oxford University, is no stranger to South African hip hop. He was part of the rap trio Entity with rappers AKA and Nhlanhla Makenna, formed while the three attended the prestigious Johannesburg boys’ school St John’s College. With Democracy and Delusion, he attempts to marry his scholar and rapper identities.

Written as a collection of essays, the book paints each chapter as a myth and sets out to debunk them. He starts with seemingly innocuous issues like the idea that living conditions are steadily improving or that land reform threatens stability, and ends with the question of whether South Africa ever really reckoned with Marikana.

Mpofu-Walsh wants to make social issues interesting and attractive to young people but the book may not be entirely accessible for this group. It is written in English, the language can tend towards the academic, and at R179 it may not be affordable to all. That’s where the album is meant to come in. Each song in the album mirrors a chapter in the book. Given the popularity of hip-hop in South Africa, Mpofu-Walsh hopes the album will have a wider reach. He’s also working on a music video campaign and plans to host events in townships to further the project’s reach.

Although the book tackles complex topics, its arguments flow logically. Mpofu-Walsh relies on news and journal articles to identify widely held-myths about current politics and eviscerates these using expert opinion and his own analysis. Some chapters are quite dense (the book makes has extensive footnotes) but others are anecdotal.

In one of the more anecdotal chapters of the myth that elite schools benefit society, Mpofu-Walsh uses his own experiences as an Old Johannian to illustrate a broader conversation about structural racism and anti-blackness in private schools. Mpofu-Walsh said like any black alumnus, his relationship with St John’s is “bittersweet”. “I detest the subtle discrimination, recall the pain of assimilation, and shudder at the anti-Semitism, homophobia, and white supremacy,” he wrote. But he doesn’t doubt that he benefited from its resources, networks and opportunities.

Another myth that he tackles in the book is the idea that free education is unachievable. Mpofu-Walsh believes free education can be incrementally achieved and cites lack of political will as the reason it isn’t a reality. “We need the bravery to imagine a policy that focuses on poorest and most vulnerable in our society,” he writes.

Mpofu-Walsh has been a Fees Must Fall proponent since 2015. Later, he and his comrades at Oxford would call for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes there too, arguing that it glorified those who had brutalised black people and that the university still failed to represent black people meaningfully.

For this, Mpofu-Walsh was hounded by British media. The Daily Mail referred to him as part of “the new black elite who are obsessed with wealth and drive expensive German cars”. They said he was young enough to think he knows everything but had “achieved little of substance in the real world.”

The book targets the young and disappointed, particularly those who’ve been raised with rainbow nation narrative of post-apartheid South Africa. It endorses ideas like greater state involvement in the economy, more aggressive land reform and free education.

Mpofu-Walsh sets out to shock, deliver hard truths and start a conversation. In his introduction, he says the writing is “designed to be provocative”, adding “I hope you will suspend outrage long enough to give it a fair hearing.”

But for lefties and fallists, the book is unlikely to be controversial. Instead, it merely provides sound reasoning for common debates being held in coffee shops and campus corridors across the country. For those outside these circles, it might be more difficult to swallow, particularly given its decided anti-ANC bent. Throughout the book, Mpofu-Walsh quotes liberally from ANC policy and illustrates how they’ve failed in either design or implementation. Mpofu-Walsh, it should be noted, is the son of advocate Dali Mpofu, the EFF national chairperson. However his book does not pander to the EFF position.

In an interview with the Daily Vox, Mpofu-Walsh said he knows that his book will outrage two groups of people: racists and the politically powerful ANC, particularly the Zuma faction.

The book has already clinched an award: the City Press-Tafelberg Award for promising non-fiction. At 146 pages, it is short but hardly a light read. It is unapologetic in its analysis of the political landscape and does not shy away from hard-hitting criticism.

Its relevance however lies in its attempts to link mainstream and liberal voices with the discussions happening on the left. The book also bridges the generational gap; it is a collection of youth perspectives in a form that seems more palatable to older generations.

The book is available at leading retailers and online for R179. An ebook version is available on Amazon for $18,75 (about R240). The album,launched on 6 September, is available on iTunes for R90 and is also being sold at Musica countrywide.

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