Rise of the tenderpreneurs, the fall of South Africa

The World Cup will create a feel-good factor in South Africa, but when it’s all over, the same urgen

This will be South Africa's second World Cup. The first was much smaller than the impending football jamboree. But the 1995 Rugby World Cup was an extraordinary affirmation of the country's recent transition to democracy, celebrated joyously with the host nation's victory. More important than the result was the masterful moment of reconciliation politics in which Nelson Mandela appeared in the shirt of the South African captain François Pienaar, acknowledging that the newly empowered majority had embraced the game of apartheid, that we were now "one nation, one team". This was the apex of "rainbow nation" symbolism, a new democracy brimming with hope and promise. The country that will host the 2010 Fifa World Cup has lost this illusory lustre.

For though a post-apartheid South Africa will always be an improvement on its racist, oppressive precursor, Mandela, the man-myth, has been replaced by Jacob Zuma, an all-too-human leader whose corruption and rape trials have inflicted permanent damage. Zuma's ineffective leadership of a divided African National Congress party and government has done little to suggest he might yet meaningfully address the huge challenges facing South Africa. The latest UNDP Human Development Index figures rank South Africa 129th out of the UN's 182 member states. The difference between this measure and the country's GDP, as well as its Gini coefficient score, make it the world's most unequal country, a worse position than before the dawn of democracy.

In 2006, it was calculated that just over 34 per cent of South Africans had lived on less than $2 a day during the preceding 14 years. A 2009 calculation shows that almost 43 per cent do now. Even worse, life expectancy has fallen by 13 years in a similar period.

This is not just a consequence of Thabo Mbeki's shameful Aids denialism, which, according to a Harvard University study, resulted in at least 355,000 avoidable deaths. It is also a consequence of the impact of the disease of grinding poverty, and of the continuing high rate of violent crime, which results in roughly 50 murders a day, as well as an ineffectual health and education system.

Far from the people

All this, in turn, is made possible by a largely unaccountable and sometimes corrupt ruling class that has abandoned many of the ANC's founding principles in order to enrich itself. The quality and depth of leadership, so impressive in 1994, is, with a few exceptions, woeful. No one reflects this more than the thuggish leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, an heir to Mandela in title alone. Malema's racist rants, idiotic pronouncements and intolerance of criticism are usually glossed over by the party leadership, which depends on his support. The most severe and only punishment has been a gentle rap over the knuckles for his vocal support of Robert Mugabe.

While I don't believe his singing of racist songs about killing white farmers contributed to the murder of the far-right leader Eugene Terre'Blanche in April (the latter's brutal treatment of his farmworkers was a far more likely cause), Malema's tirades further undercut the reconciliation gains made under Mandela. The xenophobia that reared its murderous head in 2008 against immigrants from elsewhere in Africa is an even uglier manifestation of how much the country has changed since the early days of democracy.

SGL, an engineering company with which Malema has been associated, has benefited from large state tenders. Malema has denied he is still a director of the firm. The practice of high-ranking members of the party, and those close to them, benefiting from decisions about tenders of the government has become so widespread that the title "tenderpreneur" has been coined to describe the beneficiaries. The tenderpreneur could not be more different from the idealistic, committed activists with whom I was privileged to be elected to parliament in 1994. A minor incident illustrates how far from "the people" some of these activists have strayed. A party cadre I knew in the early 1990s as humble, smart and unassuming spent, after becoming a provincial minister, almost £10,000 of taxpayers' money on a dinner for guests and friends at one of Johannesburg's leading restaurants. That is more than most South Africans earn in a year. When a journalist from one of the country's leading papers asked him what he had to say to members of the public who had complained about the bill, the minister in effect told them to go to hell.

He is now head of the ANC in one of the country's most powerful provinces.

How has the hopeful young democracy that cheered the Springboks' rugby triumph in 1995 become so much like most other countries in today's tawdry global polity? The ANC lost its moral compass towards the end of Mandela's reconciliatory term of office with two signature moments - the decision to spend huge amounts of money on weapons we didn't need and the party's inability to challenge Mbeki's Aids denialism, dating as far back as his tenure as deputy president.

The decision to spend between $6bn and $8bn on hi-tech weaponry was driven by an estimated $300m of bribes. Anti-corruption investigators in South Africa and Europe allege that these were paid to the then defence minister, Joe Modise, other officials and the party itself by European companies that were awarded contracts, most of them in highly controversial circumstances. As a senior member of the party's top executive body told me, "We used the money to fight the 1999 election."

Coalition of the disaffected

Even more destructive than this waste of money - at the time that Mbeki was claiming the government could not afford to provide antiretroviral medication to the five million South Africans then living with HIV and Aids - was the undermining of the country's hard-won democracy in order to stop truth emerging. Parliament was turned into a rubber stamp, and has remained one, with ANC MPs instructed to vote in favour of whatever the leadership proposed.

This was in marked contrast to the way in which ANC MPs had challenged the executive, as the constitution envisaged, in the first four years of our democracy. Investigative bodies were undermined by Mbeki instructing them exactly who and what they could and could not investigate. The prosecuting authority was similarly undermined and politicised. The more effective anti-corruption agencies were dissolved. My colleagues in parliament, with very few exceptions, reacted with anger and outrage when I defied the leadership and continued to investigate the arms deal. My removal from the investigating committee and ousting from parliament acted as a salutary warning to anyone who challenged the leadership.

The realisation that they could get away with it, despite the best efforts of investigative journalists and a handful of brave MPs, emboldened the ANC leadership to engage in a series of other suspect deals in the oil, telecoms and power sectors. These always benefited not just individuals, but also the financial position of the party, which at its triennial conference in 2007 boasted a surplus of about £150m.

The abject failure of MPs and other influential ANC leaders to hold the party to account was mirrored when Mbeki's Aids denialism wreaked havoc on the country. Critical debate was supplanted by obsequious support; party loyalty was the only political currency. The key to this change among individuals who had so bravely fought apartheid was either the belief, fostered among ANC exiles, that it was disloyal to speak against the party, or simply the benefits of patronage, which included the fear of losing one's seat in parliament and its attendant material rewards.

It was only the ANC's allies in the trade union movement who spoke out against both the arms deal and Aids denialism. So desperate were they to rid the ANC of Mbeki's autocratic and paranoid leadership that they were prepared to support his nemesis, Zuma, despite Zuma's rape trial and his embarrassing statements about Aids protection and gender relations, as well as the myriad corruption allegations against him.

But the trade unions did not speak out when the 783 counts of corruption against Zuma were dropped in controversial circumstances - or when, using legislation intended only for inmates in the final stages of a terminal illness, Zuma's financial adviser Schabir Shaik was released from prison after serving barely over two years of a 15-year sentence for corruption. South Africa's prosecutorial and judicial system has been further damaged by this cleaning of Zuma's legal slate.

To his credit, Zuma has been open about the mistakes the ANC made on Aids and in other areas. But his government has not yet addressed the desperate needs of the country's poorest citizens. Partly this is because of the limited capacity of the bloated public service, its unaccountability and widespread corruption. Yet it is also a consequence of Zuma's attempt to keep happy the coalition of the disaffected that brought him to power. Ideological differences, along with the president's seeming inability to impose direction on the coalition, have thwarted coherent governance. Zuma's allies on the left are the least happy, charging their man with maintaining economic policies that hinder social change.

This dissatisfaction with the country's inequalities has fuelled ambivalence towards the World Cup, which begins on 11 June. The prominent columnist Jabulani Sikhakhane gave voice to this when comparing the deaths of 17 infants in public hospitals in a fortnight, because of a lack of basic medical equipment, to the more than £90m invested in the health facilities demanded by Fifa for the month of the tournament. "It's a shame," Sikhakhane concluded, "that a country that invests more than R1bn in order to meet the [health] requirements set by the gods of world soccer is incapable of preventing the deaths of its babies."

Trouble at home

Fifa has hardly endeared itself to those living on South Africa's margins by creating exclusion zones around the stadiums and parks where the games will be held, thus preventing informal traders from plying their wares anywhere near the showpiece event. Initially excluding local artists from the cultural events that will open and close the tournament was hardly a recipe for local support, either. While a few prominent South Africans have now been included in the line-ups, the event anthem, composed and performed by the Colombian singer Shakira, still irks many South Africans, judging by the numbers of irate callers to phone-ins.

With the World Cup mascots manufactured in China and McDonald's the official restaurant of the tournament, many are questioning whether South Africa will reap adequate economic return on its estimated £3bn investment. Reports that less than half of the anticipated foreign tourists will turn up for the event - with only about 11,500 expected from the rest of Africa - because of cost issues and security concerns, have further depressed the economic picture. The temporary, low-skilled and poorly paid jobs that preparations for the tournament have generated will not constitute a solution to South Africa's unemployment rate, which is calculated at between 27 and 37 per cent. There are already mutterings of contracts going to politically connected tenderpreneurs.

In this sports-mad and once-isolated country, the World Cup will no doubt engender a feel-good factor - even if, as seems likely, the home team struggles, unlike the rugby team of 15 years ago. Just having the eyes of the world on South Africa again will be a reaffirmation of our remarkable transition to democracy. But it will also confirm that our democracy has been tarnished. For when the Fifa grandees (no strangers to allegations of corruption themselves) and the welcome visitors depart, South Africa will be feeling better about itself, but will still face the same challenges, for which there will be slightly fewer resources.

Andrew Feinstein is a former ANC MP

An updated edition of his book "After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa's Uncertain Future" is out now (Verso, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela