Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

How do we galvanise outrage over Mdluli?

zapiro mdluli

What do the racist tweets, e-tolls, the POIB and rhino poaching have in common? Recently they have all been the focus of public outrage. Outrage is a useful thing. It was outrage that saw Jessica Leandra stripped of her endorsements and title, outrage that put a temporary halt to e-tolls, and outrage that has forced changes to be made to the POIB. Whether outrage over rhino poaching will achieve anything besides selling lots of bracelets and Woolworths rhino shopping bags remains to be seen, but we can hope.

All kinds of outrage are not equal, but what’s clear is that if you want to achieve results, you need public anger, and lots of it. As Mandy Wiener puts it in this piece on Richard Mdluli, “It was the sway of mass criticism, galvanised and deftly channelled, that saw tolling being temporarily derailed.” Wiener makes the point that at a time when we got our collective knickers in a knot over racist tweets, far more important issues are at stake.

Why aren’t people mobilising against the shenanigans in the SAPS in the same way they’re protesting against e-tolls and paid parking in Parkhurst? I wondered. Is it because people can’t see the practical effect it will have on their day-to-day lives?

Why do some causes grab the imagination and get us off our collective backsides, and others – many of them more important – not? How do we get South Africans to care about a man eminently qualified for the position of head of crime intelligence – a post he held until being promoted sideways last week – primarily because he is a under suspicion himself? Racist tweets, e-tolls and rhinos suggest that outrage is most successfully fomented and channeled when the following criteria are fulfilled:

It must be simple. The k-word, dead rhinos, less money in my pocket because of tolls. If it isn’t simple, make it simple. Many if not most of the South Africans who joined in campaigns against the POIB didn’t really understand its implications, but all those petitions, protests, black Wednesdays, twibbons and black Facebook profile pictures made it easy for people to participate even if they didn’t have a good idea of what was going on.

It must be visual. We can’t relate to things we can’t see or feel. Jessica’s profile picture, graphic images of dead rhinos, those e-toll gantries looming over the highways. This was the power of the campaign against the POIB: collectively, the media and various groups of activists took something amorphous and gave it substance.

It must be immediate and tangible. People care about things that affect them. E-tolls affected everyone. The South Africans offended by Jessica and Tshidi could personally relate to the insults. South Africans who spend time in the bush care more about rhinos than those who don’t.

It must be broadbased. All the middle class fury in the world would have achieved nothing if Cosatu hadn’t gone behind closed doors to persuade the government to postpone e-tolling. (Rhino poaching will only be a crisis perceived as relevant beyond wildlife lovers if it is positioned as a matter of national heritage and national pride.)

mdluli

Which leads me to Richard Mdluli, now a leading candidate for the mantle of most feared/loathed figure in the imagination of the chattering classes (taking on the mantle of Winnie, Manto, Julius et al). If he is as big a threat to our democracy as many clever and insightful people think he is, then it’s in our interests to do something about it. So, learning from campaigns against e-tolls and the POIB, how should we approach this tricky situation?

Any campaign cause focused on taking Mdluli and his backers on will need marketing, not just to generate interest in an apathetic public, but to condense a complicated issue into a narrative ordinary South Africans can relate to. We need a campaign with a catchy name and a logo to tie it all together visually. The name should be straightforward, memorable, and preferably focused on some kind of result. Importantly, it must be flexible enough to be used in other situations, so it should lend itself to being hashtagged and also chanted in protest gatherings and marches. I’m leaning towards “Mdluli Must Go” – #Mdlulimustgo – but there are many other possible iterations of this.

rotten apple
This is a rotten apple.

Then there’s the logo. What sort of visual device could we use? The man himself? He does resemble an evil zombie accountant when viewed from a certain angle, and zombies are still big, especially in the Daily Sun. Still, we should probably look to what he symbolises for inspiration. A rotten apple might work well, or a snake, or – to use a biblical analogy – both.

The most important task of all will be to unlock the compelling consumer insight that makes the issue relevant to ordinary South African citizens. What do we all care about regardless of our differences? What is equally meaningful to an office cleaner who lives in a matchbox house and travels to work in a taxi and a mid-level manager who drives an Audi and lives in a cluster in Broadacres? Wiener notes, “… you can’t see the impact today, or tomorrow, it will come and you should be worried now” but that’s just the problem. The campaign would have to link Mdluli to the challenges of daily life, to things that affect us right now.

Wiener also quotes a police officer on why the kid gloves treatment of Mdluli is so dangerous: “It creates a perception to police officers that it’s okay and acceptable to be corrupt as long as you are ‘connected’ with the right people, that it’s okay to influence and compromise the outcome of investigations. It creates distrust between those in senior management. The country will become chaotic and ungovernable.”

“Chaotic and ungovernable” are words we’ve heard before, and they’re not words that carry a lot of weight for South Africans who’ve lived with chaos for most of their lives. So the threat represented by Mdluli will have to be articulated in ways that are relevant to those who have failed to see the better life they were promised.

The final point is that Mdluli is himself a symbol of a wider malaise. By condensing a range of complex issues into a single figure, it’s already much easier to take on the threat he represents. But if he goes anywhere, it does not mean that what Sam Sole describes as “the matrix of covert, informal exercise of power that represents a threat to our democratic and constitutional order” will not still be firmly in place.

“The dread we should be feeling is not about what may be happening in secret,” Sole writes, “it is about what is happening right in front of us.”

Best, then, that we stand up and make our feelings known. Just because there aren’t any gantries straddling the highways doesn’t mean this isn’t going to cost us if we don’t do something about it.

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