So there I was, having dinner with my family, talking about Lance Armstrong and yellow bracelets, when I had a random thought: is Angie the new Manto?
They do have an awful lot in common.
Both instantly recognisable by a single name.
Both spectacularly bad at their jobs. Under Angie, we’ve embraced chronic and possibly terminal mediocrity. Manto was held responsible for the 365 000 premature deaths.
Both astonishingly thick skinned and breathtakingly obtuse. Sample Manto quote: “I can’t stop working. The health of the nation depends on it.” Sample Angie quote: “It (delivering textbooks) is an administrative function and it has nothing to do with me as a minister.” (She also rated herself 8 out of 10, to the bewilderment of anyone on the receiving end of her magnificent incompetence.)
Both exemplify the worst aspect of the administration in which they “serve”. Manto was to Thabo Mbeki as Angie is to Jacob Zuma.
In fact, Angie has been the new Manto ever since she became Minister of Really, Really Basic Education. So why hasn’t she become a cultural figure in the same way that Manto did? Why isn’t she instantly recognisable? Why doesn’t she feature in more jokes and more Zapiro cartoons? More tweets and status updates?
Why isn’t she the new Manto?
It might be worth bringing in some context here. Since 1990, South Africa — notably white, middle-class South Africa — has been enthralled by a string of powerful black female figures it loves to hate. Winnie’s reign as a figure who terrified white South Africa was the longest, later she was replaced by Dr No and then Manto. Now there’s Angie, who seems to inspire frustration and fury across the divides that still characterise our society.
You’d think, given the central role that education now occupies in public discourse — largely replacing those issues that used to preoccupy the tweeting classes, such as crime, health and Zimbabwe — that she would have become one of those figures who transcend politics and enter culture. Thinking about why this hasn’t happened, I can only put forward the following two suggestions:
1. Education is more complicated than antiretrovirals. Manto became associated with one relatively simple issue: the refusal to roll out drugs, and the proffering of nutrition as a solution instead. Angie’s refusal to accept responsibility for the failures of her department is a matter of evasiveness rather than stubbornness and the refusal to acknowledge accepted scientific fact. Shocking as the Limpopo textbook debacle was, it’s harder to identify her with a single issue in quite the same way.
2. There’s no beetroot. (And no liver transplant, no booze or kleptomania.) Manto was a gift to satirists. (I used her in the title of my second collection of South African insults, McBride of Frankenmanto.) Compare a Google search for Manto to one for Angie.
The only interesting thing Angie has done, apart from repeatedly distancing herself from responsibility for the endemic mediocrity to which we are dooming ourselves, is attend her daughter’s wedding, which featured on Top Billing.
Simply put, Angie is too boring to be Manto.
The trouble is, we have short attention spans and, thanks to social media, it’s getting worse. We’re interested in soundbites and social objects — anything that lends itself to becoming a meme. Look at last year’s US presidential race: legitimate rape, binders full of women, hair flag lady. Or South Africa’s year: Nkandla, Marikana, Mangaung. If we can’t wrestle it down to a neat name and put it in a box, we lose interest in it. Cyril Ramaphosa is now synonymous (for some) with a very expensive buffalo because it offers a convenient shorthand for his wealth and, some would suggest, questionable priorities.
There’s no buffalo for Angie and so, horrific as her performance has been, we seem unable to find a convenient shorthand for her. That said, she hasn’t been in the portfolio that long compared to Manto, so all of this may change, and she’ll have her beetroot yet.
At the International Aids Conference in 2006, the UN envoy on Aids, Stephen Lewis, tore into the South African government. “The government has a lot to atone for. I’m of the opinion that they can never achieve redemption.” As it turned out, they did, sort of, at least when it comes to HIV/Aids.
Today, you could make much the same statement about the government’s handling of education. We can only hope that redemption is possible there, too.