What’s behind Mboweni’s fowl Twitter recipes?
Finance minister Tito Mboweni’s everyman Twitter persona allows him to stand apart from the profligacy of the ANC — but it also serves to subvert the debate about corruption in the ruling party
In 1971, a man named AJ Weberman coined the term "garbology". One of those American lunatics who used to be revered as lovable New York eccentrics before they started doing things like killing rock stars or becoming president, Weberman made his name by going through the garbage of future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. One of his aims was, apparently, to be able to prove that Dylan had sold out to capitalism, and was reneging on his responsibilities as political spokesperson for the counterculture, and for the poor and oppressed.
To this end Weberman in 1969 co-founded the Dylan Liberation Front, aiming "to help save Bob Dylan from himself". Weberman was convinced that, "from Dylan’s docile, smiling visage on the cover of his 1969 album Nashville Skyline, the singer was hiding from his social conscience".
A classic Weberman quote, from a 1971 story in Rolling Stone magazine, describes him showing his class of aspiring "Dylanologists" — yes, it’s an actual discipline — where in Manhattan Dylan was living at the time.
"This is the house that Bob bought a year and a half ago, when he moved here from Woodstock. He’s lived here in relative anonymity ever since he’s moved here — ever since today! And this is Bob Dylan’s garbage. Perhaps the most interesting part of him since Highway 61 Revisited."
We had our own garbology moment last July, when Daily Maverick journalist Marianne Thamm went through the garbage left behind by the EFF at the "four-bedroom luxury Camps Bay villa" the party had hired for the state of the nation address.
You could, if you were so inclined, trace the lineage from Weberman’s garbage picking to Thamm’s trash interrogation. As with Weberman’s scrabbling in the dirt to prove that Dylan had sold out (to give you a flavour of his research: "As AJ pored through the trash, all he could discern was a mound of dog crap and a mountain of odoriferous, soiled disposable diapers"), Thamm’s journalism was an attempt to highlight the hypocrisy of the EFF’s "pro-poor" philosophy by showing how extravagant its leaders’ consumption habits were.
For example, wrote Thamm, though "the EFF manifesto may call for ‘The Illegalisation of Alcohol Advertisement Bill, which will end the celebration and promotion of alcohol consumption in SA’, the fighters spent at least R25,000 [on alcohol], at a conservative estimate, much of it on the French champagne brands Veuve Clicquot, Veuve Clicquot Rich and Moët & Chandon."
When approached for comment by the Daily Maverick, the EFF’s beloved leader, Julius Malema, showed that he is as fond of a pun as the next man in red overalls by responding: "I don’t comment on rubbish."
In both cases cited above, the rationale appears to be that, if you want to find out hidden truths about publicly exposed people, you can learn a lot by going through the discarded detritus of their lives. Which brings us to our analysis of that traditional SA fairytale — the one mothers use to frighten their children into being good members of the ANC — "The Chicken, the Garlic, and the Finance Minister’s Shoes".
Tito Mboweni, the minister of finance, has decided to make the work of local garbologists redundant by preemptively treating the world to pictures of his appalling cooking via the medium of Twitter.
One can only assume that he is playing a garbology double bluff by showing us evidence of the poverty of his taste, in an attempt to prove to us that he hasn’t sold out to capitalism and that, far from being a hypocrite about his commitment to the ordinary citizens of this country, he is in fact going the extra kilometre by living a life that is a mash-up of mediaeval ascetic and prison cook.
Going through Tito’s chicken selfies and garlic nightmares, we might be tempted to feel that this is what an ANC with a social conscience looks like. That would be a mistake
As David Des van Rooyen is to finance ministers, so Mboweni is to chefs. He uses so much garlic, I wouldn’t be surprised if the stench of eating his chicken lasts longer than Van Rooyen’s entire tenure as finance minister. No, really — the pictures that Mboweni posts show that he uses what looks like 40 cloves of peeled garlic when he roasts an innocent chicken.
Keith Floyd, a bibulous chef who knew a little something about misdirection, has a delicious recipe for chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, but in his day, if you can believe The Guardian, "cooking a chicken using 40 cloves of garlic at a time when this comprised roughly eight times the country’s collective annual usage" was decidedly not a recipe of the people.
And you definitely didn’t peel the garlic.
There is no way Mboweni could be as terrible a cook as he portrays himself to be. He has to be faking it, and you have to ask yourself why. Sure, he could be the lovable old uncle who occasionally behaves oddly at family gatherings, or, as he put it before deleting the tweet, "You know. Trouble makers are game changers! I am glad that I am a TROUBLE MAKER!!"
He was crowing about his tweet criticising the removal of the Zambian central bank governor, which subsequently got shut down by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who "strongly reprimanded the minister of finance, Mr Tito Mboweni, following comments made by the minister on social media regarding the removal of Zambia’s central bank governor".
It’s far more likely, though, that he’s trying to humanise himself in an attempt to differentiate himself from the general taint of ubiquitous ANC corruption.
So though some people are appalled by his cooking, some find it endearing (and I’ll use actual citizen comments to illustrate what Mboweni is attempting to accomplish). A comment by Suntosh Pillay probably encapsulates the former, when he writes: "Hon Minister, that chicken is a martyr it deserves a state funeral. We are flying flags at half mast."
Chef Lesego Semenya typifies the latter, commenting: "Lmao! I appreciate his cooking coz it’s what I always say to people ‘have fun in the kitchen’."
Semenya did, though, provide Mboweni with valuable cooking tips, which I’ll include for your edification. "Don’t stuff the chicken. Butterfly it. Cook it flat (like a Nando’s chicken). It cooks quicker, has crispy skin all round and if you’ve seasoned it well enough, the juices will flavour the meat that’s on the bottom and keep it moist."
It can all get very friendly. But not everyone is happy to have this jolly garbage veil drawn over the ANC’s corruption, or to ease off on the criticism because, hey, we all love chicken and cheerily inept old uncles.
Mamello Mosiana writes: "I really hate Tito Mboweni’s social media presence. It feels like a distraction from the fact that he’s instituted austerity during a pandemic & economic crisis — a highly anti-poor & inevitably anti-black policy."
Mboweni’s greatest achievement, though, is to have cajoled people into using the metaphor of his cooking to engage on ANC corruption. It’s a trick that defuses the criticism by making it appear that an actual dialogue is taking place, giving the appearance of us all speaking the same language, instead of what is actually taking place: citizens standing alongside the rails, shouting vainly at the politicians sitting smugly in the gravy train as it chugs merrily onwards.
What is actually extreme criticism, like this by Sanele Sano Ngcobo, loses its force when it’s part of making fun of Mboweni: "Diarrhoea will deal with you minister for radically expropriating, looting, racketeering and abusing this poor chicken. No chicken deserves to be eaten in the midnight."
Or like this, by the politician formerly known as relevant, Mmusi Maimane: "I saw a comment in the replies that said you promised and delivered on two totally different economic chickens."
Though his execrable cooking is the most successful of Mboweni’s gambits to configure himself as outside the general run of corrupt ANC politicians, he has others. When people comment on his shabby shoes, he says: "These shoes are Clarks, OK. They are comfortable for old people! Laugh at them for the last time!"
When Mboweni holds a Twitter Q&A, he answers questions such as "Do you smoke ganja?" with "Rolling on the floor laughing. Flushed face. Answer: No, I don’t. But I tried in 1967, did not like it. Maybe I should try again. They grow nicely here at the Farm. I think Ntate Home grows them!"
What it means:
Mboweni aims to use his benevolent social media image as a tool to set himself above ANC corruption
It’s all supposed to make you believe that he, at least, always has his eye on his job. His comment on his own chicken dish: "Done. Mission accomplished. Simple but very tasty. And economic."
This is not to assert that Mboweni isn’t one of the good guys, but to highlight how his use of social media (and it’s not a new adoption on his part, but a consistent persona), serves to take some of the sting out of the general and overwhelming current criticism of the ANC.
Mboweni’s namesake, former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, is now a sort of secular saint in Croatia, and "much of the posthumous appeal of the Tito cult centres around Tito’s everyman persona and how he was presented as a ‘friend’ to ordinary people", as opposed to the evil that was Joseph Stalin.
Going through our Tito’s chicken selfies and garlic nightmares, which he’s blithely volunteered for our consideration, we might be tempted to feel that this is what an ANC with a social conscience looks like.
That would be a mistake. There aren’t enough lovable uncles with bad shoes, dirty ovens and a lingering garlic aroma in the upper echelons to make it a convincing myth-making exercise.
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