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In/glorious Battle

Jacob Zuma courted controversy with his fondness for singing the Struggle-era song 'Bring Me My Machine-Gun'. Perhaps it's just a song, and just a metaphor, but in the logic of that metaphor politics is simplified as a winner-take-all battle royale.

Original publication: Art South Africa, 2008.

Jacob Zuma illustration

Granted, it’s a metaphor, a signifier floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee. The salvatory machine gun everyone wants in Umshini Wami could betoken anything with the capacity for amplifying action and expediting results, from the organs of state to a double whisky on ice, and the implied objects of the gun’s aggressive address could be any locus of threat, from a social problem to a barrier to a historical mission to a troublesome neighbour.

Even if, midway in song, JZ were to get his AK and say, as the columnist Ben Trovato imagined, ‘Thanks, it’s about bloody time,’ the thing would remain a metaphor – unable to close the polysemy of the lyrics themselves or, indeed, be adequate to the totemic mystique of the machine gun which they invoke as tantalisingly near-to-hand yet always deferred. You might say, rattling the AK, ‘This one is for shooting,’ and, jiggling your bullybag metaphor, ‘this one’s for fun.’

Fun, perhaps, of the sort nicely explored in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, a study of pre-Hitlerite literature, and Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, a meditation on the interior logics of torture, weaponry and warfare.

In a broad church everyone has his jukebox favourites, her Sunday-morning Top 20, and if a revival of an MK anthem catches on in some quarters, it is, like an old school song, a means of forging solidarity, heroising day-to-day politics, and, in this case, especially for the young ‘uns, giving the plodding necessities of party work the outlaw cachet of gangsta glam.

But Umshini Wami comes from on high, echoes afar, and in effect legitimates, even sloganistically epitomises, the country’s traditions of militant political intolerance. Weapons – real guns, here-and-now incitement – do not seem the issue, not in the first place; instead it is the intoxicating language itself of weaponality. Whatever the metaphorical equivalents of the machine gun and its putative targets are, they are framed in advance by weaponality, posited in terms of the weapon’s logic: a machine-gun, machine-gunnable reality.

Inasmuch as the song charges the everydayness of socio-political space, the poverty of the real, with the high dramatic intensity of an imminent Manichean battle royale with a Total Enemy (a role previously filled by the apartheid colossus), its repeated appeals for the weapon are cries for frontal proximity with what the weapon wants: a target, whose reality it can negate and into whom it can discharge – and make felt, over there – the realness of its own hitherto-frustrated agenda. In this respect, the song promotes a reading of difference – of viewpoint, of material or symbolic interests, of otherness – not merely as error, deviation from ‘truth’, but as death-bearing, zero-sum enmity posed against the centre of reference positioned at the weapon’s trigger-end.

‘You’re holding me back.’

Trembling with fighting spirit, exulting in the awareness of the enemy’s closeness, willing to risk my all in a struggle for pure recognition, I summon the glorious thing that will connect me to the place of glory, the site of the encounter where my nemesis will comprehend who I am and I, through his eyes, know myself. I am animated by a metaphysic of self-recovering, immediate co-presence. There, the clutter of small actions is resolved into clarity; there, life’s red tape is incinerated: it’s just me and my beloved enemy, mano a fuckin’ mano.

 

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