President Jacob Zuma is set to be inaugurated on Saturday for his second term, with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan stating in March this year that R120-million had been set aside for the event. This is a substantial increase on the R75-million spent on Zuma’s inauguration in 2009. Then last week Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane announced that less would be spent than in 2009, “because of austerity measures being implemented by Cabinet”.
A host of top stars are set to perform at the inauguration, including Zahara, Mafikizolo, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, The Soil, Rebecca Malope, Oskido and Phuzekhemisi. As the country prepares for the inauguration, Vashna Jagarnath, explores the relationship between politics, food and the celebratory feast.
The feast has always followed the hunt. It has always been one of the rewards for success in battle. It has always been a way to celebrate union and abundance, and to perform wealth and power. As far as our gaze can reach back into human history, the feast has been a central feature of religious practices. It may, as with the celebration of the Eucharist, come to take symbolic forms rather than actual sacrifice and eating, but it’s always there in some form or other.
Food is fundamental to the continuity of life. Prior to the emergence of the bourgeois family, its preparation was generally a communal, albeit often gendered, activity. Outside of situations of real deprivation, its consumption is often a daily sensual pleasure. It’s no surprise that food – a point where necessity and pleasure and the individual and collective intersect – is deeply woven into religious and social ritual and how we celebrate marriages, mourn deaths, forge alliances and display our status and power.
The Latin origins of the word feast – feste or festa – derive from the name of the god of life in the ancient Mediterranean, but in its earliest incarnations the term spoke to the celebration of the bounty of life outside of formalised religion. The rituals around the mystery cults in Ancient Greece, along with the festivities of bacchanalia, were celebrated with the gluttonous consumption of food. The Roman elites are still famous for their public and private convivium (the terms means to gather together). The tales told about these feasts have outstripped their reality and the idea that Roman elites routinely vomited in order to continue feasting is not actually correct. In fact, this belief has been so entrenched in popular history that the name for a type of exit from a stadium or hall, the vomitorium, is often incorrectly associated with the fabled purging of feasting Romans. The term was probably linked to Ceasar having escaped an assassination attempt by ducking out of a hallway via one of these exits.
The monotheistic religions have continued to celebrate abundance with feasting, and also made the fast an essential component of spiritual practice. But they also took a dim view of attempts to manipulate the price of food in the interests of private profit. In the Book of Proverbs, the faithful are warned that “he that withholds the corn, the people shall curse him: but blessing shall be upon the head of him that selleth it”. In the Islamic tradition it is made clear that “he who buys food grain should not sell it until he has taken possession of it”. There’s no room for trading in derivatives and futures here.
By the 14th century, in Europe, the word festival, deriving from the word feast, had come to be associated with formalised Christian holidays, which was celebrated with abundant food. The eminent historian Caroline Walker Bynum observes that in medieval Europe, “For the hungry, food forces itself forward as an insistent fact, an insistent symbol. Guided by our knowledge of impoverished modern countries, we should not really be surprised to find that food was, in medieval Europe, a fundamental economic –and religious – concern. Medieval people often saw gluttony as the major form of lust, fasting as the most painful renunciation, and eating as the most basic and literal way of encountering God.” According to Bynum, Joan of Arc’s visions were probably consequent to her starving herself via a form of early religiously inspired anorexia.
But whereas Joan of Arc derived her power by refusing to eat, others would go on to organise an insurgent politics from below around the right to land, and thereby to food. The 17th-century English communist Gerrard Winstanley justified a land occupation as, “Digging up the common land, and casting in seed that we may eat our bread together in righteousness. And every one that comes to work, shall eat the fruit of their own labours, one having as much freedom in the fruit of the earth as another”.
In the 18th century, the food riot became an established part of the repertoire of popular politics in England. While Winstanley tried to socialise the production of food by appropriating land and working it, the food riot was generally about trying to exercise social control over consumption by using popular power to force millers and bakers to set fair prices and not to hoard flour or bread.
Popular rebellion has also used the production of myth as a tool to contest the power of elites. As with the idea the Roman elites had rooms in which to vomit in order to continue to be able to eat during their feasts, the claim that Marie Antoinette dismissed the crowds in revolutionary Paris with the comment that if they were hungry, they should eat cake is not actually correct. Those with an eye for detail and accuracy may be satisfied with pointing out the inaccuracies in stories like this. But we also need to try to understand why stories that illuminate the corruption of power with claims about it having such a crass relation to food are so readily believed.
When elites lose the ability to rule with popular consent and are seen as corrupt and predatory rather than beneficent, their consumption of food becomes a symbol of collective discord and anxiety rather than a source of nourishment and enjoyment. In Grahamstown, where there have been endless problems with the quality of the water, and with getting any water at all, it’s widely believed, in a clear echo of the story about Marie Antoinette, that a local politician declared “Let them drink Valpre”. And the outrage at Kenny Kunene’s crass celebration of his 40th birthday, and, in particular his performance of eating sushi off near-naked models, is a case in point. Kunene, a former English teacher, gained his fortune through Ponzi schemes, running publicity campaigns for criminals and, more recently, joined the Patriotic Alliance, a party that boasts seasoned druglord Rashid Staggie as a member. Similarly, for many it is difficult to stomach Kunene’s former friend, Julius Malema, and his claims to be a revolutionary in the mould of Thomas Sankara given his penchant for Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky. But outrage at excess is often matched by admiration. A few days before the elections, S’bu and Shawun Mpisane threw a huge public party on the Durban beachfront for the ANC. It was reported, approvingly, that they “never compromise on food”, and neither their expensive tastes nor their proximity to the gargantuan figure of Khulubuse Zuma on one side and the dramatically skinnier Khanyi Mbau on the other seem to have done any harm to the ANC’s campaign in that city. An election premised on food parcels for the poor and public feasting for the rich was not, it seems, entirely unpalatable to the electorate.
But while many of those in power or seeking power in South Africa today are not afraid of excessive consumption in less than halcyon times, other political leaders, going back at least as far as Joan of Arc, have sought to perform their restraint around food as evidence of their high moral fibre. For Mohandas Gandhi, restraint in eating, following a vegetarian diet and fasting not only led to the development of a morally superior soul, but also became fundamental to the development of ethical political action. The founding father of independent United States of America, Benjamin Franklin, performed modesty in dress and food in opposition to the excesses of the European aristocracy. A lover of fruit, especially apples, Franklin imbued this humble fruit with the aura of medicinal value, coining the famous term, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”.
Another of Franklin’s contemporaries, Thomas Jefferson – inventor,president, architect, musician, slaver owner, and philosopher – was a lover of food and libations. Jefferson, probably the first American viticulturist, spent many years experimenting with growing wine at his Italian-inspired home of Monticello. After spending time in Europe, especially France, Jefferson was not only inspired by revolutionary ideas, but also by the food. Among the many dishes he sampled, the French medieval dish of macaroni and cheese became one of his favourites. Jefferson so loved this dish that as president he served macaroni and cheese at his state dinner. These early state dinners in the modern political system, whether in the United States or France, tapped into the ancient practice of feasting after victory and become a way for leaders in the new world to set the tone for the exercise of power.
State banquets have also become an important aspect international political relations. The practice of state banquets being used as a means to broker deals among the ruling class has an ancient provenience. One famous example is the ancient Chinese Feast at Hong Gate, also known as the Hongmen Banquet, where an elaborate feast was set up 200 years before the birth of Christ for two warring leaders – Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. More recently, the state dinner for Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev has also gone down in history as a significant moment in the Cold War.
But state banquets are not just an opportunity to broker deals. The food and drink served at these events also comes to be entwined with and understood as symbolic of aspects of the leader’s personality. Some people have read deep significance into the fact that Nelson Mandela had Graham Beck Brut NV, a sparkling wine from South Africa, served at his inauguration meal, whereas Thabo Mbeki chose Moët & Chandon. Mandela, it was thought, was a man of the people, while Mbeki, a leader distant from his people and more comfortable at international conferences than at ANC rallies in Soweto, preferred to serve champagne.
But while historians, foodies and political analysts may pick through the guts of history to discover how and what leaders ate, as well as to speculate on its deeper meaning, there are moments, usually on the cusp of real change, when state banquets become moments of general celebration even though few are actually present at the feast. The state dinners at which Theodore Roosevelt celebrated his New Deal, the dinners at which figures like Jawaharlal Nehru and Julius Nyerere celebrated independence from colonialism, or the dinners at which Mandela celebrated the end of apartheid and Barack Obama celebrated his promise of change and hope were moments of national celebration.
But when leaders are not carried on a tide of popular hope, things are very different. At Obama’s state dinner after his second inauguration, it was clear that slogans about hope and change were just slogans – marketing tools rather than a tangible collective aspiration. As Obama and his cabinet dined on steamed lobster, hickory grilled bison and all-American apple pie, the mood across the United States was more resigned than joyful.
We have just had another election in our young democracy. Although the hegemony of the ANC is steadily breaking down, particularly in the shack settlement, on the mines and among intellectuals, the party continues to enjoy vastly more confidence from voters than any of the other parties, none of which pose a credible vision of a decent future. And although it’s clear that the warmth of the feasting table has grown cold, it is also clear to many that it’s cold outside the ANC. The idea that, in Kgalema Motlanthe’s infamous words, “the leaders will now enjoy the champagne, and of course they do so on your behalf through their lips” while those without glasses should raise their fists is producing more anomie, withdrawal and cynicism than the sort of rage that drove the likes of Nicolae Ceaușescu and Hosni Mubarak from office. It may well be that we will not live to collectively celebrate another feast as grand and radiant as that hosted by Mandela in 1994.
Photo Credits: The ANC centenary celebration in Mangaung: All photos by Oupa Nkosi