To borrow the parlance of yoga teachers: it’s been a journey.
The trip properly begins at the dawn of human time, when some horrific trauma—a wooly mammoth attack? The first pornographic image scratched onto a cave wall? The discovery that the discovery of fire only made existence colder and emptier?—hardwired our brains into believing that scarcity could only be combatted with hardcore rapacity.
Or more specifically, it began in the Public Protector’s office on March 19, 2014, when Thuli Madonsela debuted a 433-page document called “Secure in Comfort”, which concerned the upgrades that had transformed President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead into a pre-ruined dystopian playground for his cartel. Following reports of massive cost overruns and ridiculous architectural follies, the Public Protector was asked to investigate whether the president and his kin had unduly benefitted from a bunch of construction neologisms, the most notable of which was termed a “fire pool”.
Was Nkandla merely secured, the Public Protector wanted to know? Or was it pimped? Big difference.
Or not so big, as the case may be. On that sultry March day two years ago, the entire South African press corps, shorn of smart phones, computers and other electronic devices, sat in a sweaty conference room flipping through “Secure in Comfort’s” still-warm pages with mounting revulsion. Three hours later, after the embargo had been lifted, the country was hand-blended into a thick froth of rage. Had every South African read “Secure in Comfort” from start to finish, they would have encountered a postmodern novelistic treatment of the petty theft, greed and stupidity that sits at the heart of power in this country.
The chicken coops, window finishings, towel racks and other junk procured from Builders Warehouse for fifty times the retail price amounted to little more than a rounding error on the national budget. But Nkandla was soon transmogrified into an enduring symbol. In a country in which “home” has mutable meanings, where so many are landless or floating in uncertain tenure—what was the president doing blowing R246 million on a chintzy Big Man’s palace? It was an insult incurred by almost every South African in every silo of society.
The report’s remedial actions were clear: pay back the fucking money. But were those remedial actions binding? And so the Great Dodge commenced—a dodge that officially ended during a parliamentary question period on August 6, 2015, when the president faced down his wayward son in an encounter rife with Shakespearean connotations. “We will see you in court,” growled Julius Sello Malema at his fallen papa, flecks of his Oedipal spittle misting the House. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) promptly filed papers in the Constitutional Court in a bid to force Zuma to pay back the money. They were followed by the Democratic Alliance, the Public Protector, and a farrago of civil society who joined the case as amici curiae.
Would this crazed legal gambit work? Zuma and his advisors certainly believed so. On February 3 of this year the president blinked, and recommended that the Constitutional Court appoint the auditor general and minister of finance to assess how much he should repay for the Nkandla upgrades. It was too little, too late, and not nearly enough to head off the hearing on February 9, which the EFF used to conduct a Johannesburg-wide “We’re Awesome!” street party. Inside the court, government lawyers mangled their arguments to such a degree that they basically admitted that the Boss had screwed up, and that the PP’s findings were binding. The judgment, that eventually arrived on March 31, seemed all but ordained.
But this is a country in which the sure bet unravels all the time, in which a sure bet is that there are no such thing as sure bets. How would Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and his quorum of be-robed justices rule?
The country woke up to the sound of itself soundlessly praying. Only one man slept secure in comfort, knowing that it would all work out just the way he’d planned it.
* * *
The Constitutional Court is like a quietly whirring hyperdrive within a vast and destructive threshing machine—a newfangled piece of componentry soldered into the Bronze Age tech that serves as the rest of South Africa. Even during the hours before a major, country-changing judgment is to be handed down, there’s serenity to the place. If you’re hoping for hope, this is the place to hope for it.
And so it began. At 10:04am, the justices streamed into the presidium wearing severe green robes, their spectacles glinting in the Roger Deakin-ish light. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, whom I once confused for a Nathi Nhleko-grade quisling, greeted the advocates in avuncular tones, once again doing a convincing impression of the nicest man in South Africa.
“This is a unanimous judgment that I have written,” he said. “It deals with issues of monumental importance to the people of this country.” Where the state behaved with impunity during apartheid, he reminded us, the democratic dispensation installed a bunch of checks and balances to protect us from the executive’s stomach.
He then offered South Africa a real-time lesson in how this concept functioned.
You’ll have already consumed thousands of gigabytes of information regarding his landmark judgment. But let me say this much: there was a sort of force that rose up from the bench, the opening of a portal that connected us with thousands of years of human history, most of which has been concerned with figuring out how we are to lead, and how we are to be led. Democracy does not mean, in its truest sense, that we get to do or say exactly what we want to when we want to, but rather that mechanisms exist so that power can be curtailed, reined in, circumscribed. If power is split between bodies that correct each other, then power is diffused throughout society. And no one is left powerless.
South Africa isn’t fixed—that’s just hilarious. But Mogoeng Mogoeng revealed it to be fixable.
When it was done, there was nothing left of President Jacob Zuma. He was summarily dumped, along with his henchfolk, into history’s shitter. But a Chief Justice, no matter how committed he or she may be to the constitution, is always at the mercy of politics. Which meant that for this reporter, there was only one place left to go.
* * *
The EFF Celebratory Gloat Fest, scheduled for noon, began five minutes late. I strolled from Con Court to De Korte Street, dodging the worst of Johannesburg’s flyblown garbage, only to find that there was no celebration, and no gloat fest. Instead, the press’s fingers clacking on computer keys like dozens of skeletons working out on elliptical trainers. Coffee was drunk. As was bottled water. Fun was nowhere in evidence.
“Finally the powers of the Public Protector have been confirmed by the court,” said Julius Malema, after he had hurumphed his way into the conference room with his crew and zero fanfare. The Commander in Chief looked as if he’d been on a paleo regime, half the man he was a month ago.
The starvation diet begins at home, as they say.
Here, finally, was the dude who hacked South Africa. And he was not done rewriting the code.
“The highest court in the land found that the president has failed to uphold the constitution. And that’s reason enough for the president to step down.”
Malema then paused for effect.
“We call upon the ANC to do the right thing and to recall the president. We will stop him physically, we will prevent him from speaking. President Zuma is no longer the president of the Republic of South Africa. We are not going to sit back and allow the continuation of the violation of the constitution.”
The EFF, said Malema, didn’t show up at the Constitution Court to preen, because the outcome was “obvious”.
“We are not peace time heroes,” he said, “but people thought we were mad to take the case to the Constitution Court. And now look. Ten judges. We won 10-0. We are conducting our revolution within the confines of the constitution.”
Malema then swung a wide left to several of his favourite talking points:
a) the fact that he inaugurated the fight against white monopoly capital
b) the detailing of unsubstantiated accusations of vastly corrupt activities undertaken by members of the ruling party, and that
c) Nelson Mandela was not a saint.
“Zuma took money to UAE, to Dubai,” insisted Malema. “Him and the Guptas have taken over R6 billion. The reason Zuma does it, he doesn’t get searched by customs—he went with bags of money. We will prove this in time.”
Imagine that: the president of South Africa, a bag man! Not an entirely unreasonable proposition, given how the day had played out.
“The ANC government has been Zombified,” said Malema. “Even Mandela is not Jesus Christ. He took a house from the Oppenheimers. He was Zombified. We took on the Ruperts”—South Africa’s richest (white) family—“long before these Micky Mouses took on the Ruperts.”
Malema then extended a poly-racial invitation. “White people should join this struggle to destroy white monopoly capital,” he said. “Just relax,” he said, looking pointedly at the white folks in the cheap seats. “Stop being so sensitive. You are not white monopoly capital. Even your computer is borrowed.”
On the last item, he had the fucking point.
But one wondered if Malema had in fact missed the point. Or whether, like all hungry young men, he was looking forward to the next meal without properly finishing his breakfast.
Yes, he spoke a good game, in fluent soundbite-ese:
“This is a victory of our constitution,” he said. “Without the constitution we are Angola.”
“Let the ANC of OR Tambo rise!,” he exclaimed. “If they undermine this ruling, we are done. Dololo.” He waved a published copy of the constitution at the gathered journos. “I doubt Zuma has read this book. They must lead by this book. Without it, we are another failed African state.”
Then he threw down the challenge.
“Why would Parliament be taken seriously after they’ve rendered a chapter 9 institution useless?” he asked. “Parliament has failed this democracy. Let’s go to early elections. If they are so sure of their story, then lets go to the battlefield. We are done. Parliament failed. The executive failed.”
A country suddenly full of king slayers. First Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. And now the man that set him to his task.
* * *
Perhaps the most interesting and lyrical element of the Chief Justice’s judgment was the beautiful evocation of the great power/great responsibility dichotomy inherent in the presidential office. “The president is the first citizen of this country. He is a constitutional being by design,” said the CJ, while his fellow justices passed around a blue box of blue Tic Tacs to maintain their minty fresh breath.
A monumental day for the country, no doubt about it. But there is still a second shoe to drop. And likely a third.
Julius Malema understands the constitution as a weapon. He understands it as a tool. He will almost certainly be the president of the country one day. South Africa is not fixed—but it has been rendered fixable. One hopes the man who did not celebrate his victory sees this fact as worthy of celebration, and not a loophole to one day be closed.
It’s been a journey, insists the yogi. Now, the real trip starts. DM
Photo: Opposition EFF party leader Julius Malema (R) addresses the media following the Constitutional Court’s finding that South African President Jacob Zuma had broken the countries constitution, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 31 March 2016. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
In other news...
July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.
In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."
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Harrison Ford suffers from a fear of public speaking.