South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: My Own Private Army – on militias, camouflage, and the ANC’s war against the ANC

By Richard Poplak 7 September 2016

Let’s call them the “Nkandla Brigade”. This is a reference to the helpful gentlemen of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA), who guard Zuma’s honour by forming a fleshy ring around Luthuli House. On Monday, they clashed with #OccupyLuthuliHouse supporters on the streets of Johannesburg, and later became testy with journalists. The good news is that, historically speaking, the organisation and maintenance of private militias always seems to end well. For the men they are paid to protect, that is. By RICHARD POPLAK.

David Douglas “Des” van Rooyen in military fatigues.

That’s the nadir right there.

The former finance minister is not a confidence-inspiring figure, and the sight of him in camo – as if his mother helped him dress for a high school theatre adaptation of Full Metal Jacket – offered a gorgeously articulate assessment of the ANC circa 2016. This low point among low points occurred at the edge of another of the party’s event horizons, when, during an MKMVA briefing on the spat between the finance ministry and the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks), Van Rooyen unwisely decided to offer the country some words of wisdom, all while garbed as fat Rambo.

Currently serving as Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (while moonlighting as MKMVA treasurer), Van Rooyen is perhaps the unscariest figure currently pretending to serve in a military capacity. He was an Umkhonto we Sizwe operative in the 1980s, but let’s just say that his best days as a soldier are behind him. He’s a soft man with pillowy hands and moist eyes, and a ballooning waistline that will soon prevent him from engaging in any further fake army action. His display of martial esprit included many dog-whistled refrains, one of which was a show of comradely support for MKMVA boss Kebby “The Cook” Maphatsoe, a Zuma attack dog who has taken it upon himself to guard the ANC from… well, the ANC.

The primary target of Van Rooyen’s becamouflaged disquisition was, of course, Pravin Gordhan, the current finance minister, who is being trolled by the Hawks for some arcane matter regarding his time as the head of the South African Revenue Service. When it comes to Gordhan, Van Rooyen could fairly be expected to harbour a measure of professional jealousy. After all, the latter replaced him in the finance ministry just four short days after he was parachuted in to replace Nhlanhla Nene, all of which happened during a billion-rand round of musical chairs orchestrated by President Jacob Zuma. These activities were undertaken at the alleged urging of South Africa’s Dubai-based Corleones, a.k.a. the Gupta family, a.k.a. the men behind the men behind the Man.

Famously, Van Rooyen’s short spell was terminated by a bunch of rich white bankers, whose interests diverge somewhat from the Guptas. (The details are wearying, but it mostly comes down to the fact that the Guptas are a tad more short-term focused than their establishment counterparts.) Des is still a bit sore about the whole affair, which is why, in his capacity as MKMVA bean-counter, he urged Gordhan to present himself to the Hawks without any further dilatory tactics. “We are extremely concerned that this matter is now being prolonged and that is why we are calling on all the affected, for the sake of the country, let’s comply,” he moaned. “A plea for sympathy in the media and strategy of using the media to organise support is not going to help.”

While South Africans should be having a serious conversation regarding Gordhan’s twin tenures as the tamest neoliberal finance-cabal butler in perhaps human history, we’re instead having a serious conversation about how it would be super cool if he wasn’t arrested on trumped up charges and replaced in the ministry by fat Rambo, whose (re)appointment will tank the rand and transform the country into a working model of the zombie apocalypse.

And so: War.

Factional battles occur in any organisation with a membership of more than two, but in healthy institutions they’re managed either by negotiation, or by checks and balances built into the organisational architecture, or by a combo of the two.

But the ANC is not a healthy institution. On Monday, we learnt just how sick the joint is after one of its inscrutable little spats spilled out of Luthuli House and onto the streets of a city governed by a hair care tycoon who thinks Boris Johnson is a genius. On one side of this Battle Royale: members of MKMVA, presided over by Kebby Mapthatsoe, and backed up by ANC Youth League president, Collen Maine. On the other side: a collective called #OccupyLuthuliHouse, who were marching on party headquarters to hand over some paperwork bearing an unflattering assessment of President Zuma. When ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe called on Occupy organisers to submit their missive, the MKMVA cadres took enormous exception. Ignoring Maphatsoe’s entreaties, they barred the way forward. The fight fanned out into the CBD, with the cops allowing the MKMVA “operatives” a little more leeway than should ordinarily be permissible outside of, say, a UFC championship bout, or a Trump rally.

They slapped away cameras, threw lazy haymakers, shoved fists into ribs, and acted like a small private militia in the first throes of an orgy of chaos.

And that’s really what this is about, isn’t it? Chaos. With Zuma maintaining a Buddha-like silence, the ANC has rounded on itself. No one is in charge, which means that everyone is in charge. The ANC is no longer governed by a workable binary code, but is subject to the unwritten laws of quantum governance – anything can happen along a continuum that has yet to be defined, or even discovered, by physicists/mathematicians/metaphysicians. It means that MKMVA members, in their capacity as a private militia, work for whom they think they’re working for – who may not be whom they’re actually working for – and can behave at Luthuli House as they see fit. It means that the former finance minister, fired shortly after the firing of the former former finance minister, can dress up as a pretend soldier and diss the current finance minister, who is also the former former former finance minister, while simultaneously announcing the primacy of the militia-in-waiting for which he serves as treasurer.

This massive campaign of destabilisation is no doubt being watched with studied disinterest from Dubai. Without question, it benefits the faction loyal to President Zuma, who needs as much ground cover as possible for the final push into the Treasury. (See: last week’s bout of idiocy, by way of Mosebenzi Zwane.)

The most depressing thing about this little dabble with military fetishism is that South Africa faces fewer real-world threats than almost any other country on Earth. The militaries to the north of us are too occupied with diamond mining or goat herding or killing their own people to launch so much as a spitball at Pretoria. Sure, we have our very own neighbourhood nut-job tyrant, but he’s busy dealing with domestic issues and/or getting Singaporean organ transplants. The great powers couldn’t give a shit about us because there’s nothing here worth stealing any more. We have a migrant issue, but nothing resembling what the rest of the planet faces. We experience no cyclones, no crippling snowstorms, no major floods, no volcanoes, no avalanches, no tsunamis, no earthquakes, no outsized catastrophic New Orleans-like mega-disasters that would require an army to intervene on our behalf. South Africa has it so easy that we literally have to engineer ways for our servicemen and women to get killed, which is why 13 of them died for no reason in the Battle for Bangui, in the Central African Republic, during a horrible March day in 2013.

The only threat to our sovereignty comes from within, from the inequality that threatens to undo us, from the fact that we aren’t really a country but a continuation of a colonial project wallpapered over by a sham democracy. Our sovereignty will be undone by the inevitable firing of the finance minister, which will inevitably tank the currency and usher in an inevitable ratings downgrade, which will be followed by the inevitable acceptance of a structural adjustment package from the International Monetary Fund. And then the inevitable rule by decree from afar that is the fate of all failed post-colonial backwaters.

All our wounds are self-inflicted. All our battles are waged against ourselves.

So spare a thought for David Douglas “Des” van Rooyen in his PEP-store military fatigues. The poor man hasn’t even begun to understand the game, which is the quality that makes him so vitally important a player. He’s just another drone in the Nkandla Brigade, an outfit that has but one job: to protect the interests of the president. They’ll shield Zuma from his enemies, but eventually, they’ll turn on those who believe themselves to be his friends. Fat Rambo doesn’t stand a chance. The scary question is: do the rest of us? DM

Photo:  David Douglas “Des” van Rooyen, a frame grab form SABC.


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