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18 November 2017 13:48 (South Africa)
South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Shaun Abrahams, a true Goodfella

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa
Photo: Forgive us Goodfellas, especially Ray Liotta.

Shaun Abrahams, head of the National Prosecuting Authority, has just announced that the spurious charges against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan have been withdrawn. Now that this potentially illegal and treasonous chapter has come to such an embarrassing conclusion, it is time to shape a country from the ruins. By RICHARD POPLAK.

The opening scene of Martin Scorsese’s classic gangster film, Goodfellas, perfectly elucidates the complexities involved in running any mob racket. We fade in on the three men driving through rural New York State. They are interrupted in their passage by a thumping that emanates from the car’s boot. The wise guys stop, only to find that, despite their best efforts, the bundled and bloody man they have stuffed into the back of their car refuses to die. An orgy of stabbing and shooting follows, the boot veritably spurting gore. After this bout of violence, our protagonist—an on-the-rise hood named Henry Hill—utters the following famous mission statement:

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

As the imperishable man in the back of the car suggests, Goodfellas offers a near perfect analogue for the functioning of the South African gangster state. Small mistakes snowball into big disasters, often engineered by suboptimal individuals working as foot soldiers and death squad operatives, while the gravitational pull exerted by enormous gobs of money ensures that everyone is on the take, and therefore no one is to be trusted. The lies rapidly pile up (in the scene that follows Goodfellas’s iconic opening, a mobster explains to his mother that the blood on his shirt came from the “paws” of a deer they struck on the road), and the murderous absurdities end up governing reality.

Analogy-wise, it barely needs to be stated, but the man in the back of South Africa’s car is an independent finance minister, whomever that may be at any given moment. Which brings us to the fundamental question every hoodlum must eventually face: how much nearby real estate do you destroy, how many witnesses and bystanders and fellow mobsters do you take down, when your intended victim simply refuses to die?

* * *

For a year at least, Jacob Zuma and a determined cabal have been gunning for the treasury. More details have now emerged regarding the firing of Nhlanhla Nene in December of last year, and his subsequent replacement with the deeply unimpressive Desmond Van Rooyen. The minutia is culled from a gangster flick that, due to its sheer implausibility, no responsible filmmaker would shoot: there sits Van Rooyen, tamely sipping “tea” with the Guptas in their Saxonwold manse for seven consecutive days prior to his surprise appointment. He lasted four days before Gordhan was reappointed, due to pressure from opposition parties, business big and small, and the ANC itself. He should never have served a minute.

Thanks to the tireless work of amaBhungane’s investigative unit, on Saturday we learned in these pages that the Family (as the Guptas refer to themselves in their own press material) were the essential component in stupidly simple game of what is usually described as “state capture”, but is in fact nothing more than money laundering. It works like this: Zuma-appointed cabinet hacks stuff the boards of state owned enterprises with connected mobsters, who hand big tenders to companies run by similarly connected mobsters, who then siphon the money into Hong Kong shells or other offshore black holes.

The connection between the Family and the other Family (the Zumas) is so well established that it requires no further parsing here. The former public protector, Thuli Madonsela, attempted during her last days on the job to release a report that would likely have ended this conversation—or, rather, extended it endlessly with taxpayer-funded court dates and long, dignified conclusions from Constitutional Hill, informing us about which we already know: we’re are a living, breathing adaptation of Goodfellas. Instead, the “State Capture” report sits under lock and key, awaiting the whims of the Gupta TV-watching current public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

But nothing—absolutely nothing—comes close tracking the bumbling (if lethal) idiocy of Scorsese’s gangsters as does the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision several weeks ago to nail finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, along with two other former commissioners at the South African Revenue Service, on counts of fraud and theft.

This move was initiated by the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Shaun Abrahams, an advocate who perfectly fits the profile of the ideal Zuma plant. Youngish, ambitious, ethically shall we say flexible, Abrahams was so keen to do his master’s bidding—AKA remove the finance minister from his post at all costs—that he floated charges that were so legally thin, and so utterly unwinnable, that a kangaroo court in the Stone Age would have thrown them out with the contempt they deserved.

That Abrahams was working to destroy the reputation, career and office of Pravin Gordhan was of doubt to no sentient observer—the day before he issued the summons, he visited Luthuli House in a (supposedly unrelated) meeting with Zuma and members of the notoriously slavish security cluster. But the gangster racket, especially in the age of the pocket-recording device, often spills onto social media, and with embarrassing results.

It broke in these pages last week that a SARS lawyer, name of Vlok Symington, accidentally received an email that implicated the NPA in what was clearly a politically motivated takedown of the finance minister, and refused to sign an affidavit that would have legitimized the caper. He was subsequently held hostage in SARS headquarters by bouncers whose provenance at this stage is unclear, but were nonetheless resolute in their intention to ensure that he didn’t leave the building until the paperwork was in order.

All of this bumbling was recorded by Symington on his mobile phone, as was his terrified bleating to the emergency services. Here we were, in the middle of a catastrophic drought/global economic crisis, and the NPA and the Hawks were using basic mob tactics to intimidate witnesses in order to bring down Gordhan—and, with him, the value of the rand and the fiscal viability of the state.

The ethical monstrousness of this behaviour cannot be overstated: Abrahams was willing to destroy South Africa (and believe me when I say that a downgrade by the unloved ratings agencies could serve as this joint’s death knell), in order to hand over the treasury to his bosses. If the case had any merit, or was even slightly winnable, that would have been a different story.

That it was a scam perpetrated against the entire South African people will likely serve as a turning point for those with their heads in the deepest recesses of the pig’s trough.

* * *

And so today, the gangsters pulled the deer’s paw from the grill of their decaying muscle car—and promptly poked out their own eyes with it. Abrahams called a press conference for 10:30, in order to notify the South African public that he has sent Pravin Gordhan’s lawyers a letter stating that charges against his client will be withdrawn.

This should be a career-ending event for Abrahams, but there are no career-ending events in South Africa. Welcome to the epicentre of the second chance, where old apartheid murderers set up think tanks and cardiology practices, and their assassins wash the feet of their ex-marks. Abrahams kicked off by offering mealy-mouthed nonsense and half-non-apologies by way of explaining the NPA’s insane decision-making processes.

It wasn’t me,” wailed Abrahams, in a maelstrom of sub-clauses and lawyer-speak, throwing a subordinate under a bus already awash with the gore of a million corpses. He then had the temerity to present himself as a hero, as the one man with the courage to pull the plug on the cesspool he filled.

What to do with this guy, who promised in one press conference that, “The days of disrespecting the NPA are over,” and asked of its sequel, “is the economy dependent on one man?”

How do we quantify such stupidity? What deity can offer us a meaningful explanation of such mulish dumbitude?

Abrahams, along with those who assisted him in this enormously dangerous endeavor, should be investigated for nothing less than the crime of treason. The damage they have caused may be reparable, but they will mince (lucratively) into the shadows while the rest of us mop up their mess.

Meanwhile, Jacob Zuma is saved only by the fact that South Africa remains a vastly unequal place, divided and thoroughly conquered, a GPS way point rather than a country—with no national identity and no common purpose. That there is no such thing as South Africa works in any gangster’s favour.

It is up to us, the people of this country, to remedy this, and to create an environment in which hoods and sleazebags find it impossible to operate. We need to mobilise, we need to take to the streets, we need to forge new memes that don’t just die on the, ahem, Vine.

The man in the boot of the car is not quite done yet. Now’s the time for us to help him up, patch up his wounds, and start reaping vengeance on his behalf. The only way to do this is to create a country worth living in. If Shaun Abrahams and his gangster friends have given us less than nothing, let’s take from them our dignity, our pride, and our future. We owe ourselves at least that much. DM

Photo: Forgive us Goodfellas, especially Ray Liotta.

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa

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