With additional reporting by Bheki Simelane
On the way to the West Rand township of Kagiso on Sunday morning, any driver travelling from Johannesburg to see President Jacob Zuma give another of those ubiquitous OR Tambo lectures would have encountered the dregs of the Old Mutual Soweto Marathon. At 10:00 the race winners were probably already back in Kenya, and the middle of the field was a terrible thing to witness: the long dead inhabitants of a disco necropolis hurling their carcasses through time and space, pit-patting on the asphalt in mid-range Nikes, as if fleeing the rump of some disaster that’s far more terrifying than death – Vegan Day at the local cemetery; an amorous gravedigger; an Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma political rally.
The media invite promised an exegesis of the life and times of the second greatest ANC president. But this was merely the ruse to sucker the press into attending a campaign event for Zuma’s preferred candidate. Dlamini Zuma would not be in attendance, but as the morning wore on, it was clear that many others in her cabal certainly would be.
If you’ve been keeping up with the ANC electoral branch-buying extravaganza, then you’re likely aware that the West Rand – the endless stretch of townships encircling the endless concrete expanse of Roodepoort – has all but been lost to the ANC, as has most of the province of Gauteng. Which is all to say that this is Cyril Ramaphosa territory, and the conventional wisdom tells us that he has the delegate-poor province all but sewn up, not that it matters much.
But the West Rand is the political stalking ground of Nomvula Mokonyane, the Minister of Department of Water and Sanitation, and Des van Rooyen, the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs. To say that they owe their vastly undistinguished political careers to Jacob Zuma would be to rather understate the case, and both were in attendance, singing for their supper. So too was David Mahlobo, former State Security minister, currently Minister of Energy.
The whole affair seemed guided vaguely by Carl Niehaus, the formerly disgraced cadre who seems to have made a stunning comeback as Dlamini Zuma’s political pilot fish (her campaign denies Niehaus has any official role). The disgraced one-time ANC spokes-hack was attired entirely in black, with a black MKMVA/NDZ ballcap perched on his grey mop. He resembled a villain in a vaudeville Western, wielding iPhones instead of six-shooters.
(What, I wonder, does Niehaus think when he’s alone? Does his brain scream from the agony of holding all the contradictions together? Does he scoop ice cream into his maw while weeping, as La Traviata blasts from an ancient turntable? Does he see flickers of normal human moral impulses?)
We got to chatting. “Just let me be clear about one thing before we get going,” said Niehaus. “I am not the spokesperson of the campaign, and nor am I the manager. There are none.”
Wait, full disclosure? Was the old Carl turning over a new leaf? I had figured he was going to tell me that he’d single-handedly created NDZ from cryogenically reanimated body parts and Beyoncé lyrics. But nope. “We haven’t created a formal structure, largely because we’re not running to be president of the country, but we are lobbying within the ANC. That’s an important distinction.”
“As it happens, I think we’re actually doing very well,” Niehaus told me. “We are making very sure our campaign is directed at the branches, at the rank and file members of the ANC. In this way, our campaign has been directed to meet the conditions of an ANC national electoral conference. We are doing well in terms of the nominations. But it is difficult to make determinations at this stage. Ultimately those branches have to go through an audit process. We have to be careful to claim easy victories.”
There always comes a point at an NDZ event when I wonder: what does the madam want with any of this nonsense? Locked in a ludicrous political equation, she loses everything by winning, and loses nothing by losing. She could easily nail herself a sinecure at the International Monetary Fund or some fancy international talk shop, buy Blahniks on 5th Avenue with her own US dollars, and remain uncontaminated by the Niehauses of the world. She’s smart enough to know that the ANC cannot further the interests of this country, just as she is likely well aware that every scheme currently promulgated – from the officially adopted National Development Plan to the free jazz improvisation of Radical Economic Transformation – is destined to smack against the wall of a nasty structural adjustment package.
Who would want to preside over that?
As an expert with many years of experience, Niehaus has a tendency to chew the cud of journalistic circumspection with bovine truculence. “The big issue she’s been pushing is the implementation of Radical Economic Transformation policy,” he said, after a few moments’ pause. “She has a great reputation as a manager and an administrator. We have not conducted our campaign on the front pages of mainstream media, but at a grass roots level, amongst the real people of the ANC, we find a deep response to the message of RET. She has said the status quo as it stands at the moment is untenable.”
That much is true. But what of the association with all the swamp creatures wandering around Kagiso’s Chief Mogale Community Centre? Surely these Zuma-era apparatchiks are a liability she doesn’t need nor want?
“She’s not being dragged into the swamp, because she’s a politician in her own right,” Niehaus reminded me. “In fact, she was a minister in Cabinet in 1994 before even Zuma was a minister. The narrative of the links between her and President Zuma – they cannot stick because she is an independent politician. And after all, they’ve been divorced for 20 years.”
“She’s got an incredible rapport with the rank and file members of the ANC,” Niehaus continued. “One of her greatest skills is that she can translate complex economic concepts into very basic and simple terms that relate directly to the grassroots. That, I find, she is unparalleled in the ANC for her ability to do so. She is very much in charge of this campaign, and it is very much her campaign. She’s a strong leader, and a good leader. Without, you know, being domineering.”
Someone came around with a food parcel. I ate the contents, down to the last green bean.
* * *
Any institution will eventually succumb to its internal inconsistencies. In the United States, the Democratic Party – essentially a Wall Street shill masquerading as a liberal political party – has imploded because the narrative has become so ridiculously incoherent. The Republicans, on the other hand, have suffered a coup from an insurgent elite, because if you lie enough about how the little guy is getting screwed, eventually he’s going to find someone rich enough to screw you.
The ANC’s problem is basically a combination of the two. Until former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was fired in December 2015, part of the ANC served as a front for Big Business, a political/corporate structure that deployed its cadres to all the right boards. In the process, comrades got stinking rich. Simultaneously, a second faction was intent of stripping State-owned Enterprises of as much wealth as possible in the shortest possible amount of time. In the process, other comrades got stinking rich. Both tacks were given cover by ostensibly progressive political programmes – the former under empowerment, the latter under transformation.
In Zuma’s second term, the whole thing went spectacularly to shit, largely because of the size of the president’s need. No one had ever anticipated a patronage network of this scale, and the people who can be counted as his dependents numbered in the hundreds. Hilariously, there are 76 Cabinet ministers and deputies, a nearly R200-million-a-year expenditure that has fried the governance mainframe. Everyone is on the take, even if they don’t know they are. Unsurprisingly, the ANC’s two primary factions, or ids, are now in a fight to the death without appreciating that they are already dead. And the whole thing devolves into a farce, which means that you find yourself talking about WhatsApp with former State Security Minister, David Mahlobo, outside a tidily renovated RDP house on Kagiso’s main drag.
Before the OR Tambo lecture, a photo-op: Zuma was to pay a visit to an old MK comrade, nom de guerre Denzo. He wore a floppy ANC cowboy hat and told me that NDZ was a gift from the Lord. Next door to his pleasantly appointed home, the drums from a church service thumped unceasingly. Zuma was supposed to arrive at 11. He was two hours late. Des and Nomvula hid under a small awning. It was so blisteringly hot that I was handed a black Neihausian NDZ/MKVMA ballcap and I grasped it without protest. It was that easy to cross over to the Dark Side.
Hours drifted by. I watched as three Cabinet ministers pissed away a Sunday that could better have been spent, I dunno, sorting Cape Town out with some drinking water, or figuring out how to plug in a solar panel?
The wait was Beckett-ian. It was Nabokov-ian. (Is there waiting in Nabokov? If not, it feels like there should have been.)
Mahlobo turned out to be a gentle guy, polite to a fault, eager to build bridges.
“There is too much misunderstanding,” he said of the disconnect between journos and politicians. “Just make the call, and we can speak.”
Along with another journalist, we chatted for an hour about the banalities of running a state security service. The admin is a ball-ache, he implied. He doesn’t tweet, he doesn’t Instagram, he has 200 Facebook friends. He’s a voyeur, not an exhibitionist, which may explain why he can destroy your house with a laser, and you’re wasting your life getting selfie elbow.
Out on the streets, the residents of Kagiso seemed not to care. The president of the republic was due to make an appearance, and there were no throngs of people, no ululating children. When the presidential motorcade finally arrived – a metal snake of 11 luxury vehicles – it looked laugh-out-loud funny in the context of a township in which no one gave a shit. When Zuma stepped out, there was finally some weary ululating. The delegation moved into the house, and the press was shoved in with him. Shortly after I entered the home, he gave me a warm smile and clasped his hands by way of greeting. This was by no means customary.
Which is when I remembered that I was still wearing the NDZ/MKMVA cap.
Clothes, as they say, maketh the man.
* * *
About 20 minutes later, Zuma was flanked by Niehaus and a bunch of other hangers-on as he walked into Chief Mogale Community Hall. There were several hundred comrades inside, many of whom had been roasting for hours.
This was uBaba’s first major-ish speech since the flap caused by Jacques Pauw’s new book, The President’s Keepers, which was currently doing the rounds as digital samizdat, a PDF passed from phone to phone like it was 1984. One of the more explosive revelations in the book was that NDZ’s campaign was being funded by cigarette smuggling money. Which begged the question: where did all the cash for these shindigs come from if not from underground Mafia cronyism?
Answers were obviously pending. Surely Zuma couldn’t ignore all this noise, and would be forced to make an explanation or, at the very least, a cigarette brand recommendation.
Not so much.
His speech was an abomination of paranoid bafflegab and self-righteous woe-is-me entitlementalism. It was like a Drake joint crossed with a 2013 Trump Tweet: it’s tough being so fukken rich and being driven around in a BMW X5, and it makes me Sad, but I deal with it.
Zuma told the West Randers in the hall that he was happy that he only had a few weeks left as president of the ANC. He was done. Kaput. Finished. He criticised those who he said were using the name of Oliver Tambo to attack other members of the party. He said he had stopped campaigning lately as he was only hoping to disappear quietly.
The president insisted that the challenges in this country were not isolated, and were not accidental. He noted that everything was being blamed on him. “Even if you lose a shoelace, you blame it on Zuma.” He said if there would be a drought, that too would be blamed on Zuma.
He’d wasted much of his water and sanitation minister’s day, so quite frankly, that didn’t sound like much of a stretch.
But then it got weird.
Zuma wanted us to understand that we were subject to a plot so nefarious and terrible that it could only have originated in the bowels of the Cold War. He said the international community was reluctant to support the ANC because of the congress’s unremitting support for communism. “Tambo turned toward the East for help, and they agreed to help with military training, food, accommodation, and other matters.”
The country that helped most, he said, was the Soviet Union.
The West hated the ANC for its links with the communist east, he reminded us. Then, in the early 1990s, the communist East dismantled socialism, which meant the West had no excuse but to support the ANC. Instead, the West instructed the apartheid regime to destroy its nuclear arsenal, so that the ANC’s newly retro commies wouldn’t get their hands on the Bomb. Due to the negotiated settlement, the ANC was forced into bed with its de facto enemies. And it’s been a nightmare since then.
In this narrative, securing a nuclear power deal with the Russians is merely a means of rebalancing the forces. But there remains serious pressure from the West, who were enraged by the BRICS engagement, and sought to destroy its members. First, Russia was whacked with sanctions following its Crimean adventures. Then the Brazilian government was undone. After that, they came for the ANC, and tried to have the regime changed through the motion of no confidence vote that happened by secret ballot in August.
At this point, I started taking notes entirely in emojis.
It’s is all a big scam, moaned Zuma, and the discord in the ANC is due entirely to outside forces. None of the very real problems in this country, Zuma was saying, were real. At the very least, he had nothing to do with causing them. That said, should there be any problems, they would be solved by the magical elixir of Radical Economic Transformation:
“This,” he said, “is a fundamental change in the structure, systems, institutions and patterns of ownership. [M]anagement and control of the economy will be in favour of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of which are African and female.”
How this connected with the West’s disdain for BRICS, I couldn’t quite figure out. But Zuma wasn’t done.
Radical economic transformation, he said, would totally liberate the people of this country. “We are in terrible times and should regard the times as such,” he moaned. Land, he promised, would make the country free.
It was a beautiful, blame-free vacuum, into which Dlamini Zuma will soon step and continue the valiant work that the president had been orchestrating for so long. No more lost shoelaces. No more drought. The Peasant of Nkandla returns home to farm chickens and binge on Stranger Things in his amphitheatre, while the doctor fixes what ails us.
To be fair, even the State Capture crew seemed mildly baffled by the whole thing, while the crowd seemed as confused as the journo pool. But it was a statement that went beyond its contents: I’m not disappearing, Zuma was saying. I’ll be here long after I’m gone. With his key allies amassed around him, Zuma was insisting that Dlamini Zuma represented continuity, a ghost presidency.
Then he and his Republican Guards filed out of the hall, and snaked their way out of Kagiso. The last of the marathon runners were long gone, and the motorcade whipped their colourful litter into a swirl. One liked to think of them still running, far far away from here, wearing their disco gear into a brave new tomorrow. DM
Photo: African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma addresses ANC members and media at the opening of the five-day ANC policy Conference, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 June 2017. EPA/STR
Green screens are green because the colour does not match any natural skin tone of an actor.