Wearing our brains on our sleeve.
19 February 2018 13:46 (South Africa)
South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: The House that Zuma built

  • 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: New ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa with Jacob Zuma in NASREC Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa, 18 December 2017. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

It’s crumbling, brick by cheap-ass brick. But what comes next? By RICHARD POPLAK

  1. Power windows

There is an astonishing passage in Lord Timothy Bell’s autobiography—yup, the Bell Pottinger chairman who helped wheedle black and white South Africans into another of their Twitter cage matches – in which the arch spin doctor details the Tory leadership switcheroo in November, 1990.

I once saw – in the most visual of demonstrations – how power shifts,” he writes.

I saw it physically cross a room. It was the day when John Major took over the role of Prime Minister. We were all gathered around Margaret [Thatcher], with most of the cabinet and some other MPs. Major hadn’t yet arrived. Everyone was chattering away, telling her what a good job she’d done, and how it had been the greatest leadership ever. Then, suddenly, Major walked in. And like a huge swarm of bees, the entire group moved, as one, in a single instantaneous surge, across the floor to surround him.”

This phenomenon has now occurred to Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, peasant of Nkandla, moonlighting President of the Republic of South Africa. Zuma already seems like an anachronism, like a fossil uncovered during the digging of pit latrines in some forlorn Karoo settlement. Political power has abandoned him in favour of his ANC successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who is now enjoying a small window of unfettered might, and appears to be loving the shit out of it.

There is one significant difference between the fall of Thatcher and the fall of Zuma: Thatcher was not a former intelligence operative with a smallanyana dossier on at least half the leadership in her party. The old man still has a few tricks up his wizard’s sleeve: the State Capture judicial commission that he belatedly initiated – mandated by the former public protector, affirmed by the courts – is entirely unnecessary given the mass of evidence compiled against the bad guys, all of it easily accessible to the prosecution authorities. And yet the ANC is going along with the charade, with some calling for the remit to be extended back to the time of the Great Zimbabwe, and others saying it must include the injustices of the Paleolithic era.

But this sort of legal fragging, while dilatory, will not stand in the Ramaphosa era, at least not at the outset. The deputy president made that clear during his maiden speech as ANC president in East London two weekends ago. The address was boilerplate old-school ANC – light on specifics, heavy on equivocations, drenched with vague but somehow glorious promises. And he delivered it beautifully, cutting seamlessly between five official languages (Zuma could manage none), acting both presidential in the political sense and presidential in the boardroom sense – the latter of far more importance to his real constituency.

Our vision is an economy that encourages and welcomes investment, offers policy certainty and addresses barriers that inhibit growth and social inclusion,” he said. “Our commitment is to build strong partnerships in which efficient and accountable government agencies, responsible citizens and businesses, effective trade unions and civil society work together for the common good.”

That reads like the logline for a neoliberal porn movie. But if the aforementioned paragraph was the speech’s thesis, its antithesis was the epic rot of the Zuma era. Ramaphosa told a heat-stunned crowd that he wanted corruption wiped away, and that he wanted punctuality to rule: every cadre in the ANC would have to set their Breitlings not to Dubai time, but to CAT. Cleanliness and efficiency; technocracy to the rescue.

The crowd seemed to be buying it. It is told that the whirring of watch stems could be heard as far north as Senegal.

  1. Three prongs and a jail cell

We must ask: what has Ramaphosa’s approach been so far? Effectively, it’s been a three-pronged attack, and you can almost lip-read Pravin Gordhan’s tactics as he whispers them into Ramaphosa’s ear.

  • One: clean up state-owned enterprises, most significantly the economic nuclear bomb better known as Eskom.
  • Two: Ramaphosa, in his capacity as deputy president, was recently granted by the courts the responsibility of appointing a sentient head of the National Prosecuting Authority, because the country’s president was apparently “conflicted” when last engaged in this process. So go ahead and do that.
  • Third: capture the decision-making bodies of the ANC which, upsettingly, set policy for the entirety of South Africa, forever. (If you think Ramaphosa is any different to his predecessors in substance, consider what he said to the attendees during the weekend’s lekgotla: “We must reiterate that the ANC is the strategic centre of power and that those deployed in government receive their mandate from, and are accountable to, the movement.” Not the people of South Africa. Not the institutions that make up government. The “movement”.)

As far as Eskom is concerned, even Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, who used to spend a considerable amount of time in a fantasy world in which the radical/reactionary dialectic of Zumanomics made sense, understood that this was the black hole in the middle of the South Africa-verse. Eskom sucked the light – but more important, literally all of the money – into its dark, dead soul. In his wanderings, Gigaba encountered in Public Enterprise minister Lynn Brown a woman of spectacular avarice and myopia, who was entirely disinterested in Eskom’s future so far is it pertained to delivering electricity. For Brown, as it has been for many hundreds of scumbags dating back to the earliest days of South African democracy, Eskom was a bank vault that could not be emptied. Fixing that entity was for saps – Eskom was to be plundered until Jesus returned.

Freaking out completely, Gigaba looked around for help, and all he heard was uBaba’s maniacal giggle echoing through the halls of Luthuli House. But last Friday night, during a meeting between Brown, Ramaphosa, Gigaba and Zuma, the new boss insisted that the power utility would now fall under the purview of a small team led by himself, along with the finance minister and Energy Minister David Mahlobo. This is still very much a B-team, but it did assemble a board of blue-chip business types, chaired by jazzy Telcom CEO Jabu Mabuza, with an interim CEO in the person of Phakamani Hadebe.

Once a key architect of the State Capture initiative, Gigaba was always expected to be one of the first to flip to Ramaphosa, and that’s exactly what’s happened. In an interview on eNCA with Karyn Maughn on Sunday, the finance minister spoke as if possessed by the spirit of Pravin Gordhan (it was Sunday, after all), and insisted that stolen state money must be claimed back, and that generally every person involved in malfeasance must do hard time. Gigaba, a political creature possessing immense acuity, understands that a political switcheroo is a mock revolution, and that if you hope to keep your head out of a bucket, it’s best to stick with the winners.

Now, along with Team Ramaphosa, Gigaba will jet off to Davos and the World Economic Forum, in order to convince investors that Eskom’s billion-dollar bond issue is a sound financial bet. If they fail, and if the market doesn’t slurp up the power utility’s debt like a journalist at an open bar during an awards ceremony, South Africa arrives at something of an existential crisis.

Indeed, the country has been robbed to the very edge of the abyss, and it would be nice if some bad people did some jail time. As far as prong two is concerned, South Africa remains the capital of Truth and Reconciliation, where mass murderers run bespoke cardiology outfits, and white-collar corporate criminals have the ear of the most powerful man in the country.

And so, Revolution, Ramaphosa style: We must forthwith chop off the head of the king, without in any way damaging his neck. The National Executive Committee has courageously agreed in principle that the president must be recalled, but they don’t want his exit to be in any way rushed or undignified.

(This brings to mind the words of St. Augustine, who said, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”)

That a not-so-petty thief like Zuma is being accorded so much respect smacks of something sinister: a deal, the terms of which are currently being negotiated.

Meanwhile, at the National Prosecuting Authority, director Shaun Abrahams has grown a prison inmate’s five o’clock shadow, perhaps in anticipation of what awaits him on the other side. Forced by his own staff to enable the Asset Forfeiture Unit to chase down billions stolen by the Gupta family, and with his head on a block belonging solely to an axe-wielding Ramaphosa, Abrahams has resorted to the usual lawfaring to maintain his unmaintainable position. Despite the dominant narrative, however, it can’t all be blamed on Abrahams, who requires the results of an investigation in order to formulate a case. In other words, he needs to be teed up by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, or Hawks, who have excelled at doing fuckall during the Zuma years, and were led by a coterie of mouth breathers – Exhibit A: Berning Ntlemeza – who were so absurdly corrupt that the entire notion of accountability submitted to the gaps between the quanta and evaporated. When the leaders of these two institutions are canned, and when they’re replaced by Ramaphosa loyalists, Zuma’s enablers and henchfolk are finished.

Some will go to jail. Others won’t. As for Zuma, nguni cattle are unlikely to survive an afternoon in the United Arab Emirates, so his agricultural pretensions may have to find another outlet.

The last element of Ramaphosa’s attack was realised over the weekend, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny the way it all turned out. The establishment of the National Working Committee by the NEC is key to how the ANC power play thrashes out in real time. Provincial warlord David Mabuza, along with the “unity” ticket within the NEC – really just a cobbled together combo meal of Zuma loyalists and those trying to establish an alternative faction that will eventually stand off against Team Ramaphosa – really did seem to imagine they could stuff the NWC with their own people. They failed, largely because they misunderstood how power, at least in the first stages of a political changeover, accrues so considerably to the winner.

The fact that Zuma praise singers Bathabile Dlamini, Nomvula Mokonyane and Tony fucking Yengeni managed to make it on to anything but a prison roll is itself an indictment of the ANC – and yet there they are, brooding their way through NWC meetings, gumming up the works. But by and large, the winners and losers now know where they stand, and the ANC’s decision-making bodies belong to Ramaphosa. Which is to say, for the time being. Because power windows often close as quickly they open.

Zuma has found that out over the past several weeks. In the highest levels of the ANC, such revelations do not seem to be a cause for much concern.

  1. Davos Man

Next up, Ramaphosa and his vast entourage will descend on Davos, Switzerland, and resume the selling of Brand South Africa to dour Europeans and Bitcoin-fattened Americans. The tectonically useless theme is, “Creating shared value in a fractured world”, but who cares about that crap? In effect, the president of the ANC and his pals have to make our debt palatable to the markets by insisting that the country is being remade in his image.

And what is Ramaphosa’s image? It is defined, of course, by the fact that he’s one of them – a ranking member of the 0.1 percent, a politician-turned-billionaire-turned politician who will end the game of silly buggers and get back to Business with a capital-B.

Indeed, as Ramaphosa’s tenure matures, it’s not too much to expect that he’ll become something of an emblem for this global hyper-class – the Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet ornament on their gleaming geopolitical Rolls Royce. He’s so urbane, so ingratiating, so unembarassed by the wealth he’s accumulated, that you can imagine him giving the keynote address at Davos in 2021, standing before newly inaugurated President Oprah Winfrey, extolling the virtues of steady-as-she-goes economic policies while throwing the odd sop to the diminishing “radical” wing in the ANC, who sit brooding in the mansions of their gangster benefactors, remembering the days when state-owned enterprises were easy marks, and “tender” described something other than a steak at the Grill House.

In a perfectly imperfect world, the corporate/gangster state ecosystem sustains itself, guided ever so gently by Obamas or Clintons or Blairs or Merkels or Macrons and their backers. Occasionally, shysters like Marcus Jooste or Jacob Zuma, through a combination of outrageous greed and boundless stupidity, blow up the whole game. Some of these idiots go to jail; others live put their days in abject cupidity in fake countries with no extradition treaties. And as for the populist ructions that appear to define the world in 2018? They are momentary blips in the geologically-measured neoliberal time-stream – institutional Big Money always wins.

And Cyril Ramaphosa represents nothing more so than he does institutional big money. We have thus returned to the ANC’s factory default setting – a centrist party in the centre of nothing. What makes this iteration slightly exceptional is that the gangsters now hide in plain view – we’re speaking here of Mabuza and (Lord help us) Secretary-General Ace Magashule. The smartest among them are biding their time, waiting for the inevitable upheavals in the street so they can jump on the next radical transformation bandwagon to pass them by.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa’s power lasts until the national elections of 2019. If he delivers – if he re-ups his energy stores and moves to the next level – he lives another day. If he loses Gauteng (to whom, I have no idea), and if the party drops below a 50% majority in Parliament, he’s done.

Power shifts, and quickly. We are enveloped in one of those moments right now. And yet, we should by no means mistake it for anything other than it is: an ANC grandee, having his day, while the future plots challenges that are unimaginable right now, and for which the system he represents is entirely unequipped to manage.

These are his salad days. The meat course will be unpleasant, and not only for the meat. DM

Photo: New ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa with Jacob Zuma in NASREC Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa, 18 December 2017. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

  • 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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