How’s this for the plot of a sci-fi horror trilogy: the year is 2022, the American economy is pumping, unemployment has been reduced to 1 percent, and crime is at an all-time low. In order to maintain this statistical near utopia, and thanks to the wisdom of the New Founding Fathers, once a year the United States government puts the cops and the military on ice, suspends all emergency services, and from 7pm till 7am all crime is permitted, including murder. This, the reasoning goes, allows the rage buried in the American soul an outlet: the men with the hugest guns and the hugest grievances are legally permitted to visit their murderous inclinations upon the usual targets: women and minorities. When we first encounter this holiday, it has already devolved from an insane attempt at spiritual renewal – think Thanksgiving with a TEC-9 – into an ungodly, live-streamed first person shooter. And while the initial film is told from the perspective of a rich white family, the sequels concentrate on the experiences of minorities targeted by, well, let’s just say it – the neo-Klansmen currently lauding Donald Trump on 4chan.
The dark brilliance of The Purge franchise is derived from the fact that expulsion or evacuation, however violent, has always been at the core of organised religion and politics. The films posit a queasy, if entirely plausible, scenario in which a society driven insane by consumption commits a ritual sacrifice once a year, and the sacrifice itself becomes a form of consumption. This is an easy idea to scale up or down: as anyone who has participated in a juice fast or an ayahuasca ceremony knows, there is something deeply atavistic and entirely human about hurling ones’ guts into a bucket, and paying for the pleasure. After all, the bottom of the bucket is endlessly deep, and to stare into it is to grock thousands of years of such activity, dating back, as far as the Western canon is concerned, to the story of Cain and Abel.
The 20th century went in big for this kind of thing. The Soviet regime and its satellites perfected the art of the purge, and through varying degrees of chistka partiynih ryadov – cleansing of the party ranks – they kept undesirables off the rolls. The other side was equally interested in ridding itself of its opposite: McCarthyism, as the journalist Martha Gellhorn once noted, existed as “an American mirror image of Stalin’s purges”.
Here in South Africa, the president-general of the ANC, JT Gumede, was in 1930 purged in favour of Pixley ka Seme – Gumede’s sin was that he was too communist-y, having described Soviet Russia as the “New Jerusalem” after visiting some years earlier. (In a sort of reverse purge, Gumede was honoured as Life President in 1943, the same year that the Youth League was established and a more militant streak woven into the organisation’s MO) Around the same time, Prime Minister Barry Herztog, governing in a coalition with Jan Smuts, was purged from the National Party, in part for speaking out against the Broederbond and advocating for a union between the English and Afrikaner “races”. He died a lonely man in 1942.
This is all to say that last Friday morning, a platoon of gentlemen identifying themselves as members of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, or the Hawks, entered premises belonging to the premier of the Free State, Ace Magashule, as well as the province’s department of agriculture. Their aim was to collect evidence pertaining to the Vrede Dairy Farm project, a spoof sovkhoz which diverted R220-million from an agricultural beneficiation programme meant for poor farmers, into bank accounts belonging to the Gupta family.
Holy shitballs, thought South Africans, scrolling through their Twitter feeds. The Hawks just raided offices belonging to the premier of the Free State, who just so happens to be moonlighting as the Secretary-General of the African National Congress?
It seemed so. Indeed, the Hawks had apparently roused themselves from their long slumber, and were furiously raiding and charging and summonsing – according to their spokes-hack, they’re investigating 140 corruption cases related to the whole State Capture thing. News reports insisted that Mining Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who served as Free State MEC for agriculture during the bilking of the milking, would be accused No 1 on the Vrede Dairy docket. But he was not the only bigwig in trouble: former communications minister and current holder of the Public Service and Administration portfolio, Faith Muthambi, was also on the Hawks’ to-do list, under investigation not for petty thievery but for treason. Behind the scenes, a Zuma/Ramaphosa succession plan? Were the shock troops in the State Capture project about to spend a long time in jail in order to serve as cover for Zuma’s imminent golden handshake?
Because much of Ramaphosa’s support (and ideology, such as he possesses any) derives from the establishment – big business, corporate media, people who drive Volvos – this particular purge has been welcomed, and ecstatically so. And no question, real assholes are getting the comeuppance they richly deserve. But it’s worth taking a moment to ask what actual change is being engineered, or what actual change is being considered, or what actual change is even possible in such circumstances?
What, after all, does a good purge amount to?
* * *
Here’s a clue: the super-cut of charges and investigations taking place across the country coincided with Ramaphosa and his posse visiting Davos, a Swiss village that every January provides luxury accommodation for plutocrats hoping to devise inspirational hashtags. (This year’s portentous yet meaningless theme: “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”). Following 2016’s annus horribilis, during which all sorts of boorish people won elections and referendums in previously important countries, Davos itself underwent something of a transformation. For the first time in a long time, the deplorables were winning, goddamit, and attendees were forced to spike their organic maté with low-cal vodka. It turns out that this was just a glitch in neoliberalism’s inviolable mainframe: this year, Trump played it straight after having gifted all the billionaires in town a vast tax cut, a once-in-a-generation bolstering of the Davos elite that did not go unappreciated, even if no one bowed to him in front of the cameras.
Smugness has returned, in bulk. And the fact is that the Davos set’s optimism is entirely earned: populism is not only dead, its modern incarnation never really existed at all – it was merely the result of a strain of political cynicism that for a single election cycle figured out how to communicate with people jacked on fentanyl. There is, however, another, corresponding fact: the establishment provides no palatable alternatives. Consider Obama, the ultimate Davos man – the gentle, urbane intellectual who beefed up the National Security Agency, rolled back civil liberties, escalated the drone war, extended the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (thereby immeasurably enriching arms companies), cracked down on whistle-blowers, presided over the further militarisation of the police force, failed to halt the mass incarceration of black men, and succeeded in not incarcerating corporate criminals, instead presenting them with a spaghetti-tangle of regulation that made bazzilionaires of their lawyers.
No, these people are not your friends.
Meanwhile, “it is the best moment in the global economy since the ’50s”, said Kenneth Rogoff, an international economist at Harvard University, in an interview with the New York Times. And during this moment of global bounty, due to astonishing levels of graft and ineptitude, South Africa has careened ever closer to becoming a ward of the International Monetary Fund – an achievement that not only deserves a lifetime Darwin award, but also a stern op-ed in Business Day.
Let’s consider the small print for a second. Zuma, we were promised back in the mid-zeroes, was a left-wing populist, a radical who on principle would roll back on all the “advances” South Africa had made since Jan Van Riebeeck made landfall all those years ago. But while Zuma may have been a man of the people – code for not earning a matric at St. John’s – he had no interest in populist policies. In fact, he had no interest in policies at all. The man just didn’t give any shits. While receiving payoffs from his benefactors, Zuma played it so Davos – which is to say that there was nothing radical at all about his tenure and still he started tampering with the Treasury. It’s instructive to note that during Ramaphosa’s honeymoon period, the rand has not reached historic highs, but has merely returned to the stature it enjoyed 2.5 years ago. Everything is back to normal, whatever the hell that means. And while the currency is certainly one indicator of how the South African government is behaving as far as the market is concerned, there are others. And leaving aside the jitters regarding Zuma-era policy uncertainties, the market during the Zuma years was relatively chilled, Big Business was doing just fine, and no one in a CEO position dared to speak out against the ANC and their leader.
Not one of those weaklings had a thing to say about anything. Until the firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015.
Eventually the greed exceeded even what the ANC and their corporate backers were willing to countenance, and so now the shittiest crooks in the world – Mosebenzi Zwane, Faith Muthambi, the Gupta oiks – are on the block.
What did they think was going to happen? That they’d be spared the wrath of the White Monopoly Capital faction? That their clumsiness and their piggishness would somehow be rewarded? That’s so tragically naïve an assumption that you almost want to swaddle them in cashmere and pop a dummy in their mouth. Almost.
No purge has ever spared such people – they’re appointed to help steal, sure, but also to eventually be purged. A fast rule in politics: always read the whole screenplay.
* * *
Ramaphosa’s performance in Davos, roundly praised by the local and international press, was empty if not ballasted by the ancient notion of the purge. His words literally meant nothing if the Hawks weren’t seen to be kicking ass while he spoke. Nothing he said in his speeches and interviews would have meant anything without the action on the ground. The orchestration, it must be said, was Wagnerian.
The performance of ending corruption is a key theme of transitions. But it’s a difficult tightrope to walk. During one of his Davos moments, Ramaphosa insisted that Zuma was “anxious” about his future. What a word to choose! As if the great political stick fighter succumbed to Freudian terminology! As if he was lying on a couch, spilling his guts to a bearded toff with a notepad! This was a classic case of psychological projection, defined as the phenomenon “in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others”.
Zuma may be feeling anxious about the future. But the South African establishment is sure as hell feeling anxious about the future of Zuma. To pose this as a question: How do you conduct a purge without purging the conductor? What is the utility of a half-purge, a tenth of a purge, a purge lite?
The process under way right now is all being billed, both to South Africans and the international community, as a course correction. Perhaps. (Although by no means certain that this new Hawks activity will lead to prosecutions, while Jesse Duarte, stalwart of the Top Six, has insisted that Zuma is going nowhere.) And while a purge can result in justice – justice being a tricky word in South Africa, because we’ve experienced it so seldom – it doesn’t necessarily lead to structural change. It doesn’t necessarily lead to change at all, other than some new faces in prison, leered at by a new set of wardens.
Because if a purge doesn’t take into account everyone – even if it doesn’t go back into the Dark Ages to correct every economic injustice visited upon thus blighted land – what’s the point? Who will be appeased, outside of the Davos wonks and the foreign direct investment they represent? What popular unrest will it forestall? What violence will the state one day soon unleash upon those demanding a fuller reckoning? If Jacob Zuma doesn’t do hard time, what is the fall of Mosebenzi Zwane but a satirical show trial of some foot soldier during the forgotten transition of a forgotten empire played for laughs?
No one who isn’t a disturbed utopian wearing leather chaps has ever insisted that purges necessarily lead to progress. But they can lead to a bracing renewal. Team Ramaphosa must purge, purge properly, and purge fully. And then they must build a country. If they fail to do so, and if they flub this essential political ritual, then the bottom of the bucket awaits them. The landing is rarely a soft one. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma at the Nasrec conference (Daily Maverick photo)
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