South Africa


Burning and Banning books in the Orwellian barnyard

Burning and Banning books in the Orwellian barnyard
20190401 NETWERK 24 Ace Magashule, Skekretaris generaal van die ANC by Die ANC se uitvoerende kommitee vergader by die St George hotel in Irene. Foto: Deaan Vivier

The sad truth is that at some point in this journey, corporate South Africa is going to have to stand up and take a few lickings.

On Tuesday, at the launch of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture at the Sandton Exclusive Books outlet, a gang of rent-a-thugs made an appearance, and they did not seem interested in the plonk or the salmonella canapés. Moments later, they began ripping up copies of the book in an effort to intimidate and terrorise.

They were a ramshackle group, as pathetic as they were ideologically bankrupt. No one was injured. No real damage was done. (At least, nothing that Exclusive Books’ shareholders would notice.) And yet, the mini-Aces were remarkably successful in their endeavours: two days later, the Cape Town launch scheduled for Exclusive Books’ V&A Waterfront location was cancelled due to “security concerns”.

That’s a big win for Ace Magashule’s raggedy-ass supporters.

And a big loss for South African democracy.

Corporate South Africa’s record for standing up to local tyranny is, shall we say, no bueno. In fact, their record overall is a bit shady. We won’t talk here about monopolisation. We won’t talk about clouding to manipulate the currency. The less said about apartheid profiteering, the better. (It’s just not done, dahling.) And nor is this the place to delve into the deal that was made with the ANC at the dawn of democracy, one that ring-fenced white corporate interests by enriching a connected new elite. (I’m waving at you, President Ramaphosa.) But it is worth pointing out that during the worst excesses of the Mbeki years, and over the course of the outright insanity of President Jacob Zuma’s reign of error, corporate South Africa stood on the sidelines and cashed in on the chaos.

There was no outrage following the Marikana massacre. There were no CEOs decrying corruption outside of the safety of their private cigar lounges. (Compare this to Russia, where some of the oligarchs who benefited most from the fall of the Soviet Republic at least had the dignity to speak up against Putin’s autocratic impulses, which got them jailed or murdered at a rate equal to that of the regime’s other detractors.) Nope, in South Africa we got self-aggrandising initiatives like the CEO Sleep Out, where corporate titans cos-played homeless people while handing out pissant donations as their PR departments nudged them on.

Meanwhile, the real struggle was left to civil society activists, opposition politicians, artists and journalists — the latter battling away just as old, reliable revenue models dissipated like so much vapour.

It wasn’t until then-Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene was fired by Zuma in December 2015 that corporate “thought leaders” finally found a voice. With their own interests now obviously at stake, the moneyed classes began a tentative fight back, resulting in the SaveSA initiative that contributed to the anti-Zuma movement that coursed through a febrile 2017.

Predictably, after one of their own squeaked through the 2017 ANC Electoral Conference — and thus inevitably became president of the republic — the business sector was back in slumber mode. Ramaphoria was an actual word grown-ups used in conversation, without fully computing that Ace Fucking Magashule was Secretary General of the ANC, and another warlord had purchased for himself the deputy presidency.

The misplaced optimism has tanked; business confidence is in the toilet; Ramaphosa is fighting for his political life in a game so vicious that even the wily old fox that he is doesn’t entirely understand the terms. Some 18 months later, the country is still corrupt; recession and the resultant economic shock waves have left average South Africans poorer and more insecure. But while there are long faces in Sandton — it’s a kak environment right now, you see — nothing has been said or done to rock the ANC back on its heels.

Enter Pieter-Louis Mybergh’s Gangster State, which does South Africans the simple service of detailing the expeditionary adventures of one the country’s most powerful men. Ace is an existential threat — that much is obvious. But over the course of this week, a vast corporate behemoth decided to opt out of fighting it: citing security, V&A Waterfront has backed out of the Cape Town launch that was planned at the Exclusive Books shop. They left the reorganisation to Daily Maverick and Myburgh’s publisher, Penguin Random House.

(Primedia has provided an alternative venue. There are exceptions to the corporate cowardice rule, after all.)

No matter the potential liability issues — the V&A mall is full of innocent staff members and patrons — this should have been faced down and dealt with. It had a full 48 hours to make alternative plans, to involve the SAPS, to hire a phalanx of security personnel. That they chose to cancel is beyond shameful.

But intimidation always wins against South Africa’s corporates. Last year, after Vodacom placed cheeky banners of EFF leaders at their journalism awards ceremony, the party made it known that they found the images objectionable by trashing a store in Polokwane. What did Vodacom do? They apologised.

The banners were not deemed racist or hateful. Merely not to Malema’s liking.

It’s easy giving away money for journalism awards. (After all, corporate social responsibility is just good business, right?) It’s vastly more difficult living up to the principles that journalism is supposed to evince: telling truth to power, damn the consequences.

What’s so galling in this instance is that among all the scented candles and greeting cards, Exclusive Books sells … books. Some contain ideas that Ace’s thuglets may find objectionable. Will the malls that host their bookshops help remove those books from the shelves at the ruling party’s request? Will they help light the bonfire? Will the landlords from V&A Waterfront stand alongside the thugs, desecrating struggle songs in the name of state-sponsored gangsterism?

Observers of the South African political economy tend to depict government and business as two separate entities, locked in eternal conflict. This is not so. The relationship is better described as collusion — it’s just that CEOs pay for a better class of PR hacks. But if the business sector — those proud elites who lament the failure of the ANC — hope to see a material improvement in the country’s fortunes, they’re going to have to take a stand. Being a chicken-shit is a great short term strategy.

Long term, it lands you in the pot with the rest of the Orwellian barnyard. DM


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