Do you recall the weird sangfroid that settled over the commentariat post-Cyril Ramaphosa’s ascendancy? It has now congealed into a primal scream of exquisite panic.
Example? We’ve learned in the last several days that Carl Niehaus, a lunatic toady yanked from a primary school production of Dr. Strangelove, has against every conceivable odds stacked against him managed to send the ZAR trotting obediently after the Venezuelan Bolívar. (And they say white people have no pull in this country.)
If Niehaus is now in charge of our economic policy — and for all intents and purposes, he is — then we have entered new territory, an upending regarding which the literary theorist Lionel Trilling once wrote:
“Now and then, it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself.”
Yes, but what moral life? Revising itself into what? This is a country where an auditor for the state broadcaster recently survived an assassination attempt — where oversight comes with a death sentence. Indeed, where oversight itself has become a sort of a game — an endless karaoke night during which all is a copy of a copy, and where every day offers a new devolution, a new obscenity flung into the governance abyss.
The one thing we have going for us? We’re not a Saudi Arabian-style theocracy.
No, seriously. The Constitution is designed to shield us from the influence of the Big Colonial Import In The Sky. The theory goes something like this: The subversion and erasure of indigenous faiths, replaced by an Overlord with zero sense of humour, was the dark genius of Western colonialism. Post-apartheid South Africa was meant to enshrine the right to believe, but also to definitively separate church and state in the manner of most secular democracies.
In practice, it goes something like this: In a recent landmark High Court judgment regarding religion in public schools, we are reminded that interpretation of the Constitution is fuzzy in this respect — South Africa is not a properly secular state in the way that liberals like to imagine it is. Religion is allowed to do what religion does: Influence. This means that respect for the division between our governance institutions and the church/synagogue/mosque comes down to… good manners.
But look around you, pilgrim. All over in the world — Turkey, the United States, Russia — religious conservatives, or fake religious conservatives, insist that faith underpins their office, and that their office underpins their faith. Which brings us, in a biblical way, to the Public Protector, and the speech that may define how South Africa sputters through the dregs of the Ramaphosa presidency.
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Last Friday, during an address to the Sheriff’s Society of South Africa, Busisiwe Mkhwebane announced that she was ordained by God to serve in her office.
This is not a misinterpretation of her words. It’s not an exaggeration of her meaning. In a country that was once governed by hardcore Calvinists who employed their religion to justify a segregationist regime that I’m almost certain Jesus wouldn’t have endorsed, South Africans tend to get touchy about this stuff. Mkhwebane is, of course, a member in good standing of the anti-Ramaphosa camp — a Zuma-era relic who has made a habit of handing down shoddy reports which by now routinely fail to pass the smell test. (She denies this, as does her office.) Among the radical economic transformation set — Schnell, Niehaus! — she’s a hero. Among the radical socio-economic transformation set — huzzah, Gordhan! — she’s a goat.
Her speech last Friday is unlikely to have changed any minds.
Regardless, the slow creep of religiosity into South African political life was something the former president both tacitly and overtly encouraged. Zuma performed his famous “the ANC will rule until Jesus comes” mic drop in 2008, but that was just one of many such declarations — the rest just failed to filter into the mainstream. Indeed, the Shagger in Chief JZ was endlessly big on JC:
“The sins we have today are more than those that Jesus came to salvage. I ask the priests to ask God to send His son to come back again to cleanse our sins,” he begged, back during the 2014 national election campaign.
In two critical appointments that ended up undermining his presidency, Zuma consciously picked devout Christians to serve as both the Chief Justice and the Public Protector. The former was Mogoeng Mogoeng, and I was among a number of journalists and commentators who believed that the relatively inexperienced judge would conflate his master in heaven with his master on earth. This happens all the time, and Zuma was counting on it happening here.
In a recent frank-ish interview with the Sunday Times, Mogoeng himself admitted that those criticisms were warranted. And while the Chief Justice vowed that his beliefs would not interfere with his gavel-bashing, he claimed that his beliefs and the Constitution in fact aligned:
“I believe that we can only become a better people if religion could be allowed to influence the laws that govern our daily lives, starting with the Constitution of any country,” he said. “The Constitution and pieces of legislation already in place generally bear a striking resemblance to Christian principles in many respects.”
Recently, he prayed for a whopping three minutes during the opening of Parliament, and he handed Ramaphosa a Bible during the presidential inauguration. Both are cutting it fine when it comes to the constitutional separation of church and state.
So let’s just say that Jesus has made a comeback. And Mkhwebane’s predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, was certainly not exempt from nodding repeatedly to the Big Man upstairs. Her private Twitter feed was littered with prayers and references to the benevolence of the Almighty. Which was her right, of course. And Madonsela was relentless when it came to doing her job — her faith, she has said, impelled her to chase the bad guys down, no matter how untouchable they believed they were. The Secure in Comfort report, her treatise on Zuma’s Nkandla scam, was by no means an ersatz religious text.
It kicked Power right in the ass.
But Zuma’s instincts were sound — the intuitive populist in him understood how religion helps gum up the works. In a clumsy way, he tried to lay the foundations for a shadow theocracy — one that would have echoed his patriarchal traditionalist approach to governing.
UBaba and Big uBaba, ruling together, until Jesus comes.
In at least one person’s mind, that’s exactly what happened. Or, rather, while the rest of us were sleeping, the conflation between Zuma and God was made manifest in some secret ceremony at which only a select few were present. (Priest, holy water and blood of Christ provided by Bosasa!)
Mkhwebane’s speech at the Sheriff Society was a statement not so much of intent, but of ethos. She portrayed herself as a victim of harassment, as someone who is accused of fighting factional battles.
“I have had a Director-General call me an ‘idiot’”, she said. “I have also had journalists calling me a ‘moron’. Another journalist took it further and brazenly used the f-word in a social media rant aimed at me. This in addition to being labelled a “Zuptoid” or a “Zupta Protector”, among many other derogatory terms.”
That said, Mkhwebane’s work has not matched her rhetoric. She will forever be defined by her twin economic adventures, in which she ordered Parliament to change the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank, then followed up with her infamous report on the ABSA/Bankorp nightmare. She appeared to have met with Zuma prior to making the latter recommendation. Both the Reserve Bank and apartheid-era bank wealth are enormous issues that deserve interrogation and debate, but Mkhwebane mangled them to such a degree that she not only removed them from the discussion pool, but branded herself a stooge in the process.
Next up, the Gordhan affair, to be followed by an apparent adverse finding regarding President Ramaphosa and the sweet sweet cash his son, Andile, received from Bosasa to help their ANC electoral campaign. As for the latter — the president has admitted to bullshitting Parliament, and his credibility deserves a whopping. Let’s see if Mkhwebane sticks the landing.
My guess is: Not so much. Mostly, because Mkhwebane’s speech gives the sense that she is beyond reproach. Very often, the media is accused of taking statements like Mkhwebane’s out of context — we’re not going to fall into that trap. Sadly, like a colostomy bag recycler at an all-you-can-eat curry buffet, I’ve compiled the PP’s tweets, deliberately not cross-referencing them with the text of her speech, because it’s the tweets that count. And so, here we go:
I know some of you may not be Christian but I strongly believe I was placed in this position by the God that I serve and I believe that only He can remove me if He is of the view that I have failed.
I assume that she means that God used Zuma as a proxy, but I can’t be sure. Maybe she means Zuma is God? Her office didn’t say. But onward:
During stormy times, I always take solace in the words of a Bishop I crossed paths with a while back. He told me a profound tale of a certain resilient old man, who was on a quest to summit Mount Everest at all costs. As the story goes, on the old man’s way up the mountain, he came across throngs of people who were going in the opposite direction. All of them were very critical of his determination to reach the pinnacle. They told him that weather conditions up the mountain were deadly, citing strong winds and blizzards. In the face of all the warnings, the old man shrugged and continued with his journey. He eventually reached the peak and made his way back shortly thereafter. On arrival at the foot of the mountain, he found all of the people that had been critical of his adventure having gathered there, waiting for him. Each of them wanted to know how he made it to the mountaintop, given the dangers posed by bad weather. It is said that next to these people stood the old man’s son who had been waiting for his father’s return. The son told the people: “My father is deaf”. The moral of the story is that, in your mission to do that which may not be popular, there will be a lot of noise from cynics and critics. The best way to reach your goal in spite of all the cynicism and criticism is to be deaf to the noise. That is the piece of advice I can give you to navigate the challenges you encounter in your work.
By no means should any of this be considered sound mountaineering advice.
But even as a religious parable, though, this is as sloppy as one of Mkhwebane’s now-notorious reports. Does hearing impairment really count as a plus when preparing to accomplish a goal without the right equipment, training or know-how? Or is that just a form of entitled stupidity? Was the old man a Sherpa? Or just a rich venture capitalist asshole who wouldn’t listen to reason, and had paid to get to the top and was damn-well gonna climb the fucker no matter how many subalterns died in the process?
But that only God can remove her from her post is not much of an exaggeration. Her speech warned of the difficulties that face those who would replace her with someone more credible. She reminded the jittery sheriffs that, “the Public Protector is appointed by the president on the recommendation of the National Assembly after the Assembly approves a resolution with a supporting vote of at least 60% of its members.” The process is transparent, spearheaded by an ad hoc committee proportionally composed of members of all parties represented in the Assembly.
“When it comes to removal from office,” she continued, “Section 194 of the Constitution is instructive. It provides that a Public Protector may only be removed from office on the grounds of incapacity, misconduct or incompetence; a finding to that effect by a committee of the National Assembly; and the adoption by the assembly of a resolution supported by at least two-thirds of its members.”
Good luck with that.
And so it must be said that the house of many mansions that Zuma built has been remarkably durable. It is stuffed with crackpots, freaks, mutants, gangsters, smugglers, assassins, tax frauds, bad poets, worse prose writers, shitty musicians and millenarian nut cases, all of which have added on anterooms, attics, additional wings and fire pools — one expansive, endless cheapskate Nkandla that has all but engulfed the country. In duping the fools and collaborators that serve as the political opposition, the appointment of Busisiwe Mkhwebane was a stroke of brilliance that can help undo the Ramaphosa presidency and maintain Zuma’s legacy for a long, long time.
There are those, including representatives at the PP’s office, who say the reaction has been an over-reaction. But I’d argue that many people in this country are reliably fucking terrified of religion oozing into institutions that are meant to guarantee us our freedom.
But Mkhwebane is not joking about God — because the battle to remove her will be biblical in its nature, the beginning of a fight that… well, I’ll let you fill in the appropriate biblical reference. Zuma’s shadow theocracy will come into the light, and Ramaphosa will live or die on how his holy, God-ordained Public Protector fills out the rest of her blessed appointment. DM