The metaphorical ventilator
Let’s begin with a morality tale. Following the meltdown of one of the world’s oldest and most powerful parliamentary democracies, a shaggy, glib opportunist of no identifiable political ideology emerges as the only member of a denuded ruling class capable of winning an election.
Regarding the most pressing matter facing his country in several generations – Brexit – he appeared to support both sides of the argument, eventually settling on the one that afforded him the greatest chance of professional advancement. Now occupying the highest office in his land, and with that last matter rendered quaint by the emergence of an unprecedented (if widely prophesied) global pandemic, he scoffed at the available science, admitting that he’d kept shaking hands like a proper English gentleman until the last possible opportunity. Shortly thereafter, he landed himself in an ICU.
As his enemies always suspected would be the case, albeit under circumstances they never could have imagined, he has squirrelled out of hard work, and is absent during the moment when leadership is most required.
Moral of the story: being clever isn’t the same as being smart.
Indeed, Covid-19 karma operates with uncommon savagery. Eastern mystics once allowed that the karmic loop could take centuries or millennia to resolve – by not acting like an asshole, you were protecting your great-great-great grandchildren’s grandchildren from comeuppance. The lesson for the new political elite is that history moves so quickly that a bad decision yesterday can lead to a metaphorical ventilator tomorrow.
Or an unmetaphorical ventilator, as the case may be.
It’s apparently bad form these days to write without sufficient patriotic fervour — crisis statism depends, above all, on the sentimentality of the bourgeoisie. But I think it’s fair to say that, 11 days into the lockdown, this government gets mixed grades for its performance.
Cyril Ramaphosa is not Boris Johnson or Donald Trump — he is a rational creature who enjoys the polite company of fellow-minded hyper-wealthy 21st-century adults; he does not for a second believe that instinct is the defining political impetus.
Ramaphosa is a deliberator, and his tightly ring-fenced executive office operates along the highest standards of modern technocratic excellence. His health minister, Zweli Mkhize, is a vastly capable former medical doctor with decades of administrative experience, and has become a global bureaucratic superstar with his calm, science-based, best-guess decision-making.
By locking South Africa down early enough, we are told, many lives have been saved.
It is not, however, incidental to this story that Ramaphosa is one of the richest men in the country. Like it or not, fanboys — he presides over what amounts to a plutocracy. Much of the Covid-19 chatter in South Africa has centred around the efforts of the billionaire class to contribute to relief efforts for small business and the like — a top-down 0.1%-led public/private collaboration intended to help lessen the lockdown’s debilitating economic fallout. Unlike the vast majority of South Africans, Johann Rupert, Patrice Motsepe and their fellow billionaires are awarded the privilege of making decisions about how their hard-earned tax-sheltered money will be spent over the course of the crisis.
In effect, they have purchased chunks of governance.
I mention all of this because it’s important to identify how the ruling caste functions, and to point out how dissociated it has become from the South African prosaic. Ramaphosa has been rich for a very long time — he and his people have no clue what life is like on the ground in this country anymore. Just as dangerously, they don’t really know much about the rank and file in their party. Which is where choices of expediency made last year are starting to bite us in the backside.
I’m speaking here about Ramaphosa’s questionable Cabinet appointments, which weren’t as bad as with his first Cabinet that was still laden with state-capturers, but the bar, in that case, was so low that sea anemones were nesting on top of it. During a later reshuffle, wizened political commentators told us that Ramaphosa had no choice but to include mouthbreathers like Fikile Mbalula and Bheki Cele as transport minister and police minister respectively, to say nothing of actually malevolent baddies like Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu, or Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.
It’s the way these things work, they insisted.
Ja, well: There’s not much more to say about Cele except that he’s used the lockdown regulations as a means of instigating a patriarchal alcohol-free theocracy that transforms South Africa into an open-air prison for the poor. (Bonus points: he gets to imprison crime in the home without addressing the underlying social issues that lead to crime in the first place.) In the transport portfolio, Mbalula has squandered an opportunity for the government to enter into a parlay with the taxi federation that could have led to lasting transformation, and thus the lockdown regulations are being set not by the state, but by a private organisation protecting its own interests.
What these men fail to understand is that, by not wanting ourselves or our loved ones to die of Covid-19 in a crowded hallway in a local clinic, tough choices have been imposed on us as a society, choices that will have an unimaginable impact on our collective and individual futures: trillions of rand of lost productivity; millions of hours of lost education; the loss of important civil liberties.
Into this mess saunters Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, one of a number of ANC young guns who have proved as compromised and foolish as the old guns – a surprise to no one who has even cursorily followed the Congress over the last several years. Ndabeni-Abrahams has treated the SABC, the centrepiece of her brief, as ANC TV. She was once confused as to the whereabouts of Switzerland, where she was accused of having taken her husband on a taxpayer-inspired anniversary trip.
Now, along with Zulu, who two weeks ago did a fine Marie Antoinette impression and dismissed the seriousness of the virus, Ndabeni-Abrahams has been caught in a bind. She was photographed enjoying a meal at the home of Mduduzi Manana, an ANC lifer who once held the deputy minister of higher education and training position. Manana’s notoriety dates back to 2017, after he assaulted three women at a nightclub, a ghastly act of violence that was caught on a cellphone camera. Pleading guilty and being sentenced to a year in prison (or a R100,000 fine, which he paid) did not, of course, disqualify him from continuing his position as an ANC backbencher. Despite his retirement from official duties, he remains very much in the fold.
Hence, the Instagram post.
The now-deleted picture depicts Manana, his family, and Ndabeni-Abrahams enjoying a meal in a dining room that looks like it’s lifted from the soulless house in the Oscar-winning film Parasite. (The New York Times writer Amanda Hess has written a brilliant piece that touches on the lifeless architecture that features in pandemic-related celebrity social media posts.) As per the lockdown regulations, the two ANC luminaries have no right to be enjoying this social occasion – the parties are confined to their own homes, just like you and me.
The Insta post has this sense of postlapsarian decadence, as if it were painted by Rembrandt at the foothills of the Apocalypse. There they sit, oblivious to their entitlement — or revelling in it — while 54 million people fight for their lives.
Manana and Ndabeni-Abrahams are not alone in breaking the rules. But they are members of the governing party — hacks that should on paper have a stake in what comes next. They just don’t give a fuck, and why should they: the ANC doesn’t traffic in accountability. Ramaphosa has “summoned” Ndabeni-Abrahams to discuss her indiscretions; the man is famously incapable of a harsh word. In the meantime, Manana’s foundation – the man has a foundation, I shit you not! – has issued an explanation, something to do with “gloves, masks and sanitisers” which Ndabeni-Abrahams had offered to deliver to “Fourways students”. According to the foundation’s statement, she stopped in to grab the essential provisions, and decided to have a quick chow.
The ANC lies as a matter of course, but this porky pie felt a little more gruesome than most. People in this country are suffering in previously unimaginable ways – we are all about to learn that there is no discernible bottom. Power and entitlement are proving to be poor indicators for survival – there appears to be a new biblical accountability afoot. The ANC will not survive the wrath, especially if it fails to understand the enormity of the situation facing us all.
If high-ranking members of the government don’t grasp that they need to lead by example during the most dangerous moment in modern history – if they don’t understand the gravity of the situation we’re facing – then this lockdown is going to result in an unpleasant reckoning that Ramaphosa and his technocrats won’t be able to halt. Ndabeni-Abrahams was among those who were happy to push for citizens to give up their rights and their way of life – as communications minister, she has influence over how we are tracked and corralled by our digital devices. And yet when she announced the government’s intention to become infinitely more invasive, she didn’t blink. She isn’t young blood. She’s an old-school wannabe autocrat with new toys.
In this way, Ndabeni-Abrahams is standard issue ANC. But the times are changing, and she’ll find the masses that she hopes to track are less accepting of her indiscretions. She and her comrades should heed the deathbed musings of the last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, who, as he lay dying in 1707, dictated the following words to his son, Azam:
“I came alone and I go as a stranger. The instant which has passed in power has left only sorrow behind it. I have not been the guardian and protector of the Empire. Life, so valuable, has been squandered in vain. God was in my heart but I could not see him. Life is transient. The past is gone and there is no hope for the future. The whole imperial army is like me: bewildered, perturbed, separated from God, quaking like quicksilver. I fear my punishment. Though I have a firm hope in God’s grace, yet for my deeds anxiety ever remains with me.”
Desperation spreads across the land. Police brutality for the poor; brunch for the ruling elite — this is no longer an acceptable equation. After tens of thousands of years, karma appears to have run out of patience. DM
Update: On Wednesday morning, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that he had suspended Ndabeni-Abrahams for two months, one of which was unpaid.