21st century, the age of hostile takeovers

Photos by EPA (Trump) and Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick (Zuma)

In 2006, in my first political column, I addressed the growing rumours that the then vice-president Jacob Zuma’s faction could possibly shear off the ANC’s body and create a new party that would compete with it in the 2009 national elections.

First published in Daily Maverick 168

Nonsense, I opined. Why start from scratch, waste incredible efforts and massive amounts of money (even if you could raise it) to establish a new political brand without much history and still have to compete against the incumbent faction that controls one of the world’s most recognised brands?

It was much more logical that Zuma’s faction would stay inside the ANC and attempt to take it over from within. Which is exactly what happened: After a strong campaign that effectively channelled rank-and-file grievances, Zuma & Co soundly beat Mbeki & Co at the 2007 Polokwane conference.

What happened afterwards was a great lecture in modern politics: The disgruntled losers decided to leave the ANC and create Cope. I remember asking: The people who created Cope were the very same politicians who were useless as Cabinet ministers when they had all the power and resources of the national government at their disposal – how will they manage once they actually must work their way up from scratch?

Cope all but does not exist any more, in case you need a reminder. That ‘actual work’ turned out to be too much. Zuma’s takeover of the party lasted 10 years. And while Zuma took over the ANC, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh took over South Africa itself.

Being from India, they could not engage directly in politics but could engage in purchasing the leading figures of South Africa. Even for the cheap bunch that the Guptas were, buying Zuma was surprisingly inexpensive: R500,000 here, silent partnership there, and taking care of some of his children as well. In return, they not only got to partake in many tenders, but over time control almost the entire government apparatus.

Moving abroad, another name you might have heard: Donald J Trump. His special genius was in identifying what has, over the decades, become an essence of the Republican Party: racism and anti-immigration sentiment, disregard for science and hatred for the intellectual elite.

Trump was no GOP-er; in fact, he mostly donated to the Democrats, but he knew where his path to power was.

Instead of wasting time on pursuing an ordinary political career, Trump hit the unsuspecting party straight in the head. By crystalising and defining the deeply held lowest common denominator, and knowing that the rest of the GOP would fall in line (as they always do), Trump was able to pull off the greatest con of all time – and become the world’s most powerful man.

Once in power, he became susceptible to the tricks we explained in the Zuma chapter: His businesses needed support, like his hotel in Washington; his daughter needed permissions, like her trademarks in China; his son-in-law needed gigantic loans from the Middle East and China to help save his equally gigantic fail in buying the 666 Fifth Avenue skyscraper. His Turkish, Azerbaijani, Chinese and other businesses also needed greasing.

These are but three of many examples of how unstable the politics of the 21st century are. In these internet times, the top politicians are not sitting in their untouchable towers any more. They are personally exposed more than ever to influences from every corner. A timeous and well-placed payment can influence politics on many issues, a strategic bet can capture the president and a country, and owning a dangerous idea can bring the world to one’s feet.

It is a profoundly hazardous development. It disenfranchises millions of activists who believe in their parties and subscribe to their values. To have hundreds of millions of people express their democratic wishes only to be denied their rights by the well-placed few makes a mockery of any democracy.

Make no mistake, influencing politicians, lobbying for special interests and pulling strings from behind is nothing new. But being able to come out of nowhere, and to be so surgically precise in order to take over an entire country, or even the world, appears to be one of the gravest threats to modern democracy.

These days, the widespread availability of relatively inexpensive tools (social media, hacking, misinformation and disinformation campaigns) can enable just about anyone to attack, and aim high.

How do we protect democracies from these destructive modern threats? Can we protect them at all? We must start by ensuring that populists are not voted into power, that our elected representatives are not in financial distress or an apparent counterintelligence target. More than anything, we must vote wisely. DM168

PS: It has been a few hours since I wrote these words. I have to admit, they filled me with profound sadness and alarm. We have no chance, hey?


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  • What makes us vulnerable is that we have learnt to concentrate on facts but are now placed in opposition to people who trade only in narratives that appeal to desperate people.

    If reason and democracy are to prevail there are two things we must start learning to do before it gets too much later:

    1. Choose sustainable solutions to the growing problems of an increasingly desperate population.
    2. Build strong narratives around the data that supports the choice of those solutions.

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