DM168 Reflection

Any colour you like: Grey convertibles rule the world

Any colour you like: Grey convertibles rule the world

What Slobodan Milošević was counting on was something I call “grey convertibles”, a layer of party officials who never cared about any ideology or greater ideal. They cared only about themselves, and themselves alone. With horror, I see it again these days.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The date was 18 September 1987, and the citizens of Serbia were treated to a never-before-experienced event: a live TV transmission of the Serbian Communist Party’s 8th conference. It was arranged by the hard-charging then-new president of the party, Slobodan Milošević (you may have heard of him).

Behind the typical party language was the talk of war, an intraparty war (Yugoslavia’s wars of the 1990s were still in the dystopian future) to the death between the long-standing and prominent Serbian leader, president Ivan Stambolić and his one-time best friend and protégé, Milošević. Technically Milošević was arguing that Stambolić’s other protégé, free-wheeling Belgrade party boss Dragiša Pavlović, should be expelled for criticising him, but everyone in Yugoslavia knew well that his real target was his mentor, Stambolić.

Many years later, I learned two points that enabled Milošević to prevail.

First, he had support from TV Serbia’s team of nationalist journalists, who followed his every word and every step, distilling them into the purest propaganda imaginable.

Milošević was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the evil genius many in the West considered him to be, but he was nevertheless frighteningly street-smart. And that is where the second point comes in: the meeting was at the Serbian party’s headquarters, and he was the one deciding the programme and the order of the discussants. So Milošević loaded the speaker top-line with the allies he could fully rely on to come out swinging for him. (Think Carl Niehaus for Ace Magashule.)

Four or five apparatchiks delivered thumping critiques of Milošević’s enemies, setting the tone for the party’s conference that overwhelmingly voted for him soon after.

So what happened? Milošević knew the members of his top leadership were primarily interested in their own survival. He knew that most were sitting there with pro-Stambolić speeches in one pocket and pro-Milošević declarations in other. Hearing all the top speakers go for broke in supporting Milošević convinced them it was indeed time for them to switch too, the sooner the better, and preferably in the loudest way possible.

Milošević’s win was a tsunami hitting Yugoslavian shores.

What Milošević was counting on was something I call “grey convertibles”, a layer of party officials who never cared about any ideology or greater ideal. They cared only about themselves, and themselves alone. They sail the choppy waves by always understanding where the power lies and recognising what comes next. The earlier they join the new powers that be, the better.

What they don’t understand, most of the time, is that the power they are joining is a mirage and that their personal decision, augmented by a thousand individual-interest moves just like theirs, is what grants torque to the swing towards the new leadership.

I saw it in South Africa the weekend after Jacob Zuma was acquitted in his 2006 rape case. A host of people suddenly woke up and felt the need to tell everyone what a great guy he was.

I saw it in July 2015, when Donald Trump insulted John McCain and the US military. No Republican had ever done it before and lived to tell the tale, but Trump’s popularity increased. Soon afterwards, the GOP senators and congressmen were queuing to kiss Trump’s ring. And, with every one of them joining, Trump’s gravity grew – to become a black hole that swallowed the entire party.

With horror, I see it again now, as top ANC leaders pronounce they prefer Zuma to the Constitution and Magashule to the ANC constitution. As you read this, another ANC NEC meeting is happening. Should the ruling party’s top body not decide on the Secretary-General’s suspension, as recommended by the integrity committee, it would be a signal he is prevailing.

Then just watch for the ANC mid-level members coming out in support of Magashule’s “radical economic transformation” axis. Should that happen, it will be the most revealing sign of the grey convertibles shifting towards the future centre of the party’s power. Again, it will be they who ultimately make it happen. Grey can turn into any colour you want.

Stories like these never end well. Having no principles also means having no morals. Grey convertibles end up anointing and serving anyone who projects power. Should the ANC’s grey convertibles conjure Ace/Zuma back into power, they will have paid a non-refundable deposit on their trip to Hell. And the whole of South Africa will be forced to join them. DM168

PS: Milošević’s 1987 win set the stage for responding populist movements in other Yugoslavian states and put in motion the wars of the 1990s, which brought death and misery to millions, ruining way too many lives (mine included).

PPS: Stambolić was murdered, on his former best friend Milosevic’s order, by the special operations unit in August 2000.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Branko’s description of the rise of authoritarianism/fascism in several parts of the globe is prescient and pertinent. It describes how in times of uncertainty and or transition, the majority of ‘people’ usually turn towards those who falsely promise the most (mainly strong ‘men’), with the dire consequences that follow. “frighteningly street smart ” is the perfect description of what Trump has to done to the American psyche on both sides of ‘isle’ where even the ‘left’ (even professors and academics) have bought into the mirage of American ‘greatness’ and regularly deploy it in their discourse. That it is limited to military power and economic hegemony as compared to moral or social benefits or intellectual rigour is never even questioned by major segments of the mainstream parties. The writer should add to his list the example of India where a ‘street smart’ (and finger-wagging) leader has tapped into a theocratic vein and decided to commandeer the majority to insinuate all other religious groupings as a threat to their ‘greatness’ as a nation . His latest victims being farmers who have contested new farming laws introduced by his party. After almost three months of sidelining and ignoring them (while setting his goons on them), he has ‘invited’ them to ‘discussions’ – no doubt to ‘finger-wag’ them into submission and ignore their unambiguous and clear demand for the ‘repeal’ (not suspension) of the new laws. These farmers face the additional ‘crime’ of being predominantly from a ‘minority religious’ segment of the Indian community. Another Trumpian effort to make India ‘great’ … again… OR as Branko would describe it … ‘grey’ again!

  • Elmarie De Bruin says:

    Scary scary stuff.

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