If you’ve ever seen a magic show, you’ll know about sleight of hand. The magician conducts what appears to be a completely ordinary or natural gesture, and using misdirection or natural choreography, can make coins appear out of thin air, or to appear to dispose of a lit cigarette and relight a new one, as was demonstrated in the famous Penn and Teller skit.
Misdirection plays a big part in illusionary magic. Often, grand flourishes or the performer’s instructions to the audience (“look carefully at this hand” is a common one) serve to move your eye away from where the actual switch is being performed. The best magicians will fool your eye, even though you know you’re being fooled.
Penn and Teller explain sleight of hand:
Sleight of hand has been performed to great effect in South African politics. There are two great examples, and both exhibited the same tell-tale signals to those who were watching closely. The first is the outrage directed at cartoonist Zapiro after he drew the “Zuma raping justice” cartoon. The second is the series of co-ordinated attacks directed at Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza.
Khoza’s comments weren’t widely reported at the outset. Business Day was the publication that bothered to dig through the Nedbank report, and then select a few paragraphs from it to make a point. In fact, Business Day published an editorial after that, loudly applauding Khoza’s “courage”.
According to Business Day, “No South African business leader, black or white, has thrown such criticism at a sitting president, let alone a government, since 1994”. Even if that is true, this is hardly the most significant or stinging criticism of the ANC government that has ever been delivered.
The ANC had the choice to ignore Khoza, and no one besides Business Day’s clique of earnest letter writers would have cared. But they didn’t. Why not?
Think back to the day when ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe delivered his retort to Khoza. It was just after the most bizarre press conference at Luthuli House in several years. The ANC national officials (the top six people in the ANC, including the president, secretary-general and treasurer) announced that they would be holding a joint press conference.
Speculation was rife after the announcement. What was this extraordinary meeting going to be about? Were the national officials about to announce that the national executive committee was so sick of Julius Malema that he was going to be summarily expelled, disciplinary hearings be damned? Were some provincial executive committees about to be disbanded? No. The national officials wanted to announce that they were united and not fighting among themselves.
There is more than enough evidence to discount that claim. The Daily Maverick thought the real point of the conference was to strengthen Zuma and his allies by having the two men – Kgalema Motlanthe and Mathews Phosa – being touted by the president’s opponents as replacements right by his side. The heavy-handedness of it all suggested that Zuma had taken the threat his opponents presented very seriously. In any case, there was plenty for the media to analyse. That never happened. Zuma’s people seemed very eager to avoid that.
After Mantashe’s comments, the focus shifted away from the conference itself and fixated itself on the Khoza vs ANC spat.
The tell-tale sign I spoke of earlier is the neat way in which Zuma’s allies lined up to condemn Khoza.
After Mantashe sprang out of the blocks first, police minister Nathi Mthethwa was next. “Dr Khoza holds in contempt the democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people, and casts the millions that voted this government into power as stupid,” he wrote in an opinion piece published by the ANC.
Next was Cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi, who called Khoza’s assertion “disingenuous” before trotting out a lengthy shopping list of government spending.
Higher education minister and communist party general secretary Blade Nzimande also took to the ANC’s website to call Khoza a part of the “ideological third force” which fears black majority rule.
Nzimande will probably not be the last Zuma ally to say something about Khoza. They will keep lining up to say something for as long as it takes to make sure that the issue of the engineered unity among the national officials is no longer in the public eye.
The extraordinary co-ordination it must take to get all these leaders, who have different focuses and agendas, to streamline their communications suggests orders from the very top.
In the meantime, the column inches have been filled with analysis of this spat. That’s the preoccupation now.
We’ve definitely seen this sleight of hand performed before. When Zapiro drew his infamous “Rape of justice” cartoon, the condemnation he unleashed from Luthuli House and Cosatu House was a hurricane of epic proportions.
The ANC, SACP and ANC Youth League released a joint statement, calling Zapiro’s cartoon abusive. Cosatu said the cartoon was in “extremely bad taste”.
In September 2008, the noise around the fraud and corruption case of Zuma was reaching boiling point. The protests outside the court where Zuma’s case was being heard were getting increasingly frenzied. The National Prosecuting Authority was also facing great pressure to drop the charges against the ANC president. Suddenly, in the midst of all of this, everyone was mad with Zapiro.
Again, the sudden way in which this herd of cats went in the same direction indicated that the real point of the outrage against Zapiro was obfuscation. Why weren’t they angry with the cartoonist anymore? Because whatever the issue they wanted to avoid at the time no longer matters. Therefore the rage has dissipated like mist in the bask of the morning sun.
In a few months, the Khoza controversy will have been forgotten, to be replaced by the sort of news associated with an ANC election year. But the point of the ANC keeping this matter alive for a few weeks in April will perhaps not have been in vain. That news conference most likely put Zuma’s opponents on the back foot for a while. They will have needed to reconsider their strategies, and put public endorsements of Phosa and Motlanthe off for a while.
The move bought Zuma time, but only time will tell if it helped completely upset moves to unseat him in December. DM