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Jacob Zuma of Melanesia

Chris Gibbons is a veteran journalist, who anchors the award-winning The Midday Report on TalkRadio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He also presents a morning business report on Radio Algoa and edits the quarterly magazine, Directorship, for the IoDSA.

By sanctioning the early release of the ex-national police chief, Jackie Selebi, the president is simply doing what’s expected of him - looking after his wantok. 

Forget whether Jackie Selebi is ill or not. It’s irrelevant. Nor was it relevant that Schabir Shaik made such a miraculous recovery. On their deathbeds or on the first tee, both men have reaped their just rewards. To understand why, we need to visit Melanesia, and then pay a trip to Nkandla.

The importance of Melanesia in understanding politics is highlighted by American scholar Francis Fukuyama in his magisterial tome, The Origins of Political Order. At the outset, Fukuyama poses the problem of trying to comprehend why it has been so difficult to implant “modern institutions in Melanesian societies like Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.” Throw Timor-Leste and Indonesian Papua into the mix and Fukuyama tells us that all “have encountered serious difficulties in trying to construct modern states.”

Part of the problem, according to Fukuyama, is that “Melanesian society is organised tribally… The social fragmentation that exists… is extraordinary.” He explains that “Numbering anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand kinsmen, these tribes are known as wantoks, a pidgin corruption of the English words ‘one talk’, or people who speak the same language.” However, chances are that no one else speaks it: Papua New Guinea alone accounts for “more than nine hundred mutually incomprehensible languages, nearly one-sixth of all the world’s extant tongues.”

Even though South Africa has nearly a dozen official languages, we’re not in that league! Happily, language is not the root of the problem.

Fukuyama tells us that “The wantoks are led by a Big Man. No one is born a Big Man, nor can a Big Man hand that title down to his son.” Each generation decides for itself who will be the Big Man. “It falls not necessarily to those who are physically dominant but to those who have earned the community’s trust, usually on the basis of the ability to distribute pigs, shell money and other resources to members of the tribe… Without resources to distribute, he loses his status as a leader.”

It requires no great leap of the imagination to comprehend the “chaos” – Fukuyama’s word – that has followed attempts to establish Westminster-style governments in Melanesia. The Big Men head off to Parliament, intent on directing “government resources back to the wantok, to help supporters with things like school fees, burial costs and construction projects… The parliaments of PNG and the Solomons have no coherent political parties; they are full of individual leaders, each striving to bring back as much pork as possible to his or her narrow base of supporters.”

Before we visit Nkandla, however, it must be remembered that the concept of pork – as in “pork barrel politics” – originated not in Melanesia, but in the United States, sometime in the 1860s or 1870s. It has since become a commonplace and derogatory term meaning the benefits won by communities or special interest groups in exchange for giving their support to particular politicians. Derogatory – unless, of course, you’re on the receiving end. 

The Americans remain the past masters at pork barrel add-ons. A bill dealing with – say – education or healthcare will pass but only after a section has been added permitting the construction of a road here or a bridge there. So the concept of a political Big Man looking out for, or helping supporters, is understood the world over. It’s widespread – perhaps universal, even.

A key measure of political support is loyalty. In this sense a Big Man is no different from a Mafia capo. Well, at least if close examination of The Sopranos is anything to go by. Do your time as a foot soldier, become successful, receive promotion as a “made man” and then, when the Feds eventually bust you and you wind up inside, you and your family will be looked after. It’s an honour and loyalty thing, sealed by your silence, and when you emerge from Sing-Sing or Alcatraz or their modern equivalents, the tribe – the wantok – will be waiting to take you back under its wing.

The ability and determination to deliver on a promise, or to fulfil an obligation, is prized highly, not just in Mafia circles, but also in business and politics. Critics date the long, slow political demise of Britain’s Tony Blair to the moment it became clear he had no intention of delivering on his deal with Gordon Brown – the so-called Granita Pact. The Granita was a small London restaurant in which the two men – rivals at the time for the leadership of the Labour Party – agreed that Blair would have the first five years as Prime Minister, before handing over to Brown. Blair reneged and, had he been a member of the Mafia, he might well have joined The Godfather’s Lucca Brazzi in “sleeping with ‘da fishes.”

Which brings us to Nkandla and its Big Man. President Zuma, like all Big Men, whether they’re in Papua New Guinea or Washington, is delivering. As far back as 2009, the Mail & Guardian was able to reveal that the presidential homestead was being turned “into a sprawling precinct that will include a police station, helicopter pad, military clinic, visitors’ centre, parking lot….and at least three smaller houses that will serve as staff quarters”. It’s pork of the highest quality and President Zuma is showing that he’s a politician who understands these things and knows how to fulfil his obligations.

Similarly, like a good Mafia don, by securing the release of first Schabir Shaik and then Jackie Selebi, Zuma is also keeping his side of the bargain. These are the members of his greater wantok and he’s looking after them. He is not Tony Blair – he keeps his promises. This is the way the game works and it’s a question of honour.

Once again, just in case you think these things only happen in Nkandla or Port Moresby, you would do well to consider what happened in Washington on 20 January 2001. This was the final day in office of a man who had just been fêted while visiting Madiba – one President Bill Clinton. On that last day, Clinton pardoned a financier called Marc Rich. Rich owed $48-million in tax and had fled the US to Switzerland during his prosecution for tax evasion. Note that Denise Rich, his former wife, had made substantial contributions to the Clinton Library and to the Senate campaign of Mrs Hilary Clinton. Also pardoned was Susan McDougal, for contempt of court – she had refused to testify against Clinton in the Whitewater scandal. Another 138 pardons were signed – some less controversial than the ones listed, but many of which showed quite clearly that Clinton was looking after his wantok and fulfilling obligations of honour.

So, if it’s good enough for a Melanesian Big Man and a Democratic President of the United States, what’s the problem when Jacob Zuma does it? DM


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