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DEEP BLUE : Impenetrable mysteries in South African politics


Nic Borain is a political analyst, writer and garlic farmer. He advises financial market investors about South African politics and is currently top ranked in the Politics and Industrial relations category of the Financial Mail Analyst of the Year ranking.

That Jacob Zuma is ridiculous or stupid, or both, is a particularly jaundiced starting point for much of what passes for analysis of South African politics. But why he is in power is really no mystery. Who would you trust after centuries of exploitation by white and Western power? Answer that, and it’s also clear why the probable future of Cyril Ramaphosa holds so little mystery.

The idea has taken hold in the shimmering minds of some among us that black South Africans are bedazzled by the great parasitic toad in Nkandla – drugged, poisoned and bundled up in frog spit and twigs, they compliantly await their turn to be ground to pulp and fed to the bloated monster.

The underlying assumption is that if black South Africans came to their senses – or, indeed, had any in the first place – they would be voting for a party other than the African National Congress. And in turn, if ANC members were not cowed or narcotised, they would have voted for someone other than Jacob Zuma as their president.

An elaboration of that idea goes something like this:

But this chap Cyril appears to be an improvement? Nice suits. Fly fishing. Maybe they’re coming around to this whole idea of government. Taken their time about it, haven’t they?


…and that other Doctor Mammy Rammy… what’s her name? Mampeli? She’s a good sort? Real meritocrat. Do you think they will go for her?

If this is your starting point South Africa will always be a terrifying mystery, the penetration of which requires a journey upriver into the heart of darkness where savagery and mythology combine in a crazed dance of blood and lust.

Yes, to Nkandla, old boy, for an engorgement. It’s the only way you will ever understand what these chaps are on about.

Well, what these chaps are on about, it seems to me from my precarious vantage point, is 700 years of unhappy meetings with white and Western power in the guise of a never ending procession of slave traders, mass murderers, plantation owners and natural and human resource robbers of all kinds.

To then get told “Come along chaps, it’s fifteen years later; that’s all ancient history time to move on”, seems to me faintly impertinent.

After 700 years who would you trust? The party you and your parents backed to represent your striving for the right to rule what you believed (probably erroneously, in the very grand scheme of things) was your own country? Might you not suspect that the alternatives could be false-flag operations for the gradually elaborating and morphing hantavirus which is Western imperialism, or at least has been your own and your daddy’s experience of that great civilising gift that has kept giving from the time of the court of King John I in Portugal in 1415 to The Pentagon sometime last week?

(Forgive a quick aside: I have no doubt that Western colonialism or imperialism might be judged something other than awful when examined on some larger scale of history. But we don’t live in geological time, we live human lives; and we are still in the thick stream of the immediate consequences of slavery, looting and degradation over a long, long time and a wide front.)

Don’t get me wrong.

The ANC of my optimistic youth is dead and gone. It has, to a significant degree, become a plunder machine for the benefit of the thugs who have stormed the control room – and much of what we see and hear from it are wafts of sentiment and the worryingly plausible threats of a capable bully.

But, and here’s the rub, the ANC must fight and win elections, it must keep the taxes flowing to, at very least, meet the basic expectations that it has established in the millions who vote for it.

And it must do this without straying beyond the limits and rules that it itself has helped establish and shape through the Constitution, and the myriad institutions and processes that the Constitution brings into being.

Okay, perhaps I should say “without being caught straying beyond such limits” or “without being effectively punished for straying beyond such limits”. Because, as is now common knowledge, the control room of the machine is currently occupied by group of individuals who have avoided justice purely by endlessly postponing it – and by playing dumb and surprised every time someone finds another out-of -wedlock child or stash of stolen loot.

But just because our Constitution, democracy and judiciary have up till now failed to apprehend these particular bad guys does not mean it is inherently incapable of doing so, or has failed in a manner that predicts endless such failures in future.

I think we have a good constitutional and institutional framework. It’s a great barrier reef of protection against the on-going consequences of those 700 years, the tides of which threaten us still.

But where we are, right now, is reminiscent, to me, of beginning to build a massive set of off-brand Lego-like toys with my children when they were little. We are at the stage where we have unpacked everything and the bits are spread out around us. We are gathered over the misprinted instructions, arguing about where the pieces fit and if, in fact, they are all there. It’s the perfect moment for the evil bastards among us to nick a bit – and the youngest or stupidest to check whether the pretty ones are edible.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting the Nkandla crew are anything like children, either in the “sweet, bumbling and harmless” way or in the “not really capable of rational evil intent” way.

It is not useful to think of Jacob Zuma as either ridiculous or stupid – but this notion is the starting point of much of what passes for analysis about South African politics. Jacob Zuma may be many things, but perhaps you should notice that he is a black man, raised by a single – domestic worker – mother, he’s been in prison for fighting against Apartheid, he came to head the sharp end of the underground ANC internal security department; seven years ago his finances where in chaos and Thabo Mbeki was busy using all the scams white people have forever pulled on black people to get him (Zuma) out of government, out of the ANC and into prison. Today it’s wall-to-wall pussy (nothing new there) and bowing and scraping and frigates and flybys and the cash is flooding in to a degree that he can start being choosy about where it comes from.

Is this the story of a stupid loser? A bumbling clown?

From my aforementioned precarious vantage point it looks to me like the story of a black man who has triumphed, beyond anyone’s imagination, over all the plagues and tribulations that history and power have heaped upon all black men and women’s heads. He is living the dream and he is living it large!

Of course, I don’t think that is a true story

I think Zuma is a ruthless securocrat, a beneficiary of corruption and an ethnic chauvinist – as well as someone who got very lucky.

I am forced to rely on Zuma’s public record to make reach that supposition. It is a simple matter of toting up Zuma’s various key appointments (military, intelligence, police), checking to see what other people have been successfully tried and sentenced for (Shaik), and which legislation he (Zuma) has spoken for or championed (Traditional Courts Bill). There is a whole lot more, but this is not the time or place.

But Zuma has just swept the boards at Mangaung for reasons that might be more complicated than just those mentioned above – it is, however, certainly no major mystery.

The final point I want to make concerns who Nkandla can trust and with what. It has been bruited about that Zuma and his cronies will probably never allow Cyril Ramaphosa to assume the presidency because he cannot be trusted not to reinstitute the corruption charges – whereas Lindiwe Sisulu or Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma could be so trusted (Mail & Guardian, 22 February 2013 – also in various other places).

I obviously don’t know whether in fact there is a plan to slap Ramaphosa aside, say after he has helped the ANC to victory in 2014. However, I would be entirely unsurprised; just as I would be unsurprised if we are witnessing such a “slapping aside” of Zwelinzima Vavi.

What do Zuma, Zuma and Sisulu have in common that they don’t share with Vavi and Ramaphosa? The first three were immersed in the exile and prison culture of the ANC, of the bitter war of survival, where myriad decisions were made in the deepest secrecy and then defended with one’s life and sometimes with the lives of others. These were decisions of war councils and political military committees and often dealt in life and death, and routinely involved breaking many laws that had nothing do with Apartheid and political repression.

When you have stood together in such an enterprise and never baulked and you’ve kept the faith – you might be trusted with the undoubtedly distasteful task of keeping ex-president Jacob Zuma safe from prosecution – “For the Movement comrade, for our country”.

You can’t have come of age politically in the mass-democratic movements and trade unions of the 1980s and buy into that deeply repressive, damaged and damaging impulse that binds the core of this ANC together – which is why it is entirely feasible to me that the Nkandla crew have other plans for Ramaphosa.

No mystery there, either.

Mass hysteria does exist and large aggregates of human choices (say for the Happy Meal or second-hand BMWs) are sometimes justifiably seen as great mysteries. But the phenomena of black South Africans’ choice (until now) of the ANC and the ANC’s choice (until now) of Jacob Zuma and Jacob Zuma’s possible choice for someone more “trustworthy” than Cyril Ramaphosa have such obvious (possible) explanations that they are barely mysteries and certainly not impenetrable ones for anyone with even the smallest facility for empathy. DM

* Less the supercomputer and more a profane and gloomy outlook


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