Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 5 June 2013

Behind stone walls

There have been a few minor shake-ups in South Africa’s Stonewall Charts recently. So here’s the current countdown. For a few weeks Dina Pule was queen of the top 10, only to be sent tumbling by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe. Back on the playlist following Tuesday’s platinum hit performance at the Farlam Commission is national police commissioner Riah Phiyega, while Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi holds onto his position thanks to that evergreen favourite, Nkandla. Still topping the SA charts, though, at number one, for more than 200 weeks now, is Jacob “Stonewall” Zuma, spinning his gold, platinum and diamond bestseller, “Trust me, I’m the president”. But even he pales in comparison to the master himself, Comrade Bob.

The Merriam Webster dictionary says that to stonewall is to: “Delay or block (a request, process, or person) by refusing to answer questions or by giving evasive replies, especially in politics.”

Stonewalling is a tried and tested political technique. And as South Africans have come to know, it generally works. After a few attempts to ram the stone wall the press get tired and move on to find another wall to sniff around (the use of mixed metaphors is a favourite tactic of stonewallers – it confuses things and leaves the questioner’s head spinning).

The past few weeks have provided some remarkable examples of stonewalling. In fact, we should ask Coca-Cola to do a Countdown. Each week a few new stonewalls enter the charts, and the number one risks being knocked off.

For a few weeks running, Dina Pule has been the Queen of Stonewall. Methinks that there is a very scared boyfriend-cum-companion-cum-“acting deputy minister” hiding behind that big old wall. Fantastically, the minister’s stone wall has grown by a few metres because of the efforts of her loyal spokesperson. Mr Wisani Ngobeni has taken the Sunday Times to the ombudsman, hoping to get some additional blocks of stones to top things up – perhaps they are building a fortress?

Minister Pule was knocked off the top spot for a while by her colleague, Jeff Radebe. The serious and angry face he made while denouncing those who use name-dropping as a strategy to access national key points was a classic stonewall tactic. Feign indignation but give nothing away. All information must remain behind the stone wall. Somewhere behind that stone wall perhaps there are some papers charging the Guptas with grand corruption?
Speaking of charges, on Tuesday, when Riyah Phiyega again went before the Farlam Commission, she suggested that the police operation during the unrest at Marikana last year was carried out in a “humane manner”. She is now officially back in play as the Stonewall Chief. Her refusal to understand the audio tape in which police officers are clearly heard talking about their “dastardly deeds” (to use a phrase used by someone on the wrong side of the whole pitiful debacle) represents a personal best in a career that has been replete with sticks and stones… none of which have broken any of her bones.

There is no doubt, however, that Minister Thulas Nxesi deserves special mention. As the lead minister on Nkandla, his stone walls are fortified. In fact, they have had some security upgrades, so they may be impossible to scale and they are surrounded by many, many gates. It is impossible to tell how much the gates cost, let alone what the upgrades were for. But if there is anyone who can dig a hole under stone foundations and creep through a bunker, it is one Lindiwe Mazibuko. Minister beware, she’s a master blaster.

The reality is, however, that all of these stonewallers are really just amateurs in the presence of the biggest and baddest of them all. Their boss, his Excellence Jacob Zuma, is smart enough to have erected many walls rather than having only one point of weakness. But even he can’t touch Uncle Bob, lover of Grace, father of Bellarmine (wow, there’s a name), hero of the nation.

Mr Mugabe has learned that the best approach to evasion is to spectacularly and unequivocally change the subject. While others are silly enough to agree to go on Hardtalk to have stones thrown over their walls, Uncle Bob is all about the soft-focus lens. He doesn’t want to talk about hateful and wretched things, he wants to talk about love. He is all about lunch with Dali. Why evade questions about human rights and rule of law when love is in the air?

In the end, as always, Uncle Bob teaches us all an important lesson, which is why he is sitting on top of this week’s charts. The best stonewalls are actually mirages. They are holograms intended to enchant and beguile. The best holograms engender a feeling of brotherly and sisterly love – they don’t put people off.  By the time we are done “oohing” and “ahhing” we have forgotten the question, and the stonewaller is eating his last bite of dessert before taking an afternoon stroll. Behind the high stone walls, of course. DM


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