'Tis the season to be jolly, and here I am, laughing at myself. I spent the weekend agonizing about the Nene crisis and constructing a counter-revolutionary plot that might have put me in jail, then I wake up this morning and poof, Van Rooyen is gone, finance is back in steady hands and the Mad King is mortally wounded. This country!
To paraphrase my younger self, we yaw between terror and ecstasy, sometimes completing the roundtrip in just ten minutes. In this case it was 96 hours, but still: here we are, back where we started. The Rand is recovering, stocks are on the rebound and we can pop some Zamaleks and spend our Christmas bonuses on the braai.
But before we get vrot again, can I say something about what we have learned since last Wednesday evening, when the Mad King axed his chancellor of the exchequer and put SA back on the world’s front pages for all the wrong reasons?
I for one learned, or was reminded, that there are some rational centrists at the core of the ANC. These okes usually keep their heads down, but on this occasion they clearly mustered the courage to confront the King and force him into a humiliating backdown. Last Friday, Daily Maverick was tuning us that Zuma’s grip on power was unbreakable and would remain so forever, locked in place by the support of the Premier League and the patronage machine. This morning, Zuma is the walking dead. I could of course be wrong, but the speed and extent of his backdown suggests that there’s a powerful cohort of the gatvol in Luthuli House. The myth of the invincible presidency is dead and the King had better watch his back, because even now, the barons will be testing the blades of their daggers and looking for weakness.
Secondly… as the skies darkened, the nation was miraculously united in our collective horror at what Zuma had done. We experienced a frisson of togetherness during the #FeesMustFall campaign, but #ZumaMustFall was unprecedented. The commentariat rose as one, shouting foul. All opposition parties were condemnatory, the airwaves choked with everyman’s outrage. ANC insiders kept their mouths shut in public, but their silence was deafening.
In my purview, only two people stepped up to defend the president. One was ANC Youth League researcher Justin de Swardt, who noted that the King had done nothing illegal. The point being? The other was Cape Times columnist Chelsea Lotz who dismissed the fuss as the usual half-baked neo-liberal whinging. She claimed (quoting De Swardt) that when Trevor Manuel was appointed Minister of Finance back in l996, the Rand fell 22 percent overnight, while the IMF predicted SA’s economic collapse. The firestorm surrounding Des van Rooyen was more of the same, she said.
Alas, poor Jacob Zuma, that his only partisans should be so feeble. Social media watchdog David Gooding stepped forth to chirp that the rand actually rose a bit after Manuel’s appointment, while World Bank/IMF and Davos types showered the man from Athlone with honours in recognition of his sound judgment and level head.
Once Ms Lotz and Mr de Swardt were routed, the miracle reasserted itself. The DA and EFF were in agreement with the Boers at Vryheidsfront, and all other parties were right behind them. Barbara Hogan and reactionaries such as myself wound up on the same side of the barricade, chanting anti-Zuma slogans. It was amazing. It was – can I say this? – it made me want to cry. So much joint purpose and togetherness in a country where just days earlier we all seemed to hate each other.
Which brings us back to my audacious plot for counter-revolution, hatched at the darkest hour and now completely irrelevant. But let me air it anyway.
At bottom, the Nene crisis was a crisis of confidence in government integrity. Forget macroeconomics and fiscal discipline. What really got South Africa’s back up was the spectre of more shenanigans in the tendersphere. The suspicion that SAA’s Dudu Myeni wanted to alter the terms of the Airbus deal to benefit faceless intermediaries. The suspicion that President Zuma’s proposed trillion-rand nuclear build program is another pork barrel, set up to divert taxpayer bucks into the pockets of ravenous insiders clustered around the presidency. And finally, the suspicion that Zuma’s priorities had become so deformed that he was prepared to risk the wellbeing of an entire nation to get rid of a finance minister who was blocking these opaque deals.
Unhinged by my fear and misgiving, I sat down on Saturday morning and wrote a letter that began:
“Dear friends, Comrades, brothers and sisters….The country is in a death spiral. Almost everyone (including many inside the ANC itself) has now lost faith in the ANC’s ability to correct the downward trajectory. So let’s do something. Specifically, let’s start a Save Mzanzi Campaign.
“Economists believe that around 15 percent of the government’s procurement spend is being stolen or wasted. Let us therefore take 15 percent of our taxes, I declared, and give the bucks to the Save Mzanzi Fund. We’re talking about a new Defiance Campaign here, conducted openly and brazenly via newspaper ads, public meetings and bumper stickers saying, STOP WASTING OUR TAXES!!!!! SUPPORT THE SAVE MZANZI CAMPAIGN. We’d slap those stickers on our bakkies and line up outside SARS offices, offering ourselves up for arrest.
“If every company and individual tax payer joined up, the Save Mzanzi Fund would soon have around R60 billion in its coffers. To do what with? A thousand options sprang to mind, but I soon whittled them down to just one. “The money goes to subsidising mealie meal, the price of which is set to double next year,” I said. “If Tiger Brands is too chicken to cooperate, we find someone who will and flood the country with bags of cheap or even free mealie meal bearing a label saying, Brought to you by the Save Mzanzi Campaign.”
Early drafts of this manifesto contained loads of guff about New Deal-like public works programs to create jobs for the poor, but the organizational challenges defeated me. In the end, I decided to stick with the mealie meal subsidy. We all know who eats pap, and who doesn’t.
“The beauty of this idea,” I continued, “is that it sidesteps primordial racial and political loyalties. We can say, the Save Mzanzi Campaign is not against black people, or poor people. We’re not even against the ANC, per se. We’re against corruption and mismanagement. Some people in government are wasting or stealing our taxes, so our money goes straight to ‘the people’ from now on. And will continue to do so until we see real reform.”
“I am not brave,” I concluded, “but let’s not go down without a fight. Let’s show we care and at least try.” Then I hit send and sat back to see what happened.
Most recipients ignored me. A labour consultant said it was a daft idea on the ground that white capitalists would never dream of risking their necks by participating in such an illegal provocation. My lawyer expanded on this theme, noting that tax rebellion is technically high treason. Two white liberals raised half-hearted fists and cried viva, but they wanted to take legal advice before committing themselves. And my Marxist-Fanonist china Sipho (not his real name) clocked my true purpose in an instant. “This is a blueprint for bourgeois-led counter-revolution,” he said.
Sipho was right, but so what? I was seeking the common good, not my own. “Dude,” I responded, “you’ve nailed me. The counter-revolution seeks to create an alternative patronage machine that challenges the ANC’s hold on the hearts and minds of the poor while at the same time blunting what seems to be the main drive our political class — i.e. to battle your way to a position in the hierarchy where you can divert taxpayers’ money into the hands of friends who kick some of it back to you.”
Sipho said, “That’s racial profiling.”
I countered, “Well, you would say so, being a professional politician. You’re constantly threatening to strip whites of our ill-gotten gains and hand the loot over to the masses. But can you be trusted? The counter-revolution aims to make sure you keep your word; if you don’t, we’ll sidestep you entirely and give our taxes to the masses.”
Sipho fell silent at that point. Darkness fell and I went off to drink at a bar, feeling unloved and rejected. I stood alone, doomed to go to jail on my own if I carried my treasonous tax revolt to fruition. This led to more drinking still, so Sunday was lost to babbelaas. And when I woke up this morning, the nightmare was over.
But you know what? Part of me regrets the passing of that brief moment of joint purpose and togetherness. I liked it there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with my former enemies and calling down psychic thunderbolts on the presidential head. It gave real meaning to our national motto, that incomprehensible array of arcane symbols that means “Eendragt maak magt” in Khoisan. Unity is strength.
I also think the Save Mzanzi campaign was a good idea, even though I didn’t really mean it.
And finally, I must thank President Zuma for making any sacrifice unnecessary. I would have hated to spend Christmas in prison. DM