Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 6 June 2017

Those who kowtow to a Hitler or a Zuptocracy

We need another, more plausible, narrative to account for how the party of Mandela and Tutu, Sisulu and Luthuli became this monster which devoured itself to serve the greed of its elected leader and his cronies.

When the story of the Zuptocracy Era of South African history comes to be written, there will be a heap of questions which will seem as inexplicable to future historians as they do to us today. They will be much the same imponderables that litter accounts of Germany from the 1920s until 1945, the seemingly unaccountable transformation of a civilised society into a savage one. How could a man so obviously evil and corrupt secure power and hold onto it as everything around him was crumbling, as the edifice itself was becoming a charnel house?

The Germany that allowed Hitler to come to power had all the trappings of civilisation – assuming your focus is art and culture, rather than military strength, and naked ambition fuelled as much by testosterone as greed. Those who try to explain the rise of Nazism see the defeat of the German army in the First World War, the vengeful post-war settlement and the implosion of the Weimar economy as noteworthy stages on the European Via Dolorosa, as if the evils visited by the Treaty of Versailles on the German population could somehow justify the response – not merely of the Nazi leadership, but of the rank and file.

The argument – to be sustainable – requires a credibility leap which allows despair (arising from a state of relative deprivation) to legitimate a reaction which would otherwise beggar the imagination. The poor Germans, so the narrative goes – once so strong, so proud, so well-off, now forced to deal with what for them was an unimaginable fall from grace – abandoned any kind of moral compass and bought the implausible promises of the Nazis. There’s evidence that the old aristocracy went along with the rabble because they believed they could control the outcome. No doubt they thought that whatever might happen on the way to the inevitable scapegoats – Jews, gypsies, gays – were unavoidable collateral damage.

If you’re going to use this as a paradigm to understand Zuma’s ANC, you have to explain how an organisation which was once a beacon of moral purpose, peopled by some of the bravest and most righteous figures of the 20th century, allowed itself not merely to be seduced by evil, but to continue to sustain an evil purpose. You may think you can use the explanation put forward to account for why the average German came to comply with the strictures of Nazism – fear of what would happen if you refused to do as you were told.

However, this won’t fly. Even those with first-hand experience of Zuma’s ruthlessness in the camps could hardly say they did his bidding because they feared for their lives, and if indeed they knew for sure he was so bad, they had no right supporting him in the first place. We need another, more plausible, narrative to account for how the party of Mandela and Tutu, Sisulu and Luthuli became this monster which devoured itself to serve the greed of its elected leader and his cronies.

It’s probable that the pathway which in time became a 10-lane highway was the belief (more or less verbalised in the context of the arms deal) that there should be some monetary reward for the victors of the struggle: once you imbue with moral purpose theft from the coffers of the state, the principle gets established and all that’s going to change going forward is the quantum. The skim from the R40-billion arms purchase may be chicken-feed compared with the numbers that are emerging from the GuptaLeaks documents, but once you agree to open the dam wall, you can hardly object if there’s a downstream flood.

The same logic should be applied to BEE deals which enriched a select group – instead of those employed by the companies which embraced the principle. Buying your way out of the apartheid “jail” may have made sense to those who were handing over the assets (and it obviously appealed to those who were receiving them) but what kind of message did this communicate? When the Zuma faction arrived on the scene and reportedly said that the Xhosas had supped well for 12 years and now it was their turn, they were merely claiming a “rightful” place in the queue. The worst excesses of the past decade may be Zuma’s but he was merely walking a well-trodden path to the trough.

But even this doesn’t really explain the way the majority of the NEC is clinging to the wreckage. The appointment of Tina Joemat-Pettersson to the energy portfolio heralded a move in the direction of the biggest prize, a R1-trillion spend out of which even a mere 10% (half the percentage applied to the Chinese locomotive deal) would yield R100-billion. There would be costs of course: that’s why R600-million was put aside to bribe the Treasury. Allow that the NEC had to stand by Zuma while this was happening, and that some crumbs had to be allocated to keep the highest decision-making body of the ANC sweet. Budget R50-million each for at least half the members and there’s still over R95-billion for the Zuptas.

As long as the nuclear deal was in play, you could use these assumptions to explain why the moral (and electoral) crises of the Zuma government would be ignored by the NEC. But the nuclear deal is off the table for now, and hard as it might be for those who were hoping for their share of the spoils to accept this, they cannot realistically expect that it will be resurrected before the Zuma presidency has joined Ozymandias. Right now they should be looking to their political future and another chance to milk the cash-cow of the state. Throwing their support behind him in the no-confidence vote at the last NEC meeting is hardly an astute move – especially as by then the first of the GuptaLeaks was already in the public domain.

Sure, the crazy old man has been making very threatening noises lately: he’s been saying he’s going to sing like a canary. It makes you wonder what exactly he has on so many of them that they’d rather go down on the ship than weigh the doubt against the certainty and live another day. It would have to be something pretty explosive even to raise a dust cloud in the presence of what has emerged – and will continue to emerge – over the next few months. And if they all changed sides and he was out in the cold, how much damage could he do, given how busy he would be looking after Number 1? When he goes, so (quite swiftly) will the whole rotten rondawel, and with no mates at the Hawks, at the NPA, at SARS, he’s not going to have much time to carry out his threats – unless what he has to say is so inconvenient that oblivion would be a preferred alternative.

It’s hard to imagine what this could be: looking at who makes up the NEC, there’s at least one well-known wife-beater and any number of philanderers, there are countless thieves and rogues and possibly a few paedophiles. Revelations about their predilections and pastimes could make their domestic and social life deeply unpleasant, but losing your ticket on the gravy train won’t promise a happier ending: how long do you think some of those over-weight, over-dressed and over-indulged partners will hang around once the loot dries up?

Those who kowtowed to Hitler & Co did so because there’s something very permanent about a luger bullet lodged in your skull: the same excuse is not readily available for the ever-complicit majority of the NEC. Unless future revelations from the GuptaLeaks help to explain the nature of Zuma’s hold over the ANC, this may be the abiding mystery of our time. DM


"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall