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The Triumph of Violence


Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor at JBS, University of Johannesburg, and the co-author of Beyond Bitcoin: Decentralised Finance and the End of Banks (with Simon Dingle).

Over the past few weeks we have read of death threats on senior ANC members. Long-time loyal members. I speak of Makhosi Khoza, an MP, and Thokozani Magwaza, the CEO of Sassa. There are no doubt others, who have perhaps decided either to keep the threats out of the public eye, or who have done the bidding of the threateners; it is not clear which individuals made the threats. But it is a matter of simple logic why.

It is not politics. It is money.

One of the under-unexamined components of a country in which state corruption thrives unchecked, as it does here, is the labyrinthine economic machine that is built under the corruption. It is not just a few connected crooks that get rich. It is a entire hierarchy of actors and systems, all benefiting to a greater or lesser degree from the careening chaos of untracked rands bouncing unpredictably off the walls of commerce – Ferraris, holidays, houses and second houses, clothes, loyalty binding patronage, vanity projects, companies bought and sold. Even guilt-assuaging acts of charity.

There are so many lives tied up in corruption, including those who collect the smallest crumbs at the bottom of the pile, that the prospect of some killjoy turning off the spigots means, quite literally, that some of them would tumble from affluence and influence to poverty and anonymity. It as not as though the beneficiaries of ill-gotten gains have secondary careers on which they can fall back.

So if a threat of violence can keep the juice flowing, then that is simple to execute – a call, an anonymous email, an SMS, a Facebook post. And in this country, if actual violence is required to consummate the threat, well, that is also simple to execute. Apparently only a few hundred rand is needed to have someone killed – there are enough willing volunteers for whom this would be an untroubled commercial transaction.

This is something quite new in our body politic. Political violence has long been a staple of our recent history, hundreds of people since 1990 have died – internecine politics, political contestation, idealogical revenge. But these skirmishes sat in the gravel of party politics – far-flung branches, small town municipalities, even up to the doors of provincial government.

But taking on MPs and CEOs is a new level of hazard. There are large matters at play here. Not mere jobs, or houses, or perks. When the numbers hit billions, as we have seen with the #GuptaLeaks, the stakes ratchet up to, well, the sort of violent kleptocracies we see elsewhere and that we imagined we would never become.

This is virgin territory – a sitting SOE CEO (an ANC appointed-cadre) and an ANC MP in good standing, threatened with death. Can you imagine the authors of these threats? Can you imagine how many others would be threatened, or worse, if a sitting government (a reformed ANC perhaps, or one of the other contenders) made a concerted effort to clean the scum off the walls? The many-cogged machine that now runs on the fuel of corruption cannot easily be dismantled, not now, and perhaps not in our lifetimes. It is simply too deeply embedded in the mechanics of governance.

We need only look to Russia to see the trajectory we’re on. With the fall of communism and the great liberation of ideas and speech came the eye-filling speeches and gauzy promises of a new age, sounding much like our own when apartheid fell. And then, later, the slow and silent construction of a machine of patronage and theft under Putin, leaving that battered country in the state in which is now trapped – a rubber-stamp Duma compromised and cowed, a place where reporters and reformers end up dead, quickly and quietly. A weary citizenry just looks the other way while billionaires strut and swagger in full view.

It is not a great leap from Russia’s Duma to SA’s Parliament. It starts with a few friendly death threats. It ends up with a Parliament cowed, not by conscience or compunction, but by cowardice and fear. DM


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