I watched Robert Mugabe read that speech on Sunday night, with a wariness that suggested he was only slightly more familiar with it than internet sensation Valentina Hasan was with the lyrics of “Ken Lee”. I felt something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. There was some outrage, some disappointment, but the final component was amazement. This guy¸ I thought. Surely, surely not.
I was wrong. It surely, surely was. He conveniently mangled that speech just enough to leave the world perplexed and his own fate stalled. And it’s a testament to his ability to hang on by the fingernails that by the time he was actually replaced, it was announced with exclamation marks among Daily Maverick staff. He’s 93. Ninety-three! When I’m 93, I’ll be happy if I’m just alive and making it to the bathroom occasionally, never mind cleaving to a nearly four-decade dictatorship. I’m in my 30s (younger than Mugabe’s reign, mind) and I already see the chiropractor more than I see most of my friends. Whatever vitamins Bob’s taking, I want some.
There’s a word to describe people like Mugabe in that moment (besides “dictator”, “despot”, “tyrant”, “desperate” and other four-letter varieties). I mean “chutzpah”. Chutzpah is a strange word. Sometimes we use it with genuine admiration. Other times we use it, slightly euphemistically, when we have landed somewhere between disapproval, bewilderment, outrage, and the tiniest smidgen of envy for the spectacular nerve we have just witnessed. In that moment, I looked at Mugabe and wondered where on God’s green earth he had found that bottomless fount of audacity. The sheer bloody cheek of him, I thought. It was a political moment only 14-year-olds could adequately verbalise: I literally can’t even.
It was then that “chutzpah” came to me. Imagine if he were using those powers to zap corruption.
Watching this kind of steely resolve being misdirected is deeply frustrating. Deep down, most of us have one or two things we’d love to do or say if we weren’t too well-trained, polite, self-aware, honest or considerate. Or heck, just a little too sane. But there are people among us who have no such pricks of conscience. They’re just… pricks. Whatever is holding you and me back, there are some who are immune to it, my friends. Whatever socialisation you and I underwent, whatever qualms were put in our trolley, these brazen souls jumped the queue. They passed “Go”. They manage to mix energy, ingenuity and creativity not into a heavenly cocktail but an unmistakeable turd.
We see it every day. Insurance claim assessors can tell you all about it. Just the other day I was reading about Delaware resident Nicolas DiPuma, who claimed a fire started on his wood stove while he was cooking. Except he went on to claim that nearby coals caught fire, and in an attempt to stop the fire, he threw said bucket of coals out of the door, where they accidentally landed right in the back seat of his convertible (imagine that). On the way to the door, some of them also happened to land on his sofa. DiPuma seemed surprised when local law enforcement rocked up at his house with a few polite enquiries about insurance fraud.
South Africa has cheek in buckets, and recent headlines have delivered a bumper crop. For that matter, I’d have loved to hear that conversation between Mugabe and Zuma.
“Hey, Bob, you okay?”
“Eh, what do you mean, am I okay, Jacob? I’m fine! I’m worried about you. You are in – what do you South Africans say? In kak.”
“But you are in the middle of a c-”
“Don’t you read? It is not a coup. Just watch and learn. You are almost there, young man, but you have a way to go. Just tell them I am fine and go and deny something. Bye bye!” Click.
Well, we all know where that ended up.
But ja, there’s no shortage of chutzpah, and it’s seldom the endearing kind. Sometimes it’s more like – how shall we say it? – outright brazenness. I’ve often asked myself where the one begins and ends. The line can be murky, let’s face it. Many politicians are even dab hands at mixing a bit of both.
Example: When President Jacob Zuma tells us nobody has told him what he’s done wrong. (Read those lengthy reports, judgments and dossiers to start with, Mr President.) Or when Premier Helen Zille, who frequently massacres even social media, has choice words for journalists. Or in reborn media darling Julius Malema, who has cheerfully fashioned himself as a champion of the poor and a soldier against corruption in the ruling party. (Ja-nee, “chutzpah” alone does not cover this, although Juju does have JoJo tanks of the stuff.)
Then there are those who lean more towards outright brazenness, with a dash of cheek for garnish. For instance: Lynne Brown pouts that she wants to do some questioning of her own. Or Danny Jordaan – following accusations of rape – remains silent, then issues a statement of denial, adding that it’s not silence at all. What was it he said? “Dr Jordaan’s perceived silence in the face of such serious allegations is because of his empathy with the victims of gender-based violence.”
Special dishonourable mention goes to suspended Gauteng mental health director Dr Makgabo Manamela: of all possible excuses for skipping arbitration proceedings during the Life Esidimeni hearing, she opted to pull a sickie. As the families of 143 patients who died under her watch awaited an explanation, the irony of Dr Manamela being the one to claim ill health could not be missed. Nope, nope. It was those dying patients who needed medical care, Doctor.
And let’s not forget an education department that will run up billions in irregular expenditure but underspend on school infrastructure, when it’s been warned for years about the dangers of pit toilets. (But, as the minister blithely reminds us: There is no minister of toilets.)
All these people have one thing in common: the baffling ability to hold their heads high, batting back explanations or protestations with a straight face, under circumstances that would cause almost any reasonable person to emigrate to Antarctica. If the circumstances weren’t so horrific, the consequences so dire, it would be funny, endearing; we’d admire their confidence – yes, their chutzpah. But then reality comes crashing down. That’s the difference in the end, I guess. For the shameless, reality doesn’t feature. DM