Defend Truth


Reflections on 2020 – the delicious irony of Donald’s demise, Ace on a hot tin roof and settling into the new normal


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law. She writes in her personal capacity.

As we head towards the final days of 2020, with the tinsel up in the stores already, there is no need to be entirely joyless as we navigate our way through the Covid-19 pandemic. The United States has gone from catastrophe to a “not catastrophic” state with the election of Joe Biden. And in South Africa, the powerful Ace Magashule has been called to court to account for his role in state capture.

Just about everyone around the world was glued to their television sets or doom-scrolling through social media as America entered what now feels like a neverending election.

It was always going to be messy and ugly. For months, Donald Trump has been setting up the “it’s been rigged” narrative. He did so because he was afraid of losing the election. Ironically, though, Trump did not perform as badly as many commentators believed he would. “Never Trumper” and former GOP strategist Mike Murphy had, after all, said that America was ready to “cough Trump up” like an orange ball. That didn’t happen and at last count Trump had garnered in excess of 70 million votes, more votes than in 2016.

It does defy belief that so many Americans still believe in Trump when his presidency has been marked by lies and constitutional vandalism. But such is the nature of politics and populism. As Cas Mudde, professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, says:

“An ideology like fascism involves a holistic view of how politics, the economy, and society as a whole should be ordered. Populism doesn’t; it calls for kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it. Populists are dividers, not uniters. They split society into ‘two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other,’ and say they’re guided by the ‘will of the people’. Populists view themselves and their cause as ‘essentially moral’.”

The genius of populism is its appeal to simple binaries as opposed to the often inconvenient slow work which dealing with complexity requires. Trump does not do complexity and has mastered the art of populism.

Yet, whatever strange theories Trump, Rudy Giuliani and the spineless GOP try to conjure up, Joe Biden will be sworn in as 46th President of the United States in January. Of course the implications of Trump trying to delegitimise the election will have repercussions for American democracy long after Trump has “exited stage left”. The damage he has wrought to democratic institutions and public trust is extensive.

Amid all the post-election lies and gaslighting, it is easy to forget that Kamala Harris made history. As the daughter of immigrants – a Jamaican father and an Indian mother – Harris becomes the first black woman to ascend to the vice presidency. As European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen said, “she has broken multiple glass ceilings”. Should she end up in the White House one day, it would prove a delicious irony after the Trump years.

It is said that presidents campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Not Trump of course. The limitations of his imagination, his inability to be introspective and his narcissism don’t allow for that. So, in a beautiful and quite different moment, hearing Joe Biden quote his favourite poet, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy” was somehow refreshing.

It is probably worth quoting in full the lines Biden quoted, if only to usher in a new milieu.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.


Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky


That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term.”


For Trump, Ed Luce, the Financial Times columnist had this from Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

And so the Trump presidency will end despite frivolous lawsuits, Roger Stone’s brand of chaos and Kayleigh McEnany’s lies. It will end “full of sound and fury” as it began – dystopian to the very end.

It does not mean that “Trumpism” goes away. He garnered sufficient votes to ensure that does not happen. However, as Stephanie Burt, the Harvard professor and literary critic has said, “Things don’t always get better immediately. Progress isn’t always preordained or linear, but sometimes things do get better, and times of conflict and sadness can find resting places that are not catastrophic.”

For now, “not catastrophic” sounds just right.

Here in South Africa, ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule appeared in court in relation to fraud and corruption arising out of the R255-million Free State asbestos eradication tender in 2014. Of course Magashule has had corruption allegations swirling around him for years, specially too regarding the Estina dairy farm matter. On the latter, the Public Protector has provided Magashule with numerous free passes.

As expected there were chaotic and embarrassing scenes outside the courtroom on Friday. The usual rogues’ gallery within the ANC came out in support of Magashule to ensure that the politics of spectacle was in full throttle.

Last week Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina tweeted out a picture of himself alongside Magashule captioned, “SG is us, we are SG. No retreat no surrender.” How very sycophantic to tie one’s identity to such a compromised strong man. But we should not be surprised. There were people who declared that they would “kill for Zuma” after all.

The essence of any democracy is that the powerful are held to account. No matter the noise Magashule and his supporters make ahead of his court appearances, his appearance in court is significant. Magashule will now be compelled to account dispassionately before a court and not his supporters.

As former president Jacob Zuma is eventually finding out, being an accused in a criminal trial is a lonely place to be.

For his part Magashule used the tired Zuma playbook – everyone is out to get him and undermine the ANC. We are therefore about to find out exactly how powerful Magashule is. The ANC in the Free State is already divided about its response to the issue. The Luthuli House statement regarding Magashule’s imminent arrest was somewhat muted yet the party has not asked Magashule to step down. This is despite the ANC recommitting itself to its 2015 resolution in August that, “those accused of corruption and other serious crimes against the people, including those charged in courts, may be expected to step aside from their positions or responsibilities”.

The ANC is now taking legal advice on this. Again, none of this should surprise us. The ANC has always protected its own. It is why the party itself is in a state of dysfunction and it is why our country is still reeling after a decade of State Capture.

One can only hope that the National Prosecuting Authority has a winnable case and that justice will not only be seen to be done but will eventually be done.

As 2020 courses its way to an end, President Ramaphosa for his part called the country to that now familiar “family meeting” about the Covid-19 pandemic. Ahead of the address there was all manner of speculation regarding a more intense lockdown. This was never truly on the cards. The bottom line is that while South Africa has experienced some localised spikes, nothing points to the need for a more intense lockdown. Our recovery rate post-Covid-19 remains high and the economy needs to reopen urgently.

To that end, Ramaphosa did the sensible thing. South Africa remains on lockdown Level 1, with travel and alcohol restrictions lifted. Some balked at alcohol restrictions being lifted even as Ramaphosa warned South Africans not to gather in crowds at shebeens, bars and clubs. These events have become notorious “super-spreaders”.

The long and short of it is, however, that Ramaphosa understands that a festive season lockdown would not have been feasible in South Africa. While infection levels do not indicate the need to intensify the lockdown, Ramaphosa also knows only too well that South Africans move around during the festive season. In what has been a strange and for many, a difficult year, most South Africans are already hatching festive season plans and mentally separating from 2020.

The tinsel is up in stores around the country and the days are becoming warmer and longer. These small, comfortingly familiar signs have brought a little more normality to what has been a decidedly abnormal year.

The virus will be with us for a while yet. The state’s role is to be pragmatic about the steps it can put in place to prevent spikes. Despite all the constraints, it is doing so admirably. Masking up, distancing and avoiding large ‘super-spreader’ crowds is what is needed for now.

Until the vaccine arrives this will be, to use the cliché, the “new normal”.

Let us not be entirely joyless and hopeless as we navigate the pandemic and the responsibility that comes along with it. 2021 will have enough economic and political challenges of its own, after all.  DM



Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 3

  • I don’t know how DM does it, but the articles from their contributing journalists is so much more professional that their competition, especially the big 24. And Judith is no exception. If I had the skills, I would have like to write an article like this. But, here is my take on her key stories:
    1. Trump is a very lonely person, despite being surrounded by millions worldwide. The act of a typical dictator. He simply can’t accept that anyone else on this planet can be better than himself, regardless of the subject. However, he has now turned the mighty US into a 3rd world country, and by definition, lost the status of the most important world power. Biden would be unable to fix the problems created by Trump
    2. Mageshule is no Zuma, though he would have loved that. Despite his bravery in court posing for pictures, and his hour long speech to primarily the news camera’s, this man is scared, shit scared. He knows that he does not, even remotely, has the ever declining support of Zuma, and he knows that the evidence in this case is very solid. His aggression is likely to increase as the case develops
    3. Covid-19 is very far from being conquered. It is now spreading faster than ever before. And like Europe and the US now experiencing a wave stronger than ever before, South Africa will soon see the brunt of it rising fast and furious. Our own enforcement of regulations, such as mandatory masks, social distancing, and prevention of large gatherings is simply not happening, as seen in Bloemfortein on Friday at the Mageshule court case.

  • The aspect about people like Trump and other psychopaths (irrespective of where on the scale from moderate to extreme they are) is that they ‘destroy’ everything (including people) they touch with lies and deceit! AND they have no remorse as a part of their make up ! What makes them exceptionally destructive, is their ability to lure enablers to their ‘personal’ mission (which Judith has referred to – especially the GOP), and build a ‘cult’ from which only the very brave will escape. Mc Connell is the second in command to that process… and the electorate seems none the wiser. His marriage to a woman of colour, is not a vaccine from being another white male supremacist !

  • I expect a deluge of heartfelt baby names like Vaxine, Vaccinetta, Vacsmerelda, Vacsia for girls to dominate next year. Boys a little more tricky. Vaxé? Vaccellus?? Vacs?

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted