It is unimaginably difficult to look away as parts of South Africa are literally in flames. I woke up yesterday morning (Tuesday), looked at the news and was shaken (again, as I have been over the past six months) by the serious head trauma I suffered during protests last October. I ducked back deeper into bed and tried to ignore stories of the smouldering ruins of the hate that our former president and his family seem to be spreading. You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you, a wise Russian once said. So after I dragged myself from bed I dabbled in a few things (I worked on my taxes) consciously avoiding the swirling violence from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng, but in the background I kept hearing Helen Zille’s musical notes from the letter she published last week.
The violence and looting has turned our faces away from Helen’s composition for now, but she will sing her aria over and again, as arias tend to be sung, when there is a lull in the maddening noise. And as arias tend to be Helen’s will be filled with her emotion as part of a larger piece. Since she left the leadership of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, like Agrippina the Younger, has refused to be the second lady, and insisted on being the prima donna – the centre of her own attention.
There are three main parts to Helen’s Letter; in parts a sweet mediocrity that is the church of liberalism (apologies to George Herbert). Helen’s Composition starts out gently (I want to say like Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No 1, but it verges on cruelty to place the names of Satie and Zille in the same sentence), almost gracefully, but no less deceptively, telling us almost recitatively about the kindness of Jacob Zuma in a ballad wrapped, as we would come to find, in three-part (dis)harmony.
“…shortly after I had been suspended by my own party, during a time when I was almost completely shunned by people in the DA whose lives and careers I had helped build, it was Zuma who reached out to me. I was stunned into disbelief when he made contact with and urged me to ‘have courage’ and said he understood how difficult things must be for me. This conversation was one of the few times, during that personal ordeal, when the tears streamed down my face, because this encounter was so counter-intuitive. He did not have to reach out to me.
“He had nothing at all to gain from this. This act of personal kindness reflected who he was. Yes, politics turned him into a wily and crafty man, but the real Zuma, underneath it all, often shone through. Personal warmth and empathy lay at the heart of it. It was not an affected charm. It was sincere.”
Her froideur was short-lived, as Susan Sontag (1933-2004) may have said, when her composition rose in a cadenza – an over-extended virtuosic section of swirling disharmony – and Helen the politician slipped into the stream of paleo-conservative thought, that horrendous clash of civilisations trope popularised by Samuel Huntington (those damn Muslims, Hindus and Orthodox Christians), given cadence by his devoted student, Fareed Zakaria, and that fed into the modernity-or-bust argument of once-was-neo-conservative, Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man Standing. All at once, Helen’s Composition in Three-Part Disharmony now carried the white woman’s burden. Again, dear reader, allow me the essayist’s privilege of writing something formless like “a game that creates its own rules”.
Suddenly she becomes maddening, not like the frustrating John Cage’s As Slow as Possible, but like Wagner’s Rienzi. In this Second Part of her Composition, Helen asks, “So where did it all go wrong? I have spent much time, during the past 10 years, observing and writing about politics, and especially seeking to bring Zuma to justice, trying to answer this question. At the heart of it, this tragedy is rooted in the enormous complexity of our collective decision to impose a modern constitutional democracy on what is largely a traditional, African feudal society. Former president Zuma is a traditionalist, totally unfamiliar with the concepts of constitutionalism, thrust into the role of president – whose primary duty is to serve and defend the Constitution. A total misalignment.” (Like that experiment with Mmusi Maimane, perhaps?)
To paraphrase Baudelaire on newspapers: it is impossible to read anything by Helen Zille “no matter what the day, the month, or the year, without finding the most frightful traces of perversity”.
Coming down from the cadenza, and in a vague attempt at generous parataxis (stay with me) we hear echoes of Africanist scholars and thinkers. How different, we may ask, are her claims from Chinua Achebe’s assertion that “Africa’s post-colonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our ‘colonial masters’.” What more, or different is she saying than did the African-American scholar Richard Joseph with the concept of prebendalism during Nigeria’s painful attempts to establish a sustainable democracy. Joseph used the concept of prebendalism to describe “the appropriation of state offices – notably elected officials and government workers – and the diversion of their resources to serve themselves, their cronies and their ethnic and other identity groups”.
We may ask, then, as did Wisdom Okwuoma Otaluka in his doctoral thesis in Ethics at the University of KwaZulu Natal: is corruption really in our “culture”? I think not, but I withhold my own views.
In the opening passages of his thesis, Otaluka asks (it’s worth citing at length): “Is there a cultural dimension to the problem of corruption, especially nepotism in Africa?… This cultural dimension creates some confusion on how to understand nepotism in relation to corruption in Africa. Thus, while some people denounce the high rate of corruption in Africa as it concerns nepotism, there are those who think they have justifiable reasons to engage in the practice. Still, there are others, who engage in the practice without the consciousness of the moral implication.
“Those who think that there is nothing wrong with nepotism anchor their argument on the fact that it is embedded in the culture of the people. For instance, many civil servants are involved in corruption because when they come into office, they are obliged by sense of family responsibilities to use their relatives who are not qualified against the qualified applicants who are not related to them, to build up public offices. Hence, while most civil servants are aware of the rules against nepotism, they still go ahead to indulge in the practice because they believe that such rules are contrary to African culture and therefore should not be obeyed.”
On what he described as “the moral problem of corruption” in Africa, Otaluka leaves us with questions and things to think about.
“How does nepotism enshrined with African extended families encourage corruption? While acknowledging the fact that there are other factors which cause corruption in Africa [there are] various ways in which traditional cultural practices such as nepotism (abuse of the African extended family system) contribute to corruption.”
He concludes his doctoral dissertation with the assertion that “nepotism or abuse of the African extended system featured as an African cultural practices and value that encourages corruption”.
The dissonance is between corruption, a practice ranging type from China to the US and the belief that the settler colonialists have been mistaken in trying to bring democracy to Africa – as is suggested in the second part of Helen’s Composition in Three-Part Disharmony. It reminded me of an observation by a professor at the London School of Economics almost 20 years ago who said Russia is not ready for liberal democracy because it has never had democracy. Russia, he said, went directly from 300 years of Tsarist rule to 70 years of communism, and is now (in the 1990s) attempting democracy.
There’s a lot to think about in all of this. South Africa has, indeed, gone from 400 years of colonialism, settler colonialism and apartheid, and is now battling with deepening the roots of democracy. Helen Zille will sing the same song until her dying days. But the good people cannot afford to give up on building a better, more prosperous country, and a society with high levels of trust among the population – even though the birth pains are long and sometimes unbearable. DM
*For the record, the writer cannot read nor write music, and the late James Phillips refused to teach me how to play guitar: “Not until you accept that you have the instrument we all want, a good voice.” I love music and have only read a few books, so the analogies attempted in this essay may not hang together well.