If there is anyone rolling in the deep at the moment, it is the as yet unnamed Cabinet ministers who have allegedly behaved in a treasonous manner, aiding and abetting colossal sabotage at Eskom.
Those who needed to “eat a little” cost the country R12-billion a year, we have learnt.
And in this instance public money trickled upwards, way up, all the way to senior ANC leaders, the party itself, Cabinet ministers and various other bureaucratic parasites.
Also rolling in the dark are you and me, fellow compatriots, in the four hours or more of power blackouts that blight each and every day in this sputtering modern economy.
And finally, rolling in the deepest deep, is André de Ruyter, cyanide-poisoning survivor and former Eskom CEO, who has partially blown the lid on corruption at the entity.
The political tsunami swelling offshore as a result of De Ruyter’s revelations during an interview with journalist Annika Larsen and, later, in a detailed account by Daily Maverick’s Kevin Bloom, has yet to hit home.
Those who were rolling deeply in our cash apparently laundered it through high-end car dealerships, washed their hands in 15-year-old whisky and splurged on luxury goods.
But somehow the mere accumulation of material wealth – encouraged, of course, by billboards, Instagram influencers and glossy magazine ads – fails to explain the psychology of this kind of national nihilism.
Interestingly enough, the De Ruyter bombshells dropped a few days before Eskom was due to celebrate its centenary on 1 March.
Symbols of past power
Professor Achille Mbembe has written widely on postcolonial Africa and noted how countries emerging from colonialism (and apartheid) and the violence of these ideologies often symbolically act out this trauma.
“The postcolony is characterised by a distinctive style of political improvisation, by a tendency to excess and a lack of proportion as well as distinctive ways in which identities are multiplied, transformed and put into circulation,” wrote Mbembe.
On 1 March, 100 years ago, the Electricity Supply Commission (Escom) was established, an initiative of Hendrik van der Bijl, industrial development adviser to the Smuts government.
Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall, authors of Rogues’ Gallery, a comprehensive history of corruption in South Africa, have noted that the establishment of the utility did not come without its own corruption. (Watch our webinar with these authors.)
Already then there were vested interests – the Broederbond and the National Party – the multiplying of identity that is put into circulation, as Mbembe writes.
Back then the corruption creep had already taken root. There were no open tenders and it was the cutting of corners that led to the Free State Coalbrook mining disaster of 1960.
About 500 miners died when 900 pillars caved in 180m underground as mine bosses began “top coaling”, a method of increasing production.
This history is significant in the search for a deeper understanding of what has happened to South Africa’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
It is not “whataboutism” but rather an attempt at understanding political human nature.
SOEs like Denel, Prasa, Eskom, SAA and others were the pride of Afrikaners and a symbol of self-sufficiency. And, as with the mining industry in this country, all of these jewels were built on the backs of an oppressed and dispossessed majority.
Today these SOEs are almost level with the gravel, gone, shells of what they used to be, with assets stripped and no benefit to the country, devastating its economy and social fabric.
Read the latest on the Eskom Intelligence Files
Good breast, bad breast
In the week of the De Ruyter interview, over on Twitter, @Djotsti, who appears to be a John Baloyi, tapped out a provocative tweet: “Whether we like to accept it or not the fact [is] that Afrikaners, the tribe of Andre De Ruyter, built Eskom, Sasol, Post Office, Yscor, Spoornet. And our tribe destroyed it all in less than 20 years. Yet we seem to know who’s competent and not.”
It is never that simple.
But what would drive people, politicians, government officials and the ordinary Eskom employee, who all live in a hard-won constitutional democracy, to destroy these assets to enrich an elite and cultivate a lawless, criminal underclass of cartels and syndicates?
SOEs are an emblem of the haughty triumph of the former Nationalist government and, as such, deep down – where our minds connect with trauma – they are a legitimate target of attack.
Associate Professor Wahbie Long explored the motivations of destructive forms of rebellion in his book Nation on the Couch: Inside South Africa’s Mind (Melinda Ferguson Books 2021).
Long referred to the pioneering theory by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein of the “good and bad breast” in relation to the destructive violence that played out at South African universities during the Fees Must Fall protests of 2016.
Viewed from this perspective, “the relevance of Kleinian theory for a psychological analysis of fallism becomes obvious upon recognising the equivalence of elite institutions with the nourishing breast”.
So, in other words, universities and these SOEs fed and nurtured white South Africans in the past. Now they were expected to offer the same succour to the freed.
Long wrote that, to the fallist student at UCT, the institution “dispenses precious knowledge, financial support, networking opportunities and – above all – the promise of a life of dignity”.
But for many students who came from impoverished backgrounds, the tragedy, wrote Long, was that the internal logic of the institution remained white and alienating.
“They feel themselves deprived of the fruits they imagined a university education would confer, triggering for many the familiar feeling of deprivation.”
But the tragedy, of course, is “the more the fallists destroy the institution, the more impoverished the collective ego feels”.
The collective state of mind and body of the majority of South Africans has not improved in almost 30 years of democracy and ANC governance.
We have been so traumatised that it seems we are unable to imagine a future, some distant point on the horizon, that we collectively choose to move towards. And for any society to survive, we have to be able to do that.
It has not all been a nightmare. There is no doubt that many hands, hearts and minds are working hard, at many levels and sometimes at great personal cost, at restoring the fabric of our society through accountability, justice and a commitment to the greater good.
This is a tipping point of sorts. The pain of betrayal is deep, across the country. The governing party is going to have a tough time “self-cleansing” itself from this act of treason, should the allegations prove to be true. DM168
Marianne Thamm is the assistant editor of Daily Maverick.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.