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Rolling in the deep: national nihilism is our creed


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

Pillaging of state-owned enterprises is less about politics than it is about psychological trauma.

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.


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  • Peter Doble says:

    What a brilliant explanation! I had never thought of it like that. Professor Mbembe’s synopsis of post colonialism is absolutely spot on. Meanwhile rather than embrace structures created by the Nats they are systematically plundered and destroyed almost in a revenge fest. So the old guard is expelled or retreats into an area of alienation and denial while the new arrivals find a way to ungovern while blaming their oppressors.
    Now the pivotal issue is what comes next? Does the country continue to fail until “supported” by post colonialist capitalists or communists. It would appear the government is flirting with both.

    • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

      “it is never that simple” – so says Marianne. So Peter, don’t just point the finger at the “Nats” but remember the not-insignificant role the English of Her Majesty played in colonialism too. Let’s just be fair in apportioning blame… Also, I don’t remember the Afrikaner burning English institutions after escaping from the yoke of British rule, so does the psychological explanation offered for blacks’ behavior not hold true in this instance? I’m in agreement with your “pivotal issue” question – how to move forward? Where is the vision amongst political leaders? In fact, where are the political leaders? Not a single one in sight…

  • Pam Henderson says:

    Dear Marianne. You are so right. Thank you for giving us perspective.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thanks for a very thought provoking article! If it is sought to destroy the SOEs on the basis of their historical origins, why does the government refuse to ultimately shut them down when they are basically looted. Then they would be gone for good. But instead of shutting them down and privatising the particular service they provided, they insist on keeping them and pouring and pouring more and more money into them. It is primarily rapacious greed that keeps seeking more funds to feed from, and needs to expand on a larger and larger scale, destroying more and more. They also don’t want the private sector taking over providing the services which the SOEs can no longer provide. It is exactly like a cancer, that will ultimately kill the country if it is not stopped somehow once and for all. Whether it is terminal already certainly seems very touch and go.

  • Johannes Dieterich says:

    Great piece, Marianne! Thank you.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Thank you Marriane for setting us out on the road to understanding how we got from there to here. Exclusion, alienation and extraction are clearly the major contributors. They have generated a society characterised by extreme inequality, deep ethnic divisions and conflict, a society that is in an advanced state of social disintegration. Who knows how much social damage the migrant labour system inflicted? You are right to ask the question about how do we start restoring the social fabric.
    We clearly need institutions that draw us together as South Africans. A constitution based on simple majority cannot do this unless political leaders see the critical need to work together rather than trying to further their own power base. We also need to understand the critical need to restore cohesive values – to this end education and housing are the key focus areas for turning the country around. We need some high profile short term actions that give hope and longer term widely supported strategies to address inequality of which poverty and unemployment are critical subsets. And alongside all of this, we have to fight crime tooth and nail and remove criminal leaders from society. The big positive about South Africa is that its people have amazing abilities to achieve excellence in so many fields. This nightmare can be turned around.

  • Mpumi Bikitsha says:

    Thank you so much Marianne for this brilliant piece. You remind us to read, go back to our history to get a clear perspective of what’s going on. Yes, there’s lots of anger right now and sadly it leads to lots of vitriol which takes us nowhere. The young leaders we wish to take over need to educate themselves with this history too in order to fully grasp why we’re here and how we could change it.

  • Janie Rorke says:

    Very interesting article. There would seem to be two choices when one has left the yoke of tyranny. Create a new life using what’s available or destroy what’s available. The Afrikaner definitely built its people to become a nation, that cannot be said for our current xenophobic, crooked leaders system.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    “Those who needed to “eat a little” cost the country R12-billion a year, we have learnt.”

    When adding the costs of load shedding to the equation, based on the Dailymaverick article “The shocking true cost of rolling blackouts — trillions, not billions”, we get to crazy numbers that are all mainly due to the ANCs greed and the people supporting it. At what point is the trauma of the past not an excuse for the personal responsibility of each corrupt individual to not completely destroy the country and the lives of most of the people in it? Let’s not forget that many of these people (upper ANC) in power are generally already eating very well off tax payers dime, with high salaries and alot of perks etc.
    I am worried that such narratives will be used to excuse the behavior of rampant theft for personal gain no matter the consequences as just another consequence of apartheid, thereby absolving them of any guilt. And that cannot be the way forward either.

  • Piet Scott says:

    I’ve been wondering about the reasoning and justification for the white-anting myself Marianne. Perhaps a few seeds were also planted during all those years in exile? Donations from Scandinavia came with strings attached, remember the bank robberies and car hijackings? These were carried out by contractors or those recruited by the ANC for the special skills they had in ‘procurement’. Many cadres today are living testimony of Smuts Ngonyama’s ‘I did not struggle to be poor’ statement. When you’ve lived outside the law for so long (apartheid South Africa’s criminal law and all it represented was held in particular contempt) old habits die hard. Now if you consider yourself on the breadline and life (according to you) isn’t fair, wouldn’t it make sense to sidle up to those who can afford to wash their hands in 15 year-old whisky and offer your services with, say, a screwdriver?

  • Craig King says:

    It continues to be the white man’s fault. Go it.

  • cjg grobler says:

    Why must we study history to excuse what is happening now. History is in the eye of the interpreter it seems there are attempts to exonerate the preparators of crime against the poor. We are in the here and now and we must buckle up and face facts. What is happening at the moment is TREASON

  • Richard Thompson says:

    So it’s not their fault, right, Marianne?

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    I fear this analysis, as valid and necessary as it is to gain a complete understanding of what we’re dealing with, distracts by virtue of excluding other significant considerations. To what do we put down the looting of the pandemic funds (called a crime against humanity by this publication)? The insane levels of corruption in municipalities, where councilors and their friends’ looting directly impact their own communities? The violence and rape perpetuated by criminals in the population at large? Our tacit support of the war criminal Putin? Etc etc. Our problems are much bigger than the demise of SOE’s, and the reasons do not only necessitate invoking past injustices, but also a present lack of basic morality and accountability.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A sobering and thought provoking analysis … and not claiming to be ‘authoritative’ or the final word and one respondent suggested . One has to take into account that Madiba (influenced heavily by the ethical standards of Tutu) as one of the most significant leaders of the ‘liberation’ movement in SA had no illusions about the missteps such a movement could take under misguided leadership . On various occasions he publicly cautioned us about its corrosive influence. That entire generation of respectful and considered leadership with a firm grasp of non-racialism has been replaced by loud and self serving persons with a nationalistic (if not neo racist) bent. Many with a penchant for authoritarianism and outmoded ideologies .

  • Epsilon Indi says:

    It does not matter the reason, the corruption in SA has nearly destroyed the country, seeking to excuse the behaviour of the corrupt is intolerable. A psychopath is made not born, childhood trauma results in a male ( psychopaths are mostly male ) who is incapable of empathising with others which often results in him committing violent and cruel acts of murder and torture. Does society not punish the psychopath merely because he was made and not born ? Does society ignore the culpability of the psychopath himself and assign it rather to his childhood tormentors ? The answer to both these questions is NO. Society assigns culpability and consequences to the individual psychopath not anyone else, the unfortunate childhood trauma of the psychopath is irrelevant. Similarly, using a biased theory by a clearly biased academic, who from his record loathes the West, to excuse individuals responsible for the corruption and destruction of SA parastatals and other organs of state flies in the face of modern justice and Judeo-Christian morality. To insist that parastatals are “legitimate targets of attack” is immoral and objectionable, clearly this journalist has been blinded by her bias and needs to reflect on precisely how much journalistic objectivity and integrity she retains. Every human being on this planet has a choice between right and wrong, as do the corrupt individuals in SA, however they consistently CHOOSE to be IMMORAL for which there is no excuse.

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