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ANC has perhaps confused ‘clean up the party’ with ‘launder reputations of criminals’

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Chris Roper is deputy director of Code for Africa, a director of the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting, and most recently held the position of editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. He was founding portal manager of Tiscali World Online, portal manager for MWEB, and Editor-in-Chief at 24.com. He was a Knight Fellow for the ICFJ from 2015 - 2019.

So much of what we see around us is surreal. How on Earth can we be voting in an election where the governing party itself has pointed out that almost 100 of its own candidates are suspected of acts of corruption?

Anyone who read Zumas Zombies, Marianne Thamm’s story in last weeks Daily Maverick DM168 newspaper, would probably have been as appalled as I was. It was about “the sycophants who paid a high price for their blind political loyalty to Msholozi”, and included a collation of the long list of ANC members who so happily facilitated what she calls “Jacob Zumas long rampage to kleptocracy”.

Thamm wrote about those who had been held accountable, either by law or circumstance, but also about the much, much larger number who have gotten away with it.

I know what you’re going to say. Why am I so surprised? I’m not Cyril “Shocked” Ramaphosa, and it’s not as if the rampant corruption and crime detailed in Thamm’s story are new. They’ve all been exposed over the preceding years, thanks to the great investigative work of journalists from a number of reputable news titles, and in some cases, thanks to the bravery of whistle-blowers. But all together on a page, it just looks more … discouraging, I guess. More enervating.

But the really shocking thing isn’t how much corruption there has been. It’s the fact that many of the people in the story are still happily going about their venal business as if nothing has happened. Even worse, despite the ANC’s own integrity (LOL) commission red-flagging 97 members, some of whom were implicated in the State Capture enquiry, the ANC has chosen to ignore that and include them on the elections list submitted to the IEC.

One fears that the ANC might have confused their PR phrase “clean up the party” with the more accurate “launder the reputations of criminals”. Or “alleged criminals”, as they prefer to be known.

One could expend many words on discussing how we got here, and on lamenting the indecent speed with which our foremost liberation party transmogrified into renifleur revolutionaries with their noses wedged in the gravy trough, apparently willing to sacrifice all democratic principles in pursuit of the not-so-mighty rouble. But perhaps as important as facing the facts about our sadly compromised democracy is how we choose to live with this reality.

The Near North is a recent book by Ivan Vladislavic, and it’s an account of trying to come to terms with, or at least an accommodation to, life in a decaying Johannesburg. I can’t do better than Jacob Dlamini’s description of the book: “Some of the most moving prose ever written about this former mining town … What a chronicle of a city in perpetual crisis.”

The Near North has the febrile, hallucinatory feel of JG Ballard’s earlier apocalyptic novels, but tempered and made gentle by a Proustian attention to the ordinary that manages to make the book both paean and threnody. Many South Africans will recognise this flowery description as essentially the condition of existence in our country today. We are living in a constant state of crisis, so we need to hold on to those rituals of existence that allow us to keep going.

So much of what we see around us is surreal. How on Earth can we be voting in an election where the governing party itself has pointed out that almost 100 of its own candidates are suspected of acts of corruption? And where one opposition party is headed by an ex-president with multiple criminal charges against him? What has happened to the sinews of our democracy?

There are many evocative passages in Vladislavic’s book as he narrates his attempts to hold on to his idea and experience of Johannesburg. “Losing territory, in the sense of access rather than ownership, undoes memory,” he writes. “As the doors to parts of this city have closed, the memories associated with them have faded. I am cut off from this past as surely as if I had emigrated. Like other exiles, I write against the fear of oblivion, tending and replenishing my file in the archive of collective memory. Recreating a place in words gives it some kind of continuance, even if the exhibit has the artificiality of a museum and cannot provide a home.”

I couldn’t help thinking of this passage while reading Thamm’s story about how Zuma and his party vultures have hollowed out our once shiny democracy. The parallels I’m making here might be overly facile, but it seems to me that, in the same way that Vladislavic walks the streets of Johannesburg in an effort to re-inscribe them into some notion of normality, the way we act out election cycles serves just to superimpose our memory of democracy over a failing superstructure.

In a section titled “What shall we do with the ashes”, Vladislavic writes about the problem of deciding where to scatter his father’s ashes in a country where graveyards are vandalised and stripped, and where access to sacral places is compromised and dangerous. He considers Our Lady of Fatima, a church his father attended, as a possible home for the ashes.

Vladislavic describes how “in the great demographic reshuffling that followed the advent of democracy, the East Rand congregations began to integrate … and reorganise themselves along new racial lines. The process took decades. By the time a Nigerian priest arrived in Springs, most of the whites had drifted away to other parishes.”

Vladislavic’s father stays with the church, and the writer relates a story his father told him: “One Sunday morning when he was taking up the collection, as he always did, he saw a man helping himself from the plate instead of putting something in. He spoke to Father Xavier about it, but he did not seem to mind. We collect the money for charity anyway, the priest said, so this man is not a thief, he’s just cutting out the middleman.”

There is a strangely seductive logic to this, even though it’s also a ridiculous logic. I’m not quite sure what lesson I draw from it. In one sense, it helps me to think about the way some of our politicians seem to believe that the people they’re always promising to lift from poverty are, in fact, themselves, so it’s more efficient for them to skim their bloated portion off the top. Perhaps there is an economy of realignment at work here, one that is proving stronger than our democratic ideals.

But the story’s arc, and the way the book describes the slow whittling away at our civil society that has taken place over the last few decades, does serve to emphasise some of the moral contradictions South Africans have had to learn to deal with.

Thamm’s article ends with this sentence, referring to the promise of change that our upcoming elections bring: “It is a moment in history when we will either succumb to the toxic charms of the venal or self-serving, or begin to rediscover common humanity and cooperation.”

The section in The Near North titled “What shall we do with the ashes” describes the July 2021 riots as starting “the day after Jacob Zuma is jailed for contempt of court, but the trouble has been a long time coming. Zuma’s supporters have been threatening violence and chaos for years, as the former president sought to evade justice on corruption charges, and now they act on the threat”.

The warning is clear. We’re at a point where the populist parties that feed like remoras over the discarded scraps of the governing shark are becoming vicious and untrammelled. We need to embrace Thamm’s call to rediscover our common humanity and cooperation. In Vladislavic’s The Near North, you will find a model of how to do this.

And it’s by not allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the inevitability of the evil that politicians will do, but by walking a path that re-inscribes the democratic ideals that we share on the sorry palimpsest of our current political reality. DM

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  • Colin Braude says:

    The ANC’s “original sin”, as an invertebrate president put it, was in 1949, when it adopted the Programme of Action — a strategy of going outside the Rule of Law. Understandable in the light of Malan’s 1948 triumph (but ignoring Gandhi’s 1947 gaining independence for India — unless you regard the ANC original sin as being founded in 1912 as a black men only party; a different discussion)

    The problem with ignoring legal niceties is of a spark that becomes a wildfire one cannot stop, like a teenager starting with petty crime moving on to the hard stuff. Landmines against enemy soldiers → attacks on an HQ, killing civilians → bombing pubs where enemy soldiers (and civilians) hang out → necklacing “your own people” — critics in your own ranks. Smuggling arms & messages across the borders → smuggling hijacked cars & drugs — see Ellis’ “The ANC in Exile”.

    While Mandela tried to be a president for all the people (unlike his successors) but Armsdeal & Sarafina II happened on his watch, closely followed by Travelgate, perhaps the urtype of ANC scams: the whistleblower, Parliament CFO Charlton, got fired, the Scorpions’ got t̲h̲e̲i̲r̲ being disbanded for prosecuting ANC MPs, many of who remained in Parliament and even the Cabinet.

    As for ANC presidents cleaning up, this is from Jacob Zuma at the 2012 congress:
    “… the ANC should be able to cleanse itself of alien tendencies which … include social distance, patronage, careerism, corruption and abuse of power;”
    — Plus ça change

    • Skinyela Skinyela says:

      Do you honestly think that the passive resistance would have worked against the Nats?

      Is this not apples and oranges, the
      India of 1947 and South Africa of
      1948?

      And other realities, like India being largely a homogeneous society compared to South Africa, and the brand colonialism practiced in
      South Africa being largely settler-colonialism compared to the one
      practiced in India.

      On the ANC being formed as black
      males only party, well… We can’t
      ignore the sensibilities of the time
      and the fact that the ANC gradually reformed and allowed women as
      full members, accepted members
      from all racial groups as long as
      they identified with the struggle
      against Apartheid-Colonialism,
      notwithstanding the laws of
      successive administrations(in that
      period) that prohibited mingling
      between and among ethnic groups.

      At times going outside the rule of law is necessary, especially if that law is immoral.

      Not going outside that immoral rule of law in order to overthrow it, will actually mean not resisting it at all.

      • D.R. W says:

        Do I honestly think that passive resistance would’ve worked?

        Yes

        Worked well for India. And let’s be absolutely frank, Umkonto were extremely poor guerrilla fighters with very little in the way of military successes.

        My take is that passive resistance in the way of economic sanctions, divestment and pariah status of white South Africans across the globe (along with dropping the gold standard) led to the downfall of the Nationalist party. Apartheid SA was economically unsustainable.

  • John Lewis says:

    Yet the likes of you constantly campaign against the DA, which is the only viable alternative to the rotten ANC and its vile spawn, including the EFF, MK, etc.

  • David Walker says:

    In the Western Cape we have severely curtailed the ANC’s incompetence and corruption to the ports and railways, police, prisons and electricity. So while the impact is damaging, it is not catastrophic. And rapidly now, we are devising our own alternatives eg metro police, MyCiti buses, solar etc. Much more to follow in due course.

  • Gavin Knox says:

    Yep, true story…

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