After fifty-four years away from South Africa, here is Tim Knight’s assessment of the country today, adapted from his article for The Canadian Daily. To date, it’s also run on all4Women, biznews.com and fn24.com.
It’s been two years since Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died. And every month that goes by moves South Africa further away from the democratic dream for which he lived.
The dream isn’t quite over yet. But you can sense, feel, smell, ominous signals that Madiba’s beloved country is turning into yet another African plutocratic kleptocracy, ruled by yet another noxious Big Man.
President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, the wily, self-educated Struggle veteran, seems to believe South Africa is his personal fiefdom — its rapidly dwindling wealth at his personal disposal, to spend as he wishes.
L’état, c’est moi.
Zuma’s grasp of democracy seems to extend no further than winning relatively clean general elections, firmly guaranteed under the nation’s admirably iron-clad Constitution.
Once the election formality is out of the way, however, he spends his time and energy trying to subvert that same Constitution to the huge advantage of himself and the ANC party he leads.
When he’s not challenging democracy he jets around the world attending lavish conferences, inspecting guards of honour, and cozying with such democratic luminaries as Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and war crimes in Darfur.
His new BFF is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who’s trying to sell him obscenely expensive nuclear power plants.
Jacob Zuma is a devious, manipulative politician who steals from the poor to give to himself, his family, and his cronies. A despot who takes every possible advantage of the naive, trusting, democratic side of savage capitalism.
He surrounds himself with corrupt, sycophantic incompetents who exist for no other reason than to serve and protect him. These coarse and fawning courtiers live for his smiles, dread his frowns, and — in exchange for their honour, their dignity and their very souls — live spectacularly comfortably off the leftovers from his ample table.
Zuma ranks high up there in the lengthy, ignoble pantheon of Africa’s notoriously corrupt and autocratic Big Men.
You want evidence? Check the Internet and find some 4,000 references under the heading “Charges Against Jacob Zuma.” Among them, corruption, bribery, racketeering, fraud, money-laundering and rape.
So far, protected by his high office and using every possible political and legal loophole, he’s managed to stay safely and comfortably in his lavish state residences — and out of jail.
A sick symbol of the corruption rotting away at the presidency, the ANC government and the South African public service is Nkandla, Zuma’s private home in KwaZulu-Natal.
It started out relatively modestly as Zuma’s own personal house. Then, after his election as president, someone in government decided it needed “security upgrades” appropriate to his position.
The estimate then was that South Africans would have to pay around R27-million for the upgrades. Since then the house has morphed into a compound and costs have soared to R248-million.
That’s an astounding 914% increase in only six years.
But wait, there’s more. The government says additional millions of public money are still needed to fix Nkandla’s shoddy workmanship and increase security.
And Zuma’s comfort.
South Africa’s Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, is hugely respected as a rare example of public service integrity. She’s ruled that Zuma “unduly benefitted” from improvements to his house. He should therefore pay back at least some of the money.
The leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, Mmusi Maimane, sums it up:
“The only plausible assumption is that President Zuma misused the power of his office to expand the scope of the project for his personal benefit.”
Zuma himself has simply refused to pay for any of the “security upgrades” to his private home. Not the underground bunker. Not the air conditioning. Not the cattle kraal. Not the chicken run.
And certainly not the swimming pool which flunkies claim is actually a “fire pool” — sitting there ready to provide water if the presidential mansion should catch fire.
All these problems may not be entirely Zuma’s fault, however.
He has an excellent excuse.
It’s just possible that Jacob Zuma could be a sociopath.
Definitions of sociopathy fit remarkably well with his behaviour.
Sociopaths are variously described as intelligent and charming. But also as manipulative, cunning, narcissistic, grandiose, antisocial, habitual liars, amoral and lacking any sense of moral responsibility, social conscience or remorse.
I’m a mere journalist and no psychiatrist. But in the course of my long journalistic career I’ve met lots of Big Men, including seven presidents and three prime ministers.
So I know something about people and power, and how people are seduced and how power corrupts.
Consider, if you will, Zuma’s recent speech to the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal:
“… And I argued one time with somebody who said that the country comes first, and I said as much as I understand that, I think my organisation, the ANC, comes first.”
Then there was his speech last year glorifying his wholly-owned ANC party as a religion:
“God expects us to rule this country because we are the only organisation which was blessed by pastors when it was formed. It is even blessed in Heaven. That is why we will rule until Jesus comes back.
“Those that stand in opposition to me or my party are evil and must be opposed; for they stand not only in opposition to us but in opposition to God, who has appointed and blessed us as his representatives here on earth.
“Thus, my party will remain in power forever and it will not subscribe to the will of mortal men, because it rules by divine right and, therefore, until the end of time and at God’s grace.
“Nevertheless, those who would oppose me or my party cannot be allowed to govern, irrespective of the broader democratic will, and we must stand together to prevent this from happening.”
If it quacks like a duck …
Some famous people labelled as sociopaths (some were certainly psychopaths) include Steve Jobs, Robert Mugabe, Mark Zuckerberg, Sepp Blatter, Idi Amin, François Duvalier, Bernie Madoff, Teddy Roosevelt and Vladimir Putin.
Then there’s Henry Vlll, Sherlock Holmes, Othello and at least one of my bosses over the years.
The saddest thing about South Africa today is that there’s a growing resemblance between today’s ruling once-noble ANC and its predecessor, the National Party which invented apartheid to perpetuate white supremacy and turn people of colour into third-class citizens.
Today, the same words are frequently used to describe both parties — undemocratic, totalitarian, tribal, corrupt, crony-ridden, immoral, incompetent, coercive etc. etc. etc.
This nation, once ruled by the fascist, racist, secret society called the Broederbond, is being taken over by a remarkably similar secret society, the ANC.
The party dictates policy and action to both the bloated civil service — itself riddled with nepotism and falsified résumés — and members of the ANC majority in parliament, widely derided as “trained seals”.
Jobs for pals, many of whom are demonstrably incompetent, is so blatant that serving or working in the government has become a national sick joke. Much like the old jest about the scariest words you’ll ever hear: “We’re from the government … and we’re here to help.”
It’s got so bad that it’s now news when an ANC minister or department head isn’t scorned as corrupt, incompetent, and unworthy of high office.
There are however (thank whatever gods may be) exceptions to the rot. Up there with Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, stands Auditor-General, Kimi Makwetu.
HIs audits of national and provincial governments (as well as other public bodies) are widely respected. So when his latest report reveals more than half of the departments he examined submit annual performance results with “material misstatements” he’s believed.
The worst government offenders, Makwetu charges, are the departments in charge of the most essential public services — health, education, human settlements and public works. All have “largely failed the audit test”.
Which likely means that ever more billions of rand — supposed to support hospitals, clinics and schools, clean up the country’s appalling slums, and keep water running, lights burning and roads unpotholed — simply disappears into the pockets of the powerful and corrupt.
And yet, even with all these problems, South Africa still isn’t Zimbabwe, Pakistan or Afghanistan.
That’s mostly because of the country’s 1997 Constitution — the supreme law of the land — which is widely regarded as one of the strongest and most democratic in all the world. Written into it are robust barriers against abuse of power by politicians.
It can only be amended with the support of 75% of the members of the National Assembly. Fortunately though, Zuma’s ANC boasts just 60% percent of MPs. And most pollsters report support for the party is slipping.
At the same time, parliamentary opposition is loud and lively.
Noisiest is the new, semi-Marxist-Leninist, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the charismatic, clownish but dangerously clever Julius Malema. The EFF won more than 6% of the votes in last year’s election. It appeals mostly to the more than 50% unemployed and angry youth in the country.
Much more mainstream is the official opposition Democratic Alliance, which won a little over 23% of the votes in that same election. It’s new leader, Mmusi Maimane, is only 35. He holds Masters degrees in theology and public administration, so presumably knows something about both God and and his fellow man.
Maimane’s got guts. Consider his brutal attack on Zuma in the National Assembly earlier this year:
“You, Honourable President, are not an honourable man. You are a broken man, presiding over a broken society … You laughed while trampling Madiba’s legacy – in the very week that we celebrated 25 years since his release … We will never forgive you for what you have done.”
The South Africa I left fifty-four years ago was a country without hope, surely destined to destroy itself in savage race war.
Today, it’s battered, bruised, angry, and rapidly losing confidence in itself.
But it’s the same South Africa that, because of its people’s resilience, patience, determination and willpower — with almost no bloodshed — eventually defeated the evil that was apartheid.
I’m convinced that the people of South Africa will eventually win this battle too.
But first, Jacob Zuma has to go.
So Madiba can rest in peace.
Fifty-five years ago, Tim Knight was a 22-year-old journalist on the Johannesburg Sunday Express. He was the only white reporter to get through police and army lines to report on the funeral of sixty-nine unarmed demonstrators massacred by police at Sharpeville. His story — and others about the evil that was apartheid, including virtual slavery on potato farms — eventually made it necessary for him to leave South Africa.