Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The ‘Thief-in-Chief’: Searching for the Roots

Grand Theft Corruption

The narrative is clear. The president of South Africa sits at the centre of a ring of operators – clandestine, criminal and official – that are abusing their power and ruining vital state institutions so that they can enrich themselves without facing any consequences. Circumstantially, it is only logical to conclude that this unsavoury network is linked to the president in one way or another. The overlaps and points of connection are too many and too precise to merely qualify as coincidence. The same characters appear in multiple scandals, and the overlap between them – i.e. being in business together, or being related or connected to each other in one way or another – is undeniable. The network that converges around the president is just too densely interconnected and interdependent to be regarded as coincidentally linked to him.

But this does not mean that direct proof of the President’s guilt (of criminal activities) beyond reasonable doubt has been provided. Perhaps it will in the future, but as yet no clear, undeniable proof of the president’s misdeeds has been made public. Perhaps there is someone, or a few people out there, who could provide damning, incontrovertible evidence of the president’s guilt; evidence of direct involvement beyond any reasonable doubt – a video or audio recording, a full money laundering trail from source to sink, a hidden treasure trove, or any other clear, undeniable offence – but until now all we have are the whistleblowing of good people to rely on.

Those who are party to corruption and really know how deep the rabbit hole goes are keeping mum, making active efforts to thwart attempts to hold the corrupt to account. It appears that numerous active cover-ups have been undertaken to ensure that no such “smoking gun” ever emerges to see the light of day.

In a functional democracy such clear, indisputable proof (i.e. a “smoking gun”) would be unnecessary. The mere suggestion of guilt of corruption of a sitting president would be enough to warrant stepping down in order to protect the integrity of high office. The fact that the constitutional court found that he had violated his oath of office should have been enough. But we live in fraught and conflicted times. Crass, unethical and polarizing (even unconstitutional) leadership is fast becoming normalised, not only within South Africa but in other parts of the world as well.

Yet, as the drip-drip of allegations has turned to a flood of corruption expose’s and scandals, hope that the guilty will be held accountable for their actions has ebbed. South Africans are inundated with bad news. Each event settles only briefly in the collective consciousness of the nation before another wave crashes, pushing each previous event to the peripheries where it dwindles, eventually dissipating into the great ocean of misdeeds. It is no longer a question of whether South Africans believe that corruption on a grand scale is unfolding within its leadership and state institutions. The real question is, “so what?”

The majority of South Africans know very well what it feels like to be stolen from. They have endured wholesale theft for many centuries; a theft that consolidated and entrenched itself under the Apartheid regime. Corrupt government and local officials, abuse of power and institutions, unfair practices, exclusivity and clandestine networks, and myriad other ills have long been resident in South African society. South Africans know full well how the powerful can act with impunity and escape accountability. Elites have run South Africa for a long time, and they are above the law. Whether through the power of being connected or the power of wealth, by being able to out-endure and strangle official processes, they float above the laws and regulations that bind the average citizen.

Corruption at the highest levels in South African society is nothing new. Unholy alliances between government, business and organised crime are a recurring feature of the South African political landscape. It wasn’t long ago that Brett Kebble, the youth league and organised crime figures dealt shock blows to the nation. Members of the ANC youth league acquired shares in gold while Kebble got on with racking up billions of Rands in unpaid taxes, organising hits on foes and non-compliant officials and creating a labyrinth of front companies and other financial mechanisms through which money could be laundered, hidden and channelled to exert power. This has happened before. What has changed in recent times is that; (1) these destructive arrangements have now moved up to occupy the highest levels of power, and (2) a powerful network has escalated the program of extraction from the state.

Exposes, Analyses and Opinions: Big on Narrative, Short on Analysis!

So when the author of the recently released “The President’s Keepers”, Jacques Pauw – a widely renowned and respected long-term political and investigative journalist – states that “South Africans are gatvol ... South Africans have had enough!” one has to ask the question; who exactly is he referring to? If it is truly the case that the majority of South Africans are so fed up with corruption that they have reached their collective limit, then where is the mass public outcry? Where is the broad-based mass action that should follow from having reached such a limit?

The answer to this question is that while South Africans may be fed up with corruption in the halls of power, the reality is that the situation is way more complicated than the reductive narrative of the ‘thief-in-chief’ can adequately portray. Thus far, South Africans have been inundated with highly detailed exposes and scandals, yet there is precious little detailed analysis to accompany it. As a result, there is no clear understanding of why such corruption on a grand scale could so easily become entrenched, and why it was able to escalate so quickly during President Zuma’s second term. Rather, the focus of most investigative journalism accounts and intellectual opinions and analyses has been squarely on how we have arrived at this point.

Post 1994, South Africa was upheld as a symbol of good governance and robust democratic institutions. So what went wrong? What went wrong is that the myth that was central to the construction of South Africa’s new democratic dispensation imploded in dramatic fashion. The latent but ever-resident vulnerabilities of the South African state and society were successfully activated by those who understood the difference between the mythical construction of the new, democratic South Africa and the reality of how it has historically functioned for the majority of those who live within it. Ones propensity to believe this myth depends, in large part, on where one sits in South African society and how deeply one understands the daily, lived experiences of the marginal majority.

There is also no clear understanding of how to reform the institutions of the state, business and politics – and perhaps even our political system – in order put in the checks and balances that will prevent such breakdown from occurring again. The assumption that we already have all the right checks and balances, and all that is needed are good, trustworthy leaders, is a deeply flawed one. It should be self-evident that these checks and balances have failed us and are hence likely to again. All it would require is a similar network of unscrupulous power-mongers and greedy feeders to establish and entrench themselves with power and there would be a quick return to an unsavoury ‘business-as-usual’.

There is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that the likelihood of such networks re-establishing or reproducing themselves again over time is high. South Africa has some deep historical flaws; systemic vulnerabilities that were created and maintained over the many hundreds of years over which South Africa was constituted as a nation. These flaws are so entrenched that they are woven into the nation’s DNA, so to speak. They cannot easily be overcome; they will adapt and find ways to make a return.

Historically, we live in a fundamentally corrupt society. When Jacques Pauw states that “the South Africa that Zuma has created has rendered sleazebags blameless, guiltless and even righteous” in the concluding paragraphs of his book he is engaging in a spectacular act of selective amnesia. We have whitewashed evil-doers and exonerated them before in our history, as recently as during the transition to the new dispensation.

This is not to detract from the value of the book Jacques Pauw has written. He does a remarkable job of identifying the parallel intelligence networks that facilitate “state capture” and scripting understandable narratives that put into perspective how different actors and events are linked. However, it is misguided to diagnose our current crisis as a nation purely in terms of the two terms that Zuma has served. The South Africa we are now faced with has not been “created” by Jacob Zuma. It has always been there; his leadership merely brought it to the surface.

It is hence folly to think of our current situation as merely the product of the wayward activities of the ‘thief-in-chief’ and his merry band of plunderers. No matter how attractive, sensationalist and absorbing the myriad exposes of corruption are, we should keep do our best to remain focused on the systemic weaknesses that allow for such a dangerous network to rise to power. To become too easily blinded by the ‘thief-in-chief’ narrative, would be not to see the woods for the trees.

I am arguing that it is not useful or strictly speaking correct to think of the current situation as purely a product of recent history; that it is in fact a product of deeper historical forces that have entrenched themselves and become systemic in South African society and its political realm over a longer period of time. The corruption that we are witnessing today has deep historical roots, roots that reside in the deep state, as well as in broader South African society. To make any analysis of the current situation without acknowledging this history is farcical. There are no quick fixes for the problems we are currently experiencing. Removing the president and all his ‘men’ would only give the nation temporary reprieve; it will not prevent the rot from sinking in again.

As a nation, we cannot out-legislate or out-run this reality. We have to undergo a serious self-analysis. We have to be willing to dig deep into our historical and current realities and identify what systemic traits undermine our best efforts to rise above our history.
Machiavellian Survivalism: A Response to Oppression

I have already dealt with the role of the deep state in a previous piece. The question I am concerned with in this piece is why corruption is – in many ways – regarded as normal in broader South African society? The propensity for Machiavellianism is high in South African society. The capacity for clandestine, illegal and unethical practices is a direct product of oppressive practises and unfair social arrangements that have historically prevailed in South Africa. When the law is illegal or unfair, and when those in power act unjustly, society finds ways around formal systems and establish parallel mechanisms for satisfying – even mundane, daily – needs and desires. Dual realities have hence always prevailed in this nation.

When I was growing up, our first recourse over theft or conflict was not to report it to the police; it was to work through informal networks – which included criminal elements, friends, family, etc. – to attempt to find resolution to the matter. We all knew who the thieves were in our neighbourhood, and there was a tacit agreement that their activities were to be conducted outside of it. When thefts did occur we consulted with them first about who the likely perpetrator was, and often requested them to attempt to reclaim our property for us as they knew who the likely fences for particular things were (e.g. for jewellery, car radios, televisions, etc.).

It was also well-known and understood that school principals sometimes accepted bribes in order to give a child with wealthy parents a place in their school (in my school these were known as “donations to the library”). Parents paid bribes to get their children into universities. We also knew that obtaining a car license was far easier if you had a driving instructor who was sufficiently connected and could ensure that a bribe was received by the examining officer. You could get a docket to disappear if you were up on charges. You could also find people who were willing to perpetrate ill-deeds on your behalf, or provide you with protection, if you were willing to pay for their ‘services’.

Bribery and corruption at local levels is nothing new in South Africa. It is also nothing new at the highest levels of power. A familiar South African refrain goes something like, “don’t you know how things really work around here?” It is only within a society as fundamentally schizophrenic as ours, where one’s ‘reality’ can prove so fundamentally different from others –  where altruistic naivety can coexist alongside shrewd Machiavellianism – that enlightened values and virtues can be espoused as normative while devious operators play puppet-master behind the scenes.

That our country has historically suffered a profound schizophrenia of parallel lived realities is indisputable. Is it any wonder that this dual reality has now manifested at the highest levels of power? Indeed, has it not done so before?

To speak of a ‘shadow government’ without acknowledging that we live in an inherently corrupt, dual society to begin with; replete with parallel systems of justice, trade, employment, service provision and so forth – is disingenuous. What we are currently experiencing is a product of our central condition as a nation. We are a country of parallel realities, and what we are now witnessing is that our demons are surfacing. What has long been resident within South African society, always just beneath the surface, is now rearing its ugly head in dramatic fashion. If we are brave enough to confront this central truth, then perhaps our current “state of capture” may yet be turned into an opportunity for an exorcism.  

There is a particularly privileged class – mostly middle class and suburban – in South Africa who, it would seem, live under the impression that their experience of South Africa[1] is shared by all South Africans. This misconception is a product of living within a reserved and inward bubble, of having very little contact with the majority of South Africans who endure a completely different reality. Spatial and economic segregation reinforces this effect, yet because of their relative privilege and power the middle classes are able to assert their views as though they are normative.

This is not to suggest that the suburban middle classes have no role in repairing our broken politics and society. To the contrary, they have a critical role to play. They can only play a useful and effective role, however, if they are able to stop speaking for the majority of South Africans and start listening to them instead. Instead of going in to poor and low income communities solely with the purpose of mobilising them behind a middle class agenda, it would be truly transformative if they invested the time and patient listening that is required to orient them to the daily struggles of their less privileged fellow South Africans.

The marginal majority endure daily realities of living with poverty, extreme vulnerability to violence and crime, exploitation by corrupt officials, police and councillors, lack of access to services and low social mobility. Violence against women and children is at an all time high in some areas. It is clear that old community structures and regulatory networks and institutions have broken down. We have more civil society organisations than ever before, but they are seldom rooted in communities playing valuable roles in ensuring that every-day grassroots struggles of ordinary people are adequately mitigated.

A Crisis of Representation

There is a crisis of representation in South African society that mirrors the polarisation in power at the highest levels of South Africa. This crisis of representation is a product of social ignorance; a complete misunderstanding of the vastly different realities that South Africans from different backgrounds experience. The middle classes have the majority voice in South Africa, that is, through the media, institutions, organisations and business. Yet they are hopelessly out of touch with the daily lived realities of the majority of poor, low-income communities. Hence their protestations against the ‘thief-in-chief’, while legitimate, comes across as mainly driven by their own self-interest, and not out of genuine concern for the broader citizenry and the welfare of the country. They want things to go back to ‘normal’. The problem is that, that ‘normal’ is not working out so well for everyone.

The middle class also tend to suppress or ignore racial tensions that have emerged within the middle class itself. They talk past each other and not to each other. They are themselves divided and trust across racial boundaries is deficient. There are no quick and easy fixes for the deep dislocations that lie at the heart of South African society. It will require time and effort to build a coherent broad-based coalition that can represent the broader majority of society. When recently asked about the dearth of broad-based civic action in South Africa, trade unionist and struggle stalwart Jay Naidoo replied that it was because, “it is hard work”. This is the central truth that South Africans need to wake up to; that there are no quick fixes for the problems we are currently enduring.

We need a new national dialogue, consensus and vision that all South Africans can get behind in the main. We will never have complete agreement over everything, but there are definitely fundamental objectives that we can agree on and work towards. Our success as a nation – or national project – will depend heavily on how hard we work to build and sustain democratic governance in South Africa; governance that is regulated from the bottom-up. We need to go beyond the ‘winner takes all’ politics that has dominated the post-1994 democratic dispensation and build the cross-race and class linkages from which broader consensus can emerge. Only then can we act coherently as a broader public or polis.

While it is no doubt critical and necessary to expose the wrongdoings of those in power, it should by now be self-evident that ramping up the expose count is unlikely to provide the impetus to provide the sustained momentum that is necessary to stop the rot in South African politics and build towards a better future. A parallel process needs to take root; one that is clearly non-partisan, one that brings people together and can facilitate sincere and beneficial interaction between South Africans from all walks of life. We need to begin building the base for sustained, democratic action within society itself now. Yes, it will require hard work, but it is only through this that the long-term benefits of an active citizenry and a healthy democracy can be achieved, and the ghosts of our past left behind.

[1] That is; of well policed and well run neighbourhoods, good living conditions and privileged access to justice, services, finance and so forth.