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O what a tangled web we weave… How fact and reality get sucked into the maelstrom of mainstream thinking

09 October 2020 Gareth Stokes

There are countless examples of business tycoons, editors, journalists, influencers and political commentators lending their tacit support to South Africa’s serving president. The downside of this ‘support at any cost’ mentality is that the mainstream discourse gradually deviates from fact and reality. Their haste to commend the president’s recent actions, and their desire to pin South Africa’s salvation on a single leader, leaves them blinkered and easily misled. We are already noticing a shift in blame for our present predicament from government, led for 1 000 days by Cyril Ramaphosa, to the so-called lost decade under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

All hail, the new sheriff in town

This blame-shifting, which is on naked display at countless supposedly impartial and independent news portals, is also creeping into the public discourse. A recent example is the gushing tribute to the “new sheriff in town” given by journalist and newspaper editor Ferial Haffajee to the Actuarial Association of South Africa (ASSA) 2020 Virtual Convention. It is worth noting that many of the business leaders presenting during the three day convention also glossed over the dire socioeconomic situation facing the country to applaud our senior political leadership, but we digress… 

The audience was perhaps pre-warned by the presentation’s title: ‘Cyril 1000 days on, COVID-19, and a big-up to some lockdown stars’; but they were ill-prepared for the tribute that followed under catchphrases such as ‘new dawn’ and ‘thuma mina’. Haffajee’s enthusiasm centres on recent actions against corruption accused and other rule breakers by the ruling party. She commended the swift disciplinary steps taken against the likes of defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, for using an SA Airforce jet to transport ANC leaders to Zimbabwe; and Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko, being placed on special leave for PPE procurement shenanigans. 

We do not wish to detract from the ruling party’s recent posturing on corruption and rule-breaking; but question whether a suspension or withholding of three months’ salary constitutes fair punishment for the type of infractions the political incumbents are accused of. 

Tracking 25 major political scandals

A handful of arrests and reprimands are hardly a start to addressing the 25 major scandals that Haffajee has identified and tracked since the ANC came to power, including the arms deal, Gupta-gate, Nkandla, and Travel-gate, to name a few. 

The irony is that the man now being held up as South Africa’s saviour occupied leadership positions in the party during most of these scandals, including many years as deputy president under Zuma. This glaring fact prompted a convention attendee to ask: How do we disassociate the president from his almost decade-long association with his predecessor? “That is fair comment for the 10 lost years [under Zuma] during which time Ramaphosa was both deputy president and in charge of the Eskom war room,” said Haffajee. She deflected that civil society must establish a culture of co-responsibility and warned against elevating a single person to the position of intervening in multiple crises. 

The writer believes that the promising signs offered up during the presentation as evidence of our ‘new dawn’ should be tempered with a dose of reality. Yes, the new NPA head seems to have started acting against corruption accused; but prosecutions remain selective, based on political power and influence. Yes, the PPE corruption saga was widely condemned; but the fact a recent audit found that around two thirds of R2 billion spent in this category went to politically exposed persons suggests the rot is as deep as we imagined. And yes, Eskom and Transnet have new CEOs; but they will struggle to rebuild these once-proud State-Owned Enterprises following two decades of plunder. 

Further marginalisation of state institutions

Haffajee appealed to South Africans to give Ramaphosa a chance. “When he won the conference at Nasrec, he said that all he had achieved was a beachhead, a small position from which a bigger battle could be staged,” she said. This is a fair request, given that the two ‘camps’ that existed in the ruling party at the time of the 2017 ANC conference are still largely intact. We will reconsider the president’s accomplishments after his next 1000 days in office; but our favourable review hinges on the highest levels of corruption accused being decisively dealt with. We also hope, by this time, that the president will steer the country to a position of policy certainty on the many issues that are hamstringing economic growth and foreign direct investment. We refer here to issues like expropriation without compensation, autonomy of the central bank and land ownership. 

Until then we take hope from recent mutterings in civil society, spearheaded by the South African Council of Churches in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, the Foundation for Human Rights and the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution. The widely-publicised theft by various political elites of PPE funding was enough to get these bodies to launch an anti-corruption campaign. 

Time to clamp down on blatant theft

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said: “As the churches and active citizens [of SA] we refuse for our nation’s culture and heritage to be one of stealing and defrauding of public resources … corruption, especially this blatant looting of COVID-19 funds, is criminal, and continues to cost us lives and livelihoods as a country”. We agree wholeheartedly with the Bishop and hope that civil society’s present posturing gathers momentum over coming months and years. 

We end this rant with an indisputable fact shared during Haffajee’s 7 October presentation: “State capture disembowelled our country and made it impossible [for many institutions] to function properly”. Not even a praise singer can dispute the damage done to Eskom, Transnet and other SOEs during the decades-long plunder orchestrated by the Gupta’s and their various affiliates and hangers-on.

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