Maverick on the campaign trail

Until Julius Comes… Adventures in the Political Jungle by Richard Poplak

JuliusPublished by Tafelberg

In 2011, an Irish journalist based in Cape Town wrote a book about Julius Malema, called An Inconvenient Youth, and the New ANC. The author, Fiona Ford, titled her first chapter ‘The devil wears Breitling’. Ford writes that she was with Malema in Caracas, Venezuela, for the conference of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. It’s Saturday, 24 April 2010. Back in South Africa, on Monday, 26 April, the ANC were planning to meet to decide on suitable “disciplinary measures to deal with the youth” Julius Malema.
Ford describes sitting with Malema in the Caracas hotel and his agitation about the hearings, but what stands out are his fashion comments delivered to Ford “with scorn, pity and dismay, all rolled into one”.
“The leather in your shoes is supposed to match the leather in your belt and your watch. So if you wear brown leather shoes,” he tells her, “you must wear a brown leather belt, and a brown leather watch.”
Three years later, Richard Poplak is on the 2014 electoral campaign of Julius Malema’s fledgling party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. And what pops up but fashion and the red beret, the “primary piece of ordinance” in the EFF’s “prêt-à-porter arsenal”. Poplak goes on to quote Walter Benjamin on the “intersection of politics and fashion” (don’t get nervous – this is the sort of erudite reference Daily Maverick readers expect) but the catching issue here is fashion: the production and marketing of something, reputedly “new”. Ford’s excellent book had only one glaring error: it wasn’t a ‘new’ ANC that Malema was fashioning, but his own political entity.
If after reading Ford, you sat up, replaced the screw top on the chardonnay or ordered a Coke with out the klippies, and reconsidered your blasé notions of South Africa’s loudest and most “inconvenient” youth; after reading Poplak, you will skip the chardonnay and Klippies, and go straight to the spook and diesel.
Poplak points out – correctly – that the Democratic Alliance candidates in the 2014 election were not “bloodthirsty enough. Not battle-hardened enough”. What turns Mmusi Maimane on is macroeconomics, which is just not going to cut it in the brick-flinging, Molotov cocktail arena of South African politics. As he says, “no matter how much bullshit they [the EFF] spew, those berets scream ‘revolution’. And revolution is, sadly, sexier than macroeconomics”.
The great joy of being on the campaign trail with Poplak though is not only the insights into Julius Malema but also the side characters. Take Kenny Kunene and his Patriotic Alliance Party. Poplak reminds us of the fact that Kunene “isn’t the biggest piece of shit in South Africa” and that his talk about “helping children as often as Michael Jackson did, which, I’ll admit, is always a cause for worry” are not really the issues. What is the issue is that “no one knows what he does” since he stopped his life of crime and “got into the Brave New South African economy of producing nothing”. (He “won tenders” apparently.)
His take on Mamphela Ramphele is summed up in the preamble to the chapter devoted to her: “Destiny’s Child: In which we consume lox and cream-cheese bagels with the Worst. Politician. Ever.” Say no more.
And if you thought President Jacob Zuma was all about the laugh (Heh, HEH, heh, heh), then Poplak’s take on him is chilling. Zuma “radiates no intelligence… he is not a man of purpose, but a man of power”, and that does not bode well for the country.
Poplak’s style and language is mesmerising; the sentences flow through inflamed urban streets, splash against discordant images, and swirl around people who we know through their public presence, but who he engulfs with wave after wave of detail. His chapter on Trevor Manuel is searing and wickedly funny, filled with the sort niggles, usually ignored, that legends always leave in their trail. Who would have thought our country’s economic destiny was forged “by way of grammar”?
Julius Malema recently addressed the Cape Town Press Club. The venue was Kelvin Grove – yes, I know, last bastion, white privilege, racist, anti-Semitic, etcetera – ¬and Malema read his audience perfectly. OK the literacy requirement was at the level of: “Here is Jacob. Here is Helen. Jacob and Helen go up the hill”, but still, he nailed it.
Malema in front of this audience became a praise poet for Helen Suzman, an admirer of Helen Zille (whom he never once referred to as ‘Madam’), and a damning critic of both President Jacob Zuma and and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, whom he speared with the comment that “Cyril loves money more than people”, referring to the Lonmin mine workers killed at Marikana. He also said that as he helped put Zuma in power, he would help Zuma lose that power. They loved it.
Malema was and is the consummate politician. Poplak resorts to gamer jargon to capture Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters. “In the grimy scrim of South African politics, the Angry Birds gamer is a proxy for [the EFF], who are merrily catapulting ‘enraged urban youth’ into a piggish ruling party’s teetering political home.”
But is not just the ANC’s political home that is under threat from the EFF. It is the nation’s political metropolis. At the EFF’s final election rally, Poplak is at his descriptive best as Malema makes his entrance: “Fighters in white golf shirts and men in ersatz military uniforms… 30 bikers on screaming hogs and sport bikes, red-lining their engines to a slaughtered-pig squeal of mechanical agony”. There’s more. It’s a great essay.
But, as he says, the policies Malema promises the crowd have never worked, and the EFF party apparatchiks will not make them work “because none of them have actually done anything”.
But that’s a trifling detail when Julius comes.

[This review first appeared in the Cape Times, 19 September, 2014]

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Book Review: To Catch a Cop: The Paul O’Sullivan Story

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This is the tale of an epic clash between an underdog hero and ubiquitous villains. To Catch a Cop reads like a thriller, with the many strands of Paul O’Sullivan’s spiderweb organogram precisely and inexerobaly brought together by Marianne Thamm to culminate in the trial and disgrace of the once national police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

But a nagging thread runs through this tangled rats’ nest that Marianne Thamm so deftly unravels and rewinds into a neat ball, a strand that won’t tuck away neatly. You unpick the niggle early, when the disgraced national commissioner of police Jackie Selebi recounts how he was chosen for the job.

According to Selebi the then president Thabo Mbeki took him aside and said he had a “list of 100 potential candidates” to replace outgoing commissioner George Fivaz. The president then said, “I looked at this list and the only name that I found that I can think of is you.” And therein lies the rot that continues to destroy our “state of Denmark”.

Why did Mbeki — and scores of other seemingly honourable men and women — not only support this odious man, but also wilfully attempt to cover up for him? Even months before his fall, with the evidence of his corruption and mendacity mounting, Mbeki renewed Selebi’s contract for a further year.

Thamm tells a brilliant story of these murky slime pool lizards with such clarity and elegance, you really only need to wash your hands after each chapter. By the end of it, you are left nodding agreement with the tenacious and probably slightly unbalanced Paul O’Sullivan, that life is a simple but sustained struggle between the good and the bad and that it gets ugly in between.

The list of names that fall into the bad category is long and many of whom are very much alive and continuing with their suspect behaviour, for example suspended crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli. He’s now biting the hand that feeds him, turning on Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa (consipcuously absent from these pages, but appointed by President Jacob Zuma in 2009, just four months before Selebi went on trial). According to the M&G (2 March 2014) Mdluli claims to have evidence that “[Mthethwa] and top generals knew about fraud and corruption in the police’s crime intelligence unit but did not act on the knowledge”.

Selebi never spent a single day of his 15-year sentence in a prison cell — he was pardoned for health reasons — and was protected by people as high up as the then president of the country. Nothing seems to have changed within the current crop ruling the country’s police force. O’Sullivan is more sanguine and firmly believes that there are more good cops on the beat than bad ones; that good will triumph over evil.

But there is that niggley thread that you want to keep pulling: why was Selebi appointed in the first place? Why is the subsequent crop of ministers and commissioners untouchable? It is obvious that these decisions have resulted in a spectacular faillure by government to reform the South African Police Service.

O’Sullivan has one simple answer: greed. And when you read about the amount of drugs being moved freely about the country; the profits from prostitution, human trafficking and smuggling that are being laundered through South African businesses, it is hard to come up with any other reasonable answer. “If there is one thing I have learned from life,” said O’Sullivan to Thamm, “it’s that a lot of people prey on greed.”

If you thought that the collapse of policing in South Africa was a problem, then reading this book will explode even your most serious criticisms. The rot is deep, insidious and vicious — the body count in To Catch a Cop makes most thriller fiction read like a nursery rhyme — and there appears to be no attempt by government to do anything about it other than talk platitudes. Right to the end of his trial, Selebi and his supporters tried to paint a picture of O’Sullivan as simply a white “foreigner” with a racist dislike for an honourable black cadre.

O’Sulivan does not ride off into the sunset victorious. He may have won the battle against Selebi but the war continues. The last section of the book moves on to another figure in this heinous cabal of comrades and crooks: Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir, currently under arrest and charged with, among other things, attempted murder. His target: Paul O’Sullivan.

And like any good thriller, there’s a sequel to come.

[This review first appeared in the Cape Times on 11 April 2014]

Is there time to fix the pipes?

A Rumour of Spring: South Africa After 20 Years of Democracy (Max du Preez)

The title of Max du Preez’s book, A Rumour of Spring alludes to the Arab Spring — that moment when democracy blossomed, or should have.

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In December 2010, a 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who had sold vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, for seven years, had his trolley and all the vegetables thereon confiscated by a police officer. When he attempted to pay the $7 “fine” for trading, the officer slapped him and basically told him to get lost. This was not his first run-in with arbitrary and random police actions and he decided to take it to the local provincial authorities. They, the corrupt and arrogant, ignored him.

That slap was to be the proverbial slap heard around the world. Bouazizi planted himself in front of the provincial headquarters, doused his body in petrol and set himself on fire. He died 18 days later. Thus began the Arab Spring.

The title of Max du Preez’s book, A Rumour of Spring alludes to this “spring” — this moment when democracy blossomed, or should have.

Four months later, at the other end of the continent, a 33-year-old mathematics teacher Andries Tatane joined a protest of more than 4 000 people in a march on the Setsoto Municipal Offices in Ficksburg, Free State, South Africa to protest against poor service delivery.

They were met by the SAPS who turned water cannons on the crowd and then started arresting people. Tatane attempted to intervene. He was beaten and then shot in the chest twice by SAPS officers. He died on the street. All the officers were acquitted. Political analysts thought these would be the shots that would reverberate, if not around the world, at least around South Africa.

Du Preez is right: it was just a rumour.

Tatane’s death would be eclipsed 16 months later when the SAPS killed 34 striking platinum miners outside the small town of Marikana. Again, analysts pontificated about “watershed moments”, “turning points”, “tipping points” and “seminal” moments. Again, it was all a rumour.

Yes, Du Preez is an Old White Male (OWM) but if you think that is ground for dismissal, then you probably also believe that Julius Malema is a hopeless politician because he’s black. Du Preez brings his cynical, inquisitive and compassionate intelligence to the table in discussing South Africa after 20 years of democracy and the role played by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). It’s an intelligence that has won him numerous awards, including the Excellence in Journalism award from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa (1996)and the Yale Globalist International Journalist of the Year (2006).

If you’ve read any of his regular columns or one of his many books you will know roughly where he is going with this book. But it is in the details, the conscientious examination of events that make this one of the ‘must read’ books about our country. It is his conscience that is troubled, and this is best revealed in his anecdotes. The story of meeting Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou in 1987 with Thabo Mbeki and other ANC members, and thinking: ‘Surely these guys have a similar commitment to genuine liberation of our people?’

‘Ouch,’ he says, he was wrong. Just another rumour.

Sankara was killed three months later in a coup staged by his comrade Blaise Compaore. Now, 26 years later Burkina Faso is a textbook example of what Acemoglu and Robinson describe in How Nations Fail: The origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Burkina Faso is a nation of extractive institutions, embedded with corruption and cronyism, where important offices in the government are given to supporters of the president who operate with impunity and where the political/economic elite flaunt their opulence.

Du Preez covers the familiar territory of Jacob Zuma’s rise to power but includes all the elements that make the whole story read like a political thriller. Except that it is true. The way Mbeki was outmanoeuvred and humiliated, the way Zuma manipulated the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and how he gathered around him a security cluster of ‘100% Zulu Boys’ — Jeff Radebe, Nathi Mthethwa and Siyabonga Cwele. Shades of PW Botha’s ‘Imperial Presidency’ and his State Security Council, which we now know served mainly to intensify the environment for structural corruption?

Surely not, but it does sound like the same dogs barking. Du Preez quotes Prof Njabulo Ndebele on the Nkandla debacle — more than R200-million of taxpayers’ money spent on Zuma’s private residence. ‘Nkandla,’ says Ndebele, ‘manifests an advanced stage in the systemic nature of corruption in South Africa that has been growing over an 18-year period and gathered momentum in the past five years.’

Zuma reveals himself not so much a leader of the nation or even the government. He is a leader of the ANC, and as long as he remains as such, he is in essence protected from prosecution (there are more than 700 legal cases outstanding against him). And because the nation is rudderless, the technocrats that may have made the country viable have long been replaced by political appointees, mostly inept, some corrupt and largely indifferent but yet filled with grandiose schemes (think e-tolls, nuclear reactors, SAA).

Another telling anecdote. Du Preez recounts a story told him by a colleague of how the Indian government built a dam to supply Mumbai with 455-million litres of water that the city required per day. But if the city had simply fixed all the leaking pipes it would have saved more than 600-million litres per day. The moral for South Africa is that ‘we should first fix our leaking pipes and taps before we build a new dam’.

Du Preez thinks the nation will be saved from becoming a Burkina Faso, a Zimbabwe, a Russia or a Greece because of two things: our Constitution and the Independent Electoral Commission. That, as he says, ‘no one has tried to mess with it [the Constitution] so far’ and that the ‘credibility and efficiency’ of the IEC ensuring the ‘credibility of our elections are never in doubt’.

Well, the constitution is under threat — Zuma has said it needs to be changed. And the Electoral Court ruling last year that IEC officials were wrong to bar individual candidates in the Tlokwe by-election goes to the heart of its credibility.

All this may be theory, another rumour. For in the wings, as Richard Poplak has so cogently argued in the Daily Maverick (‘Hannibal Elector: The rise and rise (and rise) of the EFF’) is Julius Malema and the EFF. His followers are ‘ready to throw the ideals and rhetoric of liberation out of their shacks with the day’s rubbish… [they] want to hear that the system will come up for a review, and that title deeds are going to be shredded, banks nationalised, the Mzansi flag raised over the mine shafts’.

It may be too late to fix the pipes.

[Rumour of Spring is published by Zebra Press (http://bit.ly/1ecAOKn).]

This review was first published in the Cape Times on Friday 21February 2014