A Rumour of Spring: South Africa After 20 Years of Democracy
Max du Preez
By Don Paul
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.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in February 2014