President Jacob Zuma has an infectious laugh. His guffaws break the ice and disarm the tensest situation. At that precise moment no answers are demanded on the infamous arms deal or police corruption because the nation has the giggles and the President laughs loudest. An ambassador – clearly charmed – once remarked to me that it is a ‘beautiful laugh’ – and then laughed from his belly. The spell had been cast and from that moment on he had a crush on my President.
However, for many South Africans the love affair with the President is on the rocks. The polls reflect a growing unease with politics that appears increasingly driven by self-preservation: preservation of power, preservation from prosecution and preservation of moneyed lifestyles. A potentially toxic mix and the basis of political impunity. How far are the President and those around him prepared to go in pursuit of this goal?
In the shadows, formal and informal security networks are settling scores and doing the dirty work of those in power. Something sinister is afoot. A collusion of interests between people who have guns and people who have money is starting to infect our politics in an undeniable manner. The murder of a dozen ANC politicians, including a whistleblower, in the past three years is an indication of this and the ruling party has appointed a task team to look into it.
Why is this left to an ANC task team to investigate when it should surely have been a matter that demanded attention from the country’s spies at the State Security Agency? They have unparalleled resources at their disposal, yet the ANC’s Deputy General Manager will lead this investigation. Why did the ANC leadership not call in State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele’s spies? Or are they not to be trusted to lead an investigation and report to the President and to Parliament? Do the country’s elected political leaders not represent the aspirations of a nation and not only party apparatchiks?
One answer is that some politicians no longer trust the state spies. While undertaking research on the unfolding saga of alleged corruption and murder linked to suspended police crime intelligence chief Lt-Gen Richard Mdluli a few months ago, I was struck by the fact that some of the country’s highest ranking current and former police chiefs were afraid to speak on their cellphones. It was a case of ‘batteries out of cellphones first’. They, like former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, answer their phones with the rhetorical ‘Hello Mr Mdluli’. Are top cops really that afraid of an alleged criminal network that had come to control police crime intelligence? This directly under the nose of the Minister of Police, the Minister of State Security and the President?
What is certain is that a climate of fear is gripping politics in the country and it is being driven by securocrats. This is by no means a direct parallel to the machinations of the apartheid state. However, the trend is worrying. Some of the feared repression is coated in policy processes such as the Protection of State Information Bill (the Secrecy Bill), and the current draft of the General Intelligence Amendment Bill – the Secrecy Bill’s ugly twin known as the ‘Spy Bill’. These pieces of legislation will block the free flow of information, protect the corrupt and allow for the monitoring of communication on email, MXit, Facebook, Twitter and Skype – providing more insight than spies sitting in shebeens and potentially more effectively controlling the politically disaffected urban population (those whose lives do not revolve around shopping malls).
On the other hand, the proposed Traditional Courts Bill (the ‘Chiefs Bill’) will ensure greater power for unelected male traditional leaders at the expense of elected leaders. Thereby potentially drawing together the strings of a patronage network in rural areas that is largely accountable to the man who dispenses the money in Tshwane. These three pieces of legislation, in tandem, will ensure that a conservative-minded state apparatus inevitably works against the values of an open society. It has the potential to keep a lid on urban and rural social dissent while ensuring the possibility of unchecked accrual of wealth and power to those who loosely control the network. It is cynical politics. Is this what 100 years of ANC struggle was intended to culminate in?
This does not only manifest in policy. Consider the sinister manner in which the editor of the Mail & Guardian and senior members of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) have been made to report to the police in what appears to be a pre-arrest process in the past week. This foreplay to possible criminal sanction is all because of an exposé that links President Zuma’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj – a public servant – to corruption in tenders awarded while he was Minister of Transport. Did Mr Maharaj consult with his direct supervisor before pressing criminal charges? Is the intention to charge or scare investigative journalists? Either way, the matter is a disgrace to the Presidency.
Other attempts at intimidation happen when things go ‘bump in the night’ in a manner where nobody can pin the direct blame on the state apparatus. Earlier this year Constitutional Court Judge Sisi Khampepe and Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane’s homes were burgled and laptops stolen. According to Sikhakhane, who is also Julius Malema’s lawyer, one of the documents stolen was an affidavit by Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale requesting a probe into Mdluli’s alleged abuse of state resources. He suspects foul play. I have personally been circumspect when such allegations are made. This is a country with high levels of crime and an urban middle class that has developed an appetite for the crime fiction genre. However, in the past eighteen months my own office has been broken into twice late at night using exactly the same method of entry, which requires the skill of a cat burglar. On one occasion my external hard-drive (containing a draft manuscript of a book on the arms deal) was stolen. In recent weeks the visitors took nothing, as the hard-drive was safely stored elsewhere (and for the record I am not sitting on some smoking gun). All other shiny objects were left untouched. It may be ordinary crime or coincidence.
What is far more worrying is the alleged ‘suicide’ of Arms Deal Commission of Inquiry secretary Advocate Mvuseni Ngubane in May this year. On the same day he met the President he climbed into his luxury vehicle, with no know financial or personal problems, and shot himself, to the dismay of friends and family. A muted shock followed in the press at the death of a man who in practical terms would be the most powerful person in the commission. Whatever the reason for his death, it no doubt has delayed the work of the commission, which is unlikely to start its public deliberations before the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung and will now probably only end its work after the 2014 general elections – a happy coincidence for corrupt businessmen, arms dealers and politicians alike.
We live in a country where enormous potential lies outside of its elite and within the ranks of ordinary people who want a more just, fair society. An important element to unlocking this potential is that we want to fear those with power far less. Without this none of us will ever be equal. It is a reflex acquired through centuries of jealously policed inequality that cannot be unlearnt overnight. But when a handful of securocrats, spies, politicians and police, together with their business associates, operate outside of the law they undermine the work of everyone in their ranks. They also send a signal to our society that repression remains central to maintaining power. This must have been present somewhere in the minds of the youth gang in Khayelitsha outside Cape Town on Sunday night, 29 July, as they intimidated learners and terrorized an entire community with knives and pangas. An ‘ordinary’ gang holding up the mirror to our politicians? These are no laughing matters.
By; Hennie van Vuuren