The Buffalo's Groot Krokodil problem

Mark D Young writes on certain parallels between now and FW and the post-PW era

The political events of the past week have enthralled many South Africans.

Equally they may also have upset and concerned others.

Personally, they reminded me of a time, some 29 years ago, when a new president of the geographic entity we refer to as South Africa, former President FW De Klerk, took over from his predecessor, former President PW Botha, who had – to be generous – not exactly covered himself and the country in glory, either domestically or internationally during his tenure.

Interestingly enough, our newly minted president, His Excellency, Hon. M C Ramaphosa as well as former President FW De Klerk seem to have both followed a similar path to office. Both appear to have quietly gone along with the status quo while things around them took on a dark hue until they, at some point, realised the course was not just or sustainable.

They both appear to have bided their time from this Damascus moment to garner enough support within the governing party of the day to seem like the safe bet as a replacement.It appears both judged it wiser to remain within the mechanism of state and change it from within rather than tapping away from outside.

For both, their moments of ascendancy arrived after some acrimonious moments of tension.

On further reflection, however, it would appear that our current president is also faced with the same conundrum as that faced by FW de Klerk when he took the presidential oath of office so long ago.

It seems apparent to my eyes, that just as in 1989, the new president is dealing with a government system that exists largely to further a particular agenda. And it is the opposite of what he and the nation need it to be.

Decades ago in 1989 that agenda was to entrench, secure and further the discredited policies of separate development and apartheid – albeit in a slightly re-packaged form from the 1960s. To a very large degree the government of that era also existed for its own ends. The majority of citizens had also reached a point where they felt that they had become secondary to the needs and will of the governing party's officials.

Under that administration, civil servants, police officials, state security and other functionaries had been deployed and appointed by President PW Botha, nicknamed “Die Groot Krokodil” (The Big Crocodile), precisely because they supported his aims and vision. As the security state of the day tightened its grip, the mindset and influence of the "right type of person" for the agenda of total control, spread throughout the arms of government.

In effect then, the incoming president of the era, who was a new broom that swept clean and ushered in change in due course, was faced with a problem.

The problem was that the very functionaries upon whom he needed to rely to activate new policies aimed at normalising matters, had – in certain key positions – entirely the wrong mindset and loyalty for the task.

Their careers and their departments had been geared towards functioning in a manner diametrically opposed to the newly minted task of change and renewal. The very people who had the authority to make the changes needed also had the the ability and motive to derail or slow the entire process by being stubborn, obstructive or plainly insubordinate. In effect, there were multiple landmines along the way to renewal and any one of them could possibly have triggered an implosion of the process.

Thus a careful house-cleaning took place in the first months of former President De Klerk's tenure which involved the retirement of several key appointees in security, administrative and other areas.   

The administration of the past 9 years has, on the evidence of myriad investigations, reports, court cases and leaks been carefully and artfully constructed to further the task of diverting as much revenue as possible from the fiscus, in as many places as possible, to benefit an elite group of connected comrades, their families and friends.

Appointments to key departments will have been made for similar reasons to those decades ago – because they were the right people to assist in the overall task at hand.

Now, as our new president has announced, there is apparently going to be an attempt at renewal and a disdain for corruption and wastage. President M C Ramaphosa, nicknamed by some as The Buaffalo, faces the stark reality that functionaries at all levels, from key cabinet positions to middle and lower management of most departments and organs of state – the very people which should have taken the abuses to task and who need to remedy matters - might be key players in the grand looting project appointed to protect it through inaction or obfuscation. 

The success of any real and meaningful change will be dependent upon being able to identify and root-out those involved in the past wrongs. There will definitely be push-back at multiple levels against changes that impact the previously abundant cash-flows to connected cadres or which might bring other, previously hidden, misdemeanors to light.

However, in all this, there is an added complication for our new president with which his predecessor did not have to contend.

Back in the day The Big Crocodile suffered a stroke and, a shadow of his former raging self, went off to the water's edge to retire. He was not angrily skulking about in the reeds somewhere with sufficient connections to try and upset the renewal process in a last-ditch effort at self-preservation.

In a way, the task set out in the SONA speech by our new president is, therefore, akin to defusing a bomb that might explode at any second if the process is not followed in a very particular set of carefully planned steps.

This will, of necessity, take time and patience.

It also needs a careful study of the mechanism.

At least a buffalo has strong, pointy horns that can carefully pick things apart.

Mark D Young is a South African investigative journalist and aviation safety author. You can follow him on twitter @markdyoungsa