Crooked Jacob's return

Andrew Donaldson says it is hard to keep a bad man down in SA



THE famous boy reporter Tintin, comic icon and timeless hero of many a journalist, celebrated his 90th birthday recently. It’s an important milestone, some suggest, this being the era of fake news, although there is some irony here, particularly as Tintin was initially a crude propaganda figure.

His creator, the illustrator Hergé (Georges Remi), was directed by his employer, Norbert Wallez, a priest who edited the right-wing Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, to set the reporter’s first comic-strip adventure in the Soviet Union as an anti-socialist primer for kiddies. That serial, later published as Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, ran from January 1929 to May 1930.

The following month, again at Wallez’s direction, Hergé began the serialisation of Tintin in the Congo, aimed at fostering favourable sentiment about Belgium’s colonial project. Much has been written of its paternalistic depiction of Africans as child-like idiots and, even in its later, bowdlerised book form, it was slammed as racist.

It was only with the third story, Tintin in America, serialised from September 1931 to October 1932, that Hergé got to deal with a scenario of his own choice to push an anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist agenda. 

It was around this time that the syndication requests came pouring in from around Europe, and Tintin took off as a global phenomenon. His adventures would take him around the world, even to imagined countries like San Theodoros, a revolution-prone South American backwater, and Borduria, a fascist Balkan state whose thuggish ruler, Müsstler, was a combination of both Mussolini and Hitler.

I mention all this because of a recent Spectator column by Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, concerning one of Tintin’s more colourful companions, the splenetic mariner Captain Haddock, and his vocabulary of abuse.

In The Crab with the Golden Claws, for example, he calls the mutineer who steals his whisky “bully”, “twister”, “heretic”, “slave trader”, “technocrat”, “buccaneer”, “vegetarian”, “corsair” and “politician”. 

Later, in Prisoners of the Sun, Haddock labels his Inca captors “tramps”, “pockmarks”, “pithecanthropuses”, “bashi-bazouks”, “savages”, “sea-gherkins”, “ectoplasms”, “poltroons”, “terrorists”, “doryphores” and “politicians”.

Such invective did admittedly send me to the reference works where I learnt, for example, that pithecanthropus, or “Java Man”, was once considered the “missing link” between apes and humans while a bashi-bazouk (literally “damaged head”) was an irregular, undisciplined Ottoman soldier prone to savagery and looting — much like, I suppose, the average Economic Freedom Fighter or uMkhonto we Sizwe veteran. 

But, as Moore suggested, the deadliest of all these insults is “politician”. This is especially the case in our neck of the woods as we continue with the interminable business of trawling through the murky backwash of the Jacob Zuma years. 

When Accused Number One first entered office in May 2009 one could reasonably assume that not all ANC politicians were rotten, and that it was just 60 percent of them who gave the rest a bad name. With time that percentage would increase, and when last I drew attention to it in this column, it was 90 percent who had sullied the rest of them.

Now however it emerges that there is perhaps not a single member of the ruling elite who is able to rise in the morning and in all honesty declare: “I am a person of considerable integrity. I do everything in my power to uphold the values of the constitution. I may dress funny but I most certainly do not steal, cheat, or lie as I serve the people.” 

In this regard, and perhaps unlike me, former president Kgalema Motlanthe was not joking when he suggested the ANC was so rotten that the only possible way it could be redeemed was if it was voted out of office.

As he told the BBC’s Hard Talk in September 2017: “I say the entire leadership is crooked with a few exceptions. There are people in that leadership who are trying to stay on the straight and narrow path and who are trying to do right but they are overwhelmed by the network of crooked people actually…

“The ANC has the possibility to renew itself but that will take lots of courage and failing that it has to hit rock bottom. It has to lose the elections for the penny to drop.”

Motlanthe’s comments came before the ANC’s elective conference and Cyril Ramaphosa’s tenuous victory over chief rival Nkosazana Proxy-Zuma in the race to lead the party. That setback was clearly a blow to her ex-husband. He looked as if he was having an aneurysm when the result was announced. Not just of the brain but his whole body. For months afterwards it did seem that Zuma was finally getting his comeuppance, and it was good to see him, albeit briefly, in the docks of the Durban Magistrate’s Court and the KwaZulu-Natal High Court on reinstated corruption charges. 

Then, with the first predictions that the ANC would take the May elections with a sizeable majority, there came a surprising about-turn. This, incredibly, despite the years of ineptitude and misrule, the mounting evidence of profligacy and corruption, all the thieving and looting, and the fact that the party would be going to the polls with only one significant drawcard: a billionaire leader who (a) was not Jacob Zuma and (b) “understands” money.

The Nkandla sybarite now appears to have a new lease on life, re-emerging as some ageing groovy funkster uncle selflessly lending a hand where needed on the campaign trail. 

But wait. There’s more. He’s been offered a contract to record an album’s worth of struggle songs. There’s renewed action in the Love Pants department: he’s fathered a child, his eleventy-something son, with one Nonkanyiso Conco, a 24-year-old self-proclaimed virginity tester who looks set to become Zuma Wife Number Seven. Importantly, some young person, perhaps Ms Conco even, has told him about Twitter. 

Why not? It’s worked so well for Donald Trump that the audibly orange US president is now the top poster boy for angry white men the world over. 

Accordingly, Zuma has taken to social media with suitably Trumpish fake news in response to Ramaphosa’s recent remarks about his predecessor’s ruinous administration. 

“Nine wasted years?” Zuma tweeted along with a link to a long list of his towering achievements that begins: “It has been nearly a year now since my resignation as President of the Republic…” 

Which is reason enough to stop reading right there. He didn’t resign. He was kicked out of office. Or as they politely put it: “He was recalled…” 

As for the wasted years, well, they weren’t that wasted as far as Zuma’s inner circle was concerned. In this regard, the marathon performance before the Zondo commission by Angelo Agrizzi, former chief operations officer with corruption enablers Bosasa, has been most instructive.

Inevitably, Agrizzi’s nine days in the witness box drew to a typically prosaic South African close: he was “exposed as a racist” after the commission into state capture heard a tape in which he repeatedly referred to black Bosasa directors as k*****s among other things. 

The tape was secretly recorded at Agrizzi’s home after a dinner with Roth and Lindsay Watson, the adult children of Bosasa’s “born again Christian” boss Gavin Watson.

Judge Raymond Zondo correctly described Agrizzi’s outbursts as “extremely offensive and unacceptable”. 

“But,” he told Agrizzi, “that does not mean that I will not examine your evidence and see where you may be speaking the truth, and where you may not be speaking the truth.”

Bizarrely, the recording apparently deeply shocked some people at the hearing, and one report noted: “News24 observed tears in the eyes of several members of the media and members of the public.”

This is very troubling. Was Agrizzi’s racist spew so offensive, so wounding, that it reduced to weeping wrecks hardened reporters who otherwise went about their daily grind in a society whose very DNA is is said to be hard-wired with racism? A world in which offence is not so much taken as greedily grasped with both grubby paws?

Or had these media pros been so sheltered from such contumely that the sudden introduction to the k-word brought a cataclysmic and heart-rending end to years of otherwise blissful innocence?

Or was it worse than that? Did they previously regard Agrizzi as a good guy and an otherwise simplistic narrative was now ruined by the revelation that he was nothing more than another bigoted stool-pigeon? A dirty rat who, in the mixed metaphors of mafia movies, should be swimming with the fishes but was instead saving his sorry hide by singing like a canary?

Whatever, but Tintin would not have wept.