Sullyn Manor, High Kipling AK47 5EX, Bucks
Comrade President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa
The Union Buildings
May 1, 2020
Happy International Workers’ Day, and long leave, viva! I offer fraternal greetings and felicitations on this celebratory occasion in which you and yours reaffirm a revolutionary commitment to drive capital from the grasp of the people.
I joke, of course. It’s not leave at all, but a lockdown. With a curfew on top. The workers would otherwise probably be happy to return to work on Monday. You know, a long weekend under the belt, a bit of shouting and dancing at a Cosatu rally, maybe throwing some wors on a fire.
Well, those that had jobs at least. But, poor sods, they cannot. So sorry for that.
Sorry, also, for the impertinent tone. It’s just nerves. You being President and all, and me just being me. Also, I’ve never attempted an open letter before. That may seem hard to believe, that after almost forty years in journalism, I had not once fallen back on this fishwrap chestnut.
But I was mucking about on social media last week and, admittedly a little off my face on the lady petrol, rashly accepted a challenge to write to you. Seeing as I’m so smart and all, they said, why didn’t I drop the president a line, and tell him what to do?
Truth be told, though, I’m not overly fond of “open letters”. They’re not even real letters, and they tend to be presumptuous and imperious. Besides, do they even work? I mean, you’re not even going to read this, are you? Well, maybe you will. Stranger things have happened. So here goes.
Squirrel, WTF? I mean, like very WTF?
Now, and notwithstanding loopy theories that Covid-19 was cooked up in a Wuhan lab at the behest of the Communist Party of China, I know no world leader signed up for the pandemic.
In fact, I’m willing to bet that you, at this very moment, are wishing you were somebody else. I’m calling it the Boris Johnson thing. He had a lot of fun getting to be prime minister. But then he discovered that actually being prime minister is not much fun after all. Life suddenly got extremely serious. Then it got extremely coronavirus.
Did you have the Boris Johnson thing? Or something like it? Did you have fun becoming president of the ANC? Only to discover that actually being president of the ANC was much like bathing in a tub of snakes? That you’d probably be quite safe provided you did absolutely nothing, kept quiet and remained perfectly still?
Like many others, I was greatly relieved that you beat Nkosazana Proxy-Zuma in the December 2017 leadership race. I was worried, though, that you did so by the slimmest of margins or, as they say here in Brexit Britain, an “overwhelming majority”.
Still, you emerged the victor and there came all your prattle of a “new dawn” following the nine years of rampant corruption and economic ruin that came with Accused Number One. Right now, I must confess to being embarrassed that I know people who were naive enough to have believed you were going to make a difference.
You have your defenders. Some of them are quite fierce. They say you’re a guy who wants to do the right thing, but whose hands are tied. They point to the deep schism in the ruling party.
On one side, your bunch, notably Pravin Gordhan, the public enterprises minister, and Tito Mboweni, the finance minister. On the other, the dark forces of the Nkandla overlord, many of whom face allegations of corruption and incompetence. It’s these guys who don’t want to see you cleaning house, as it were, and so their agenda is to undermine your agenda at every turn.
But then you know all this, don’t you? No surprises there.
It’s for this very reason, chief, that I cannot defend you. Oh, I can sympathise. You’re in a grim place.
I remember your inauguration at Loftus last year. Saturday, May 25. Much shedding of psychic baggage that day. The crowds cheered as you were sworn in by the Chief Justice, Moegeng Moegeng. The moment of our Zumancipation, as it were.
You were due to reveal your new cabinet the next day. Instead, that announcement was postponed to Wednesday evening, May 29 — and even then that was late. Some newspapers reported that the delay was due to the fact that you were still meeting with your appointees. However, when you finally did appear on our TV screens, you looked pale and drawn. And very, very unhappy.
I suspect that some of your “appointees” and their friends, like ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, had taken you to one side and shown you the big picture behind the curtain at Luthuli House.
It was a frightening business. Like a painting by Jackson Pollock. On bad acid. Certainly not the genial tweediness of the diorama envisioned all those years ago when Roelf Meyer took you to trout fishing in Dullstroom and the pair of you flogged the waters out there during the negotiations for a future South Africa. I imagine it was nothing like the mess in which we now find ourselves.
In short, a compromised presidency is not a healthy one, and I believe your choice of cabinet indicated the extent to which you are compromised.
True, you did trim that bloated horrorshow a little bit. But, jeez, look who’s still there. Fikile Mbalula. Angie Motshekga. Blade Nzimande. Lindiwe Sisulu. Lindiwe Zulu. Look at the newbies. “General” Cheek Bile as the police minister. David Mabuza as deputy president. Admit it, you didn’t actually pick these people, did you? They weren’t your choices, were they? It would be scary if they were.
Towards the end of last year, The Economist published The World In 2020, its global forecast for the year ahead. You may have seen it. It’s the sort of thing people read before they swine off to Davos. Anyway, they weren’t very optimistic about the country’s prospects – all largely as a result of your inability to face down your enemies.
What goodwill remains for you, the magazine’s Africa correspondent John McDermott writes, is fast waning: “In theory, 2020 ought to be the year South Africa emerges from a lost decade. It has the chair of the African Union and a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It ought to be leading the drive for economic integration across the continent. Instead it turned inward, the victims of misrule by a once-great party.”
Between ourselves, Squirrel, I’m not entirely convinced by that last bit. I tend to think of the ANC not as a house divided, but a mess divided. But that’s by the by.
It’s quite obvious that The Economist’s forecast was published before the coronocoaster pulled the rug out from everybody and turned the world on its ear.
To give you credit, you acted swiftly in response to the pandemic and as a result you were praised far and wide. Some commentators rose from dreamlike states in their beds to express their great relief that Jacob Zuma was no longer in charge. Imagine, they added, if you were like Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. How terrifying that would be.
Imagine, I sourly responded, if you were like Angela Merkel or even Jacinda Ardern.
But this whatiffery serves no purpose. You’re not like any of them and it’s no use comparing apples with oranges and so on. Anyone can do better than your predecessor. That particular bar’s so low a crippled slug could backflip over it like an Olympic high jumper. As for the Orange of the Species, well, there’s no point in even going there, as it would only upset the evangelists.
I was not happy with the severity of your lockdown regulations, though, and have said as much elsewhere. I was disappointed that your R500-billion social relief programme for small, medium and micro-enterprises affected by the pandemic will roll out in accordance with broad-based BEE requirements.
Disappointed, but not surprised. Yours, after all, is now the party whose policies are based on race.
What did alarm me, however, is that last Friday you apparently announced that the ban on the sale of tobacco products would be lifted without first consulting Ebrahim “Petty” Patel, the trade, industry and spite minister, and Proxy-Zuma, the cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister.
As a result of this breakdown in the chain of command, the latter had to embarrass herself this week by telling the country that, hell no, no lighting up cigarettes just yet. I mean, it’s almost as if you don’t know who’s in charge here.
Ha-ha. Joking again.
I don’t wish to bang on about the smoking. Or the alcohol. Or the roast chicken. Or the exercises. Or the curfew. Or walking the dog. Or even Petty Patel’s idiotic refusal to allow e-trading on the grounds that it would be “unfair competition” and risked spreading Covid-19.
But, in closing, here’s the thought that bothers me.
If tyranny is a form of terror management, then the virus is its ally if it is used to consolidate power. Covid-19 came on hard and fast, and with it draconian regulations that seemingly do away with checks and balances. Generals telling MPs they’re not accountable to Parliament is kind of worrying in that sense, not so?
Also, is it possible that you guys could stop treating South Africans like children? Just asking, like, for millions of friends.
I remain, etc.
PS. – There’s a lot of talk around the world about getting back to normal life. The Germans have come up with a word for it. Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien. “Opening discussion orgies.” A debate about when to lift the lockdown. That may be a useful one to toss about next time you guys get together.