Fikile Mbalula's banana republic

Andrew Donaldson writes on the ANC election chief's recent remarks in Soweto


ON Thursday, Fikile Mbalula, the ANC’s impish election campaign chief, declared the country a banana republic because it allowed foreigners with no legal papers to do business here.

Unusually for one so wedded to his smartphone — he seems more app than man nowadays — this did not come as is normally the case, in a Trumpish outburst via Twitter. 

Instead, Mbalula spoke to residents in Soweto in what initially seemed an elegant contribution to the chatter du jour, what with all his remarks about illegal trading and cheating on taxes.

Alas, Mbalula was not talking about the Guptas, but rather giving residents ANC feedback on recent xenophobic violence and the looting of foreign-owned spaza shops in the area. Once again, it seemed as if the foreigners had brought it on themselves. 

“Even in the fallen Zimbabwe,” he said, “you cannot find people doing as they please. But in South Africa they even take our jobs. Do you know why? Because South Africa is a banana republic.

“They do not employ locals because you refuse to be exploited by working six to six but our African brothers take those jobs and succumb to exploitation and get paid peanuts. This country to them is a banana republic because they do not want to pay.” 

To be fair, Mbalula has also had harsh words for the looters. 

He recently chided them, for example, for such senselessness as stealing foodstuffs past their sell-by dates. “You can’t loot a shop where you claim people are selling expired or fake goods,” he was quoted as saying, “because you are looting poison.”

His remarks came just as Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi was telling a press conference that this was, in fact, not the case, and that a countrywide inspection by department officials of more than 400 spaza shops had found no “fake food” whatsoever. 

But was Mbalula on firmer footing in calling South Africa a banana republic?

 Apt as though it may seem, it is a curious label, and some of the Mahogany Ridge regulars feel that, as one of the most important crops in the world, the banana has been done a disservice with the appellation. 

The term was coined in 1901 by the American writer O Henry (real name William Sydney Porter) to describe a politically unstable country with an economy dependent upon the exportation of limited-resource products.

At the time, Henry was facing embezzlement charges and, on the run from the US authorities, had done a bit of a Duduzane and was hiding out in a Honduras hotel where he noted the regional economic exploitation by giant American corporations such as the United Fruit Company.

Basically, with the economic model of a banana republic, the country is run as a private enterprise for the exclusive profit of a ruling elite; the state colludes with favoured monopolies, and any profit from the exploitation of public entities is deemed private property while any debt incurred is public and therefore the responsibility of the treasury. 

Obviously, it’s not at all workable, as the Zupta project has so clearly demonstrated. But it’s baffling that these elementary principles are not properly taught at, let’s say, the Walter Sisulu University of Technology in Mthatha.

It was there, on Wednesday, that fawning students lapped up a speech by former president Jacob Zuma in which he denied, yet again, that the state was ever captured and claimed that the very term itself was merely a “politically decorated expression” used by those who wanted to achieve certain “political outcomes”.

This, unfortunately, at a time when the commission of inquiry he himself had appointed to look into state capture has been presented with a great deal of testimony to the contrary. 

Little wonder then that Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo wants to hear Accused Number One’s version of the events at the Guptas’ Saxonwold compound. Zuma is reportedly considering the request and will inform us of his decision once he has arrived at one.

No great rush, in other words.

A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.