From "Insurrection" to "Phoney War"

Jeremy Gordin writes on the unnatural calm that has descended on SA


Readers are, I trust, familiar with the phrase “The Phoney War”.

As Wikipedia tells us, The Phoney War (French: Drôle de guerre; German: Sitzkrieg) was an eight-month period (roughly 250 days) at the start of World War II – when “nothing happened” on the Western front, following the German and Soviet invasion of Poland[i].

I suspect the present period in SA feels something like those months in France, as British and French forces waited for their enemy’s next move.

About two weeks ago pro-Zuma forces struck the spark that unleashed violence and mass looting that burnt through KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.

We all saw what happened – the destruction is still there to see, and we ourselves saw on TV, and on numerous social media postings, the thieving, violence, damage, mayhem, arson, non-response from the so-called security forces, and the reactions from various communities. And according to the latest figures from acting Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni 337 people died in the “Zuma riots”.

Ramaphosa then went onto television and described the KZN (and Gauteng) events as an insurrection:

“... [T]he evidence ... indicates that the events last week were part of a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy, the rule of law and our constitution. The actions were intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken – or even dislodge [my emphasis] – the democratic state”.

And yet for reasons that are not quite clear, a sort of unnatural calm has returned. Into this stillness all sorts of questions and doubts have started to intrude.

Was there an actual insurrection? Did it stem from former president Jacob G Zuma? Against whom was it actually aimed? What was the endgame, as we nowadays like to call such things? Who were the masterminds – or the minds anyway – behind it?

The government has not been forthcoming with clear answers or even a consistent line. For example, on (this last) Tuesday night, TV viewers enjoyed the sight of the Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula saying she resented being portrayed as an “irresponsible young girl” for contradicting President Cyril Ramaphosa’s description of the violence as an attempted insurrection. Mapisa-Nqakula had said the KZN lootings, etc. weren’t an insurrection, they were “counter-revolutionary” action [ii] .

Then (also on Tuesday evening) Police Minister Bheki “the chapeau” Cele set the proverbial cat among the proverbial pigeons. He said the police had not been given any “intelligence” about the impending attacks and looting – even though the Minister of State Security Ayanda Dlodlo had stated that this had been done.

“Oh bother,” as Winnie the Pooh (the Disney one, anyway) might have said. Or as the 2016 Nobel literature laureate put it: “’There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief/ ‘There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief ...’”. [iii]

Or you can reach for your Marx (Groucho, not Karl) and recall that military and (presumably) state intelligence are both contradictions in terms.


I’ll get back to the “government” (such as it is) in part 3 below. For now, let me at this critical juncture in our affairs turn to the Meritorious Fellowship of Hot Air Blowers [iv] . Please note, however, that I too am a card-carrying (albeit “sometime” [v]) member, so please don’t make too many nasty or sarcastic comments about the Fellowship or its motto, “Words in Immoderation” [vi].

Why I refer to the Fellowship and its works should be obvious. Given our bewilderment and confusion, we should surely consider what the Hot Air Blowers have told us about the last few weeks. Who would know better?

Let me consider then, in alphabetical order, the works of six leading fellows. Unfortunately, for space reasons, I’ll have to be brief. But I will try to capture the core of what these wise people have written or said.

First is Peter Bruce, whose piece “Week of hell lays bare more than just mall shelves,” July 18, can be found here. Given previous stances, especially his pro-Ramaphosa ones, this article is a step forward.

“The response to [the violence and looting, etc.] was also a failure, mainly of crime and political intelligence and the leadership of ... Ramaphosa himself,” wrote Bruce. “In a sense, the violence and looting and destruction begin and end with Ramaphosa.”

He also names some names – not of conspirators per se but of those who have in his view clearly dropped the ball. These are the national commissioner of police, Khehla Sitole; Ramaphosa’s “deputy [David Mabuza, who], typically, is nowhere to be seen as the s**t hits the fan”; and the head of the NPA in Gauteng, Andrew Chauke, who, Bruce tells us, is a Zuma person.

All in all, says Bruce, “Ramaphosa’s serene, surreal aloofness amid the growing signs of chaos, division and policy failure around him”, and “his platitudinous statements of good intent” have been a disaster [vii]. Ramaphosa now needs “to fight for his country”.

Second is Mark Gevisser, whose piece, also of 18 July, is titled “What happens to a Dream Deferred?” and can be found here. The question “What happens to a dream deferred?” – from a Langston Hughes poem – is, of course, the central motif of Gevisser’s acclaimed biography of Thabo Mbeki.

As might be expected, then, this piece pivots on Mbeki’s 1998 concern about the “the crisis of expectation of black South Africans awaiting liberation and who now [find] themselves on the brink of explosion” – because a dream deferred can turn rotten or explode. 

The gravest threat to the country’s stability, writes Gevisser, “is not that there is an old man sitting in the Estcourt Correctional Facility, and that his supporters have fomented an insurrection to re-establish their kleptocracy and keep themselves out of jail. It is that the vision of last week recedes from our eyes, not because the problem has been solved, but because we forget again”. 

Third is a 30-minute interview with Ronnie Kasrils conducted by Tshidi Madia of EWN. It’s more of the usual from Kasrils – though he does recognize that what has happened was an effort “to destabilize” the country and that Dlodlo (“who I of course know”) presides over a “weakened” (read: pretty incompetent?) ministry, the one of which Kasrils was previously chief.

But notwithstanding his previous role in government and MK and strong analytic skills, Kasrils seems not to know anything that we don’t. And though he passionately describes Zuma and his acolytes as “grotesque mediocrities” who have “no real power”, Kasrils does not share with us why the riots or unrest were not stymied by “the authorities” for five days, if not longer. Nor, for that matter, does he explain why such “grotesque mediocrities” ran such a successfully destructive and frightening campaign.

In fairness to Ferial Haffajee, her piece, titled “Under investigation: Twelve masterminds planned and executed insurrection on social media, then lost control after looting spree”, was written eight days ago [viii]. This was when the “news” from the government – that there had been an insurrection master-minded on social media by a dozen bad folk – was fresh.

Alas, now that the authorities are clearly struggling to round up eight likely suspects, let alone 12, questions are being asked as to whether the “insurrection” stuff was simply a handy explanation for a puzzled and floundering president and government.

This is certainly the view of Moeletsi Mbeki, a political economist, analyst, and brother of you-know-who. In an interview on BizNews, Mbeki says Ramaphosa is “a real racial opportunist who manipulates both the whites by playing on their fears and prejudices and the blacks by playing on their fears and their prejudices”.

Flowing from this, Mbeki said, it is “the strategy of the government is to tell the population that this [unrest, etc.] is a conspiracy. [That] it is not because of poverty. This is an old trick the National Party used to use. The National Party used to say our blacks are happy, it is the communists who are creating trouble. The ANC is saying our blacks are happy. It’s either the Zulus or – then they realise that’s not quite kosher (the Zulu thing) – they say, ‘oh, it’s insurrectionists’”.

Mbeki continues: “Zuma has support amongst the poor. We have always known this. Everybody has known except his enemies within the ANC. When Zuma walked into a stadium, there was a huge welcome uproar for him. ... The poor who go to ... rallies to get free food parcels and free T-shirts will [sing and dance] with him. So they see him as one of them. He has no education. He doesn’t come from the elite, like [those from] the Eastern Cape, like my brother and Mandela. He is not a son of a policeman like Cyril Ramaphosa [ix]. He is just an ordinary person ... That’s why they identify with him – there was bound to be a response when he got arrested. They have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by raiding a shopping mall.”

Mbeki then says: “I wrote an article in February 2011 saying that there is going to be an explosion in South Africa within the coming 10 years. It [was] predictable. There’s nothing mysterious about it. When you have levels of youth unemployment of 50% plus – people between the ages of 15 and 24 – ... when you have a level of poverty of 50% of your population, you know this is a powder keg that’s gonna explode. There was absolutely nothing unpredictable about the explosion that happened last week.”

Finally, Brian Pottinger, former editor of the Sunday Times, emerged from wherever he is these days [Ballito apparently – Ed.] and on July 15 wrote a piece titled “South Africa is on the brink”.

Pottinger lays the “blame” clearly at Ramaphosa’s feet. “I believe him to be an honourable and decent man, but not an effective one. He showed [Pottinger has done some work with Ramaphosa] an almost obsessive desire to avoid confrontation, a preference for working through third parties and, later, a fierce aversion to taking tough decisions if it would affect party unity. More than once he privately confessed that he was a master at dancing on eggshells.”

It’s also clear to Pottinger that BEE policies “turned into a one-way flow of money extorted with state sanction from private or public purses into the hands of a monstrously avaricious new elite” and that this elite’s behaviour (“consumed in a style that would put a Byzantine court to shame”) “has not gone unnoticed by the people burning the malls today”.

He also has a few choice words about “cadre deployment”: “[u]nable to even manage its own party affairs, they had no hope of managing a modern state. Everywhere there was dysfunction, collapse and corruption, the burden again borne most heavily by the poor”.

Above all, Pottinger notes, is that Ramaphosa “has failed to repudiate any of his predecessors’ disastrous policies: seizure of land without compensation; the Government’s land redistribution policy which has seen productivity of transferred land fall by 87%; the free tertiary education policy which has turned once great universities into day-care centres for uneducated young people; the highly restrictive labour policies or the huge state social welfare and public service bills. All of this compounded by a mismanaged and inappropriate State response to the various recent coronavirus outbreaks. Serial lockdowns have massively affected employment and driven urban and rural poverty, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal”.

Pottinger says KZN is “destabilized and trapped in a classic first phase of revolution, driven by what appears to be a determined yet still shadowy alliance of usurped politicians and opportunistic criminals. In the frame right now for being the instigators are renegade former – and possibly current – elements of the State Security Agency ... Army and police loyalties are still unclear” [x].


Well, those are the wise words – a few useful I thought, though some not – from a selection of the Fellowship. What can we learn from them regarding the causes of the “insurrection,” those behind it, its aims, and its possible continuation?

Obviously, whichever way one cuts it, things were (and are) ripe for looting and destruction – and, for this, we can thank a corrupt, venal, and inept “governing” party, run (or rather not run) by an allegedly “decent” but thus far ineffectual president.

But while the unrest was clearly initiated by the Zuma coterie, did they really intend to launch a full-blown insurrection? Politicsweb reader, Syd Kaye, commented: “Perhaps the goal was less ambitious than a coup or insurrection. [But rather that] the vultures who still have access to the public trough wanted to say, ‘don't mess with us!’ It is not so much that Zuma is jailed that worries them but that [his jailing] is a precursor to what is to come”. And so, the old ANC standby of yore, making the country ungovernable, was deployed.

If this is what they planned, however, where is the necessary counter-offensive from the Ramaphosa administration? The authorities are clearly struggling to produce the “dirty dozen” they promised. Is this because the authorities don’t actually know who the main culprits are? Or can’t they find them? Or were critical parts of the state complicit, and so are unlikely to go out and arrest themselves? The great difficulty in analysing the ANC is always trying to distinguish conspiracy from incompetence.

The longer the state fails to provide actual evidence for the “organised insurrection” theory, the louder Moeletsi Mbeki’s scepticism seems to echo.

Obvious, however, is that the first matches were lit in Zuma’s name by his daughter Duduzile, and by other Zuma “supporters”. See last week’s article – “The Zuma insurrection: A quick & dirty analysis”. It’s remarkable, by the way – or maybe not – that despite the clear evidence afforded by the social media activity of the Zuma twins, they have not been questioned, let alone arrested.

What further suggests a more-or-less-planned insurrection is the evidence that water purification plants and telephone towers were attacked, as well as the main logistic route (the N3). The factories, shops and malls were not just looted, there was a determined effort to destroy them completely as well. In a number of areas of KZN the police apparently just disappeared ahead of the outbreak of violence.

Those involved in these armed attacks have not gone away, and they haven’t been arrested either, despite having committed a series of fresh new crimes to add to all their old ones. So, what are they thinking and planning right now?

And what is the ordinary citizen, locked at home in his/her Covid-19 repelling bubble, to believe? Should we be preparing (mentally, if nothing else) for the next strike by the pro-Zuma forces?

Rumours abound. There’s a poster out on social media announcing a protest tomorrow (Friday) at the Durban city hall “against the Phoenix masacre [sic] and racist attacks on our people” – #BlackLivesMatter. News24 reports today that Police stations across the country, especially those with arms storage facilities, have been placed on high alert following intelligence that “instigators” may be planning to attack, with the intention of stealing guns, ammunition, and other weapons.

Or is this all scaremongering? Has the threat passed? Is the conflict over? Or is the war for South Africa’s future soon about to begin?

Like the allied troops in France in the Spring of 1940 we can only watch and wait. 

Still, here in Mzanzi, it’s a lovely sunny day.


[i] Although Nazi Germany had invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and the UK and France declared war on Germany two days later, there were scant military operations on the Western Front until the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940.

By the way, even those with my limited geographical knowledge, might notice that from an Allied point-of-view the front should have been an Eastern one. It appears the Allies happily borrowed the German World War I usage, “die Westfront”.

[ii] I sort of knew what she meant – which was, presumably, that the looting and violence were aimed at nullifying the “gains” of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) ... What these gains are supposed to have been, I am not, however, so certain.

The Defence Minister also said she was terribly “personally upset” about being called disloyal. She is alas often deeply personally upset – as, for example, when asked about the alleged murder by soldiers of Collins Khosa in Alexandra on April 10, 2020. I am aware that the minister has had and still may have a number of heart-rending family “issues”. But her over-emotional responses, these typically passive aggressive bullying gambits, are growing tedious. Though only 64, maybe she should call it a day as soon as convenient. I for one would wish her well in her retirement.

[iii] And, under our breaths, we might even continue reciting the lyrics: “No reason to get excited/ The thief, he kindly spoke/ There are many here among us/ Who feel that life is but a joke/ But you and I, we've been through that/ And this is not our fate/ So let us stop talkin’ falsely now/ The hour’s getting late ...”

[iv] The Meritorious Fellowship of Hot Air Blowers is not unlike the British charitable group the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers (1924-31). Membership, however, is far more relaxed. One is not forced to wear cufflinks, as members of the Froth Blowers were. All one needs is a keyboard, the internet, membership or former membership of the mainstream media, or a connection with important political personages or movements; and having written a book or two doesn’t hurt.

[v] I write “sometime” because, without having been formally informed, I have been rusticated from the organization on more than one occasion – for reasons which have also never been formally explained to me. But I presume these occurrences have been covered by the Fellowship’s well-known “Kafka clause” – as in The Trial, in which a man is charged with a crime that is never named.

[vi] The motto of the Froth Blowers was “Lubrication in Moderation” – the motto of the Hot Air Blowers is, as noted, “Words in Immoderation”.

[vii] Some of these thoughts and words come from an article by Brian Pottinger (as Bruce acknowledges); see below.

[viii] And was quoted at length in the piece I co-wrote last week.

[ix] A peculiar thing for Mbeki to have said, since Zuma’s father was a rural policeman – or so Zuma says anyway. You can’t believe anyone these days.

[x] Whatever you do, Mr Pottinger, please do not mention this to the Minister of Defence. She would have a serious meltdown. Can we really do without a minister of defence at a time when we’ve already lost our minister of health?