If only the dead could speak

RW Johnson imagines what politicians past and present think about our current situation

We've just had Mandela Day. Usually this produces lots of quasi-religious depictions of the Old Man with wings and a halo and a great deal of devotional mush about how we must all try to live up to him, be inspired by him etc. This is very different from what happens when we get to 12 September, the day when Steve Biko was murdered. Then we get a steady annual diet of “what would Steve Biko think if he were alive today?”

In fact examination of Biko's life shows that he cheerfully dismissed Robert Sobukwe's reprimand about his drinking too much and that he was a spectacularly successful ladies' man, fathering children with several of them. So the answer is that if Biko were alive today – and it is sad that he isn't – he would probably be knocking back the hard stuff, surrounded by a very large extended family.

It is in fact an interesting exercise to imagine what previous actors would make of today's scene – and it is best not to be too pious since none of yesterday's heroes were saints. On the other hand we should remember Will Rogers' remark that “anybody who hates animals AND children can't be all bad”, for even some of our villains had redeeming sides.

Let's start by imagining Mandela taking in today's scene:

“Hmmm, did I really do 27 years in prison so that these nincompoops could mess up the country like this? Maybe I should have stuck to boxing. And I used to feel bad that so many of my comrades were in jail alongside me but as I look at what many of them are up to now I realise that jail was actually just the right place for them.

To think that I gave Jacob Zuma a million Rands when he told me he was hard up… maybe he's got a Mandela Room at Nkandla to commemorate that? And to think that I dithered between choosing Ramaphosa or Mbeki as my successor! They've both turned out hopeless.

And this glorification of Winnie is quite absurd. It took me a long time to see through her but I did in the end. What a dreadful woman. As for these idiots making Zindzi an ambassador, what on earth were they playing at?”

Verwoerd, on the other hand, would feel vindicated:

“I knew I was right to make race the guiding principle. And sure enough, they're still doing it. They just can't manage without it. They've kept all our apartheid classifications. All that nonsense that the Progs and the ANC were always spouting about “non-racism”! Well, don't say I didn't tell you! BEE and affirmative action preserve the principles of apartheid. And I was right about the homelands too – look at the way the whole country is now just one big Bantustan.

I have to admit that racial mixing has worked better in sport than I thought it would. But the other races seem to be better at learning the white sports like cricket and rugby than our white boys are at learning a black sport like soccer. The point about soccer is that it's still mainly English. So black Englishmen are good at it but proper South Africans aren't. And it has not gone unnoticed that Ali Bacher and Joel Stransky are Jews.”

Thabo Mbeki is still alive and was smart enough to say that he thought Zuma would turn South Africa into “just another neo-colonial basket-case”, but he is careful not to express his opinions openly today. But one can imagine his stream of thought:

“It's ridiculous what a fuss they're making about coronavirus. They should have listened to me about Aids. In those days I had Nkosazana and Manto both taking the right line and we developed Virodene and the African potato. They would kill this silly virus too. The worst thing Jacob Zuma ever did was to hand out all those ARVs. Just playing into the hands of Big Pharma and the CIA. But Ramaphosa is no better. Same ridiculous nonsense with the ARVs.

Being a Venda means he can't stand up to any Xhosas or Zulus so they lead him by the nose. Imagine, I played No.2 to two giants, Oliver Tambo and Mandela but Ramaphosa was happy to play No.2 to Jacob Zuma! A pigmy like Zuma! Things have really gone to the dogs. In the old days I would just have had a word with Essop and he would have eaten Ramaphosa for lunch. Except I'm not sure there's enough of him for lunch. More like breakfast.”

“I agree with Thabo”, P.W. Botha would say:

“Being the top guy in this country is not for sissies. It's for a man's man. Don't forget I had to see off John Vorster before I could even get started and Vorster was no pushover. He'd seen the inside of a detention camp in the war and was as hard as they come. And I had to take on guys like Treurnicht and tell people it was ‘Reform or die!’ That took real balls. And I used to warn those smart-arse journalists ‘Don't push me too far or you will awake the tiger in the Afrikaner’. So then I get a real smart-arse like Max du Preez saying ‘Don't you know there are no tigers in Africa, Mr President?’ I nearly gave him a snot-klap. ‘Of course I know that. And if there were any, you wouldn't be one of them’, I told him.

It was the same after I retired. Tutu and the whole TRC circus wanted me to testify. They wanted to subpoena me. I just sat in Wilderness and told them to go to hell. They backed down, not me. Fact is this is a bloody hard country to govern. You've got to be a man's man. And no pussy-footing.”

Listening to all this is Cyril Ramaphosa.

“Well, of course, it's not true that I'm frightened to lead or that I'm getting pushed around. It's just very important to get everyone into the consensus, Mahumapelo and Ace and my sister-in-law Bridget, not to mention all the chaps in the cabinet. And their wives and their directors-general, of course. All stakeholders. One of the cabinet told me he was holding a stake so he could hammer it into Dracula. I think that was a joke, but it's best to take everyone seriously.

As for my being scared, well no. Admittedly, Bheki Cele is a very big chap and he wears that gangster hat. And he's a Zulu. They don't take prisoners, you know, you have to be careful. And when Nkosasana fixes you with her stare and says “Over my dead body”, it's very hard to disagree. Indeed, you don't feel like saying anything at all. Of course, she's a Zulu too. Again, no prisoners taken.

And there are all the comrades on the NEC. You've got to take them along with you as well and that can be a tiny bit difficult. They're awfully good chaps, of course. But some of them can be just a bit stubborn and I have resolved never to move until I have complete unanimity. That's what social compacting is.”

Here in Cape Town you're aware of the statues of Rhodes, Louis Botha and Smuts and you can't help wondering what those giants might have to say now. But Rhodes' statue has been half destroyed and there are demands to do away with Louis Botha too. Looking around at our water and power shortages and thirteen million unemployed you realise that one thing they'd all agree on is that given the scale of these problems, to be arguing about statues, of all things, is stark, staring mad.

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.