Our Potemkin President overruled again

Andrew Donaldson says Ace Magashule continues to call the shots within the ANC


THE VBS Mutual Bank saga continues to startle. This week, a senior party official had this to say of the ANC national executive committee’s decision to reinstate two ousted heavyweights who were implicated in the scandal: “The problem that we have in the ANC today is that when you condemn corruption, some people get angry as if corruption is their middle name. They feel so much pain."

Like many others, even within the ANC, Limpopo provincial secretary Soviet Lekganyane is angry that former provincial treasurer Danny Msiza and former deputy chair Florence Radzilani have now been allowed to resume what may loosely be referred to as their “duties”. Cyril Ramaphosa was apparently among those few NEC members opposed to the idea. But, as usual, the Potemkin president was overruled by Luthuli House, his chatter about the message this was sending largely ignored.

Lekganyane’s forthright condemnation of the decision is yet another indication the party doesn’t give a stuff when it comes to civil propriety. In fact, according to News24, he couldn’t believe the announcement by ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, and his response was to laugh in disbelief. “I’m so confused,” he said.

Later, after gathering his thoughts, Lekganyane told the Sowetan that he’d rather be “hated” by his comrades for speaking out on the matter than defend those accused of stealing from the poor. “I’m not casting any allegations on these persons but there are serious allegations about these persons that they have benefited from what was supposed to be accruing to the poor. And then instead of standing with those that do not have a voice [we stand with the accused].”

Magashule is clearly standing with Msiza and Radzilani. “These comrades have not been charged with anything,” he said. “These comrades have been mentioned in reports like many comrades mentioned in many reports. You can’t charge people because of allegations. That’s why we said, after almost two years these comrades must come back.”

On top of this nonsense, there came some hypocrisy about the party being “sensitive” to the fact that many people had “lost” their savings. As if the money was not stolen by their leaders and instead the people couldn’t recall whether they had left their tom at the taxi rank or stashed it in the kitchen cupboard.

For good measure there was the customary lip service about the need for the law to act swiftly against the bank’s looters. In due course, Magashule added, confusion over the reinstatements would be dealt with. “We are going to engage our structures. We are going to engage society. We are going to explain the rationale behind the decision by the NEC.”

I can’t speak for society, but I believe the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) do not expect much in the form of rationale when that explanation is revealed. Still, until then, we can revisit some of the allegations against Msiza and Radzilani.

According to advocate Terry Motau and Werksmans Attorneys’ report into the R2-billion VBS looting, Msiza allegedly used his political clout to convince Limpopo mayors and municipal officials to invest hundreds of millions of rands into the bank. He had reportedly engineered a shifty scheme whereby commissions of up to two per cent of the amounts invested would be paid out as a bribe to depositors. 

These investments were unlawful; municipalities may not invest with mutual banks. The national treasury also instructed municipalities to stop the deposits. Msiza was also granted a dodgy loan of R9.5-million from VBS, in the name of Mojovax, a company with Msiza and his wife listed as sole directors.

The charges against Radzilani, identified in the report only as “the mayor of Vhembe”, are more interesting. She had apparently complained that the kickbacks she received from the looting were not as generous as those doled out to more junior civil servants.

One hopes that this was not as a result of sexism in the Limpopo municipalities. That women should now encounter glass ceilings in corruption as well as other areas of their careers will come as a blow to feminists who had otherwise welcomed the advances towards gender parity in government. The ANC Women’s League may yet strike a posture of high dudgeon about this institutional chauvinism.

Motau’s report details a WhatsApp discussion about Radzilani that took place in December 2017 between Kabelo Matsepe, the alleged middleman in soliciting municipal deposits for the bank, and former VBS chairperson Tshifhiwa Matodzi, one of those now facing criminal charges in connection with the looting.

“The mayor of Vhembe is crying,” Matsepe texted, “she says we must give her and the speaker a Christmas because they are the ones who are making sure we keep that money for six months. We gave her 300k and she cried and said we gave juniors R1.5-million and we gave her 300k … we said we will consult with you and will sort her out Friday morning … if we can let’s give her 1% on a level of trust because she did keep her promise that she will block the money from being withdrawn.”

Matodzi replied: “Go ahead … But she must know the formula.” 

Motau described the WhatsApp exchange as “one of the most illuminating examples of the rampant corruption and bribery” in the VBS saga. Radzilani believes its inclusion in the report is defamatory and last year issued summons in the Pretoria High Court against Motau and the Reserve Bank. She is claiming R38-million for defamation, loss of income and reputational damage.

The Vhembe municipality duly lost the R300-million it deposited with the bank. In April this year, GroundUp reported that some villagers in the municipality were walking up to ten kilometres a day to fetch water from a river, their only source. I wonder how damaging that may be to Radzilani’s reputation.

When orange turns to puce

The Economist has launched an online statistical forecaster model for the American elections. It offers daily updates on Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s chances of success and, at the time of writing, was predicting that the incumbent had a two per cent chance of “winning the most votes”. Of course, much could happen between now and November and it’s possible that Trump’s chances could be reduced to one per cent or less by polling day. 

Some observers see the model as an attempt to enliven a dull contest between two very senior citizens. How much more thrilling it would have been had Bernie Sanders been the Democrats’ front runner. True, he is older than both Trump and Biden, but Sanders would probably have selected the youthful Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as his running mate, a choice likely to induce apoplexy in Trump, maybe even causing him to fall over.

Many conservatives claim to harbour a deep loathing for Ocasio-Cortez but are secretly wildly excited by her. The notion of being firmly put in one’s place by a shouty Latina is one that thrills these right-wingers, stirring as it does childhood memories of the help. One should avoid Freud as a rule, but such unhealthy fantasies may need professional attention.

Imperial urges 

Help from an unlikely quarter may be at hand for those against the removal of the Rhodes statue from Oxford’s Oriel College. This follows news that the Rosetta Stone is to be included in an LGBT tour of the British Museum’s “gay treasures”. It seems the English politician and Egyptologist William John Bankes had once offered Lord Byron advice on translating the Stone. Then, about two decades later, in 1841, Bankes was caught in a compromising position with a guardsman in London’s Green Park and forced into exile.

“Just as some things can be spuriously torn down because they do not reflect current values,” the columnist Camilla Long writes in The Sunday Times of London, “it appears others can be spuriously raised up because people feel they do. So if Oxford University really wants to protect its Cecil Rhodes statute, it should unearth a gay past for him pronto.” 

Rhodes’s biographers draw on Louis Cohen’s memoir, Reminiscences of Kimberley (1911), in this regard. Cohen often saw Rhodes “dressed in white flannels, leaning moodily with hands in his pockets against a street wall. He hardly ever had a companion, seemingly took no interest in anything but his own thoughts, and I do not believe if a flock of the most adorable women passed through the street he would go across the road to see them.” In fact, “…for the fair sex, he cared nothing.”

Much is also made of the close relationship between Rhodes and Neville Pickering, his private secretary and housemate. Pickering was badly injured after being thrown from a horse during a race in Kimberley in 1884. Rhodes was on the Witwatersrand when he got the news and was on the first coach back to Kimberley. All seats were taken, so he roughed out the 15-hour journey on the roof with the mailbags. Pickering never recovered from his injuries and took more than two years to die. He did so in Rhodes’ arms. At the funeral, Rhodes was openly grief-stricken, his weeping punctuated by high-pitched, maniacal laughter.

None of this offers much proof of anything. But, as AN Wilson points out in his history, The Victorians (2002), it would be easy to make sense of the colonial ambition “if we could attribute the whole phenomenon of the British Empire to repression of, or failure to understand, sexuality”. He writes:

“How nearly one could argue that the careers of Rhodes, Kitchener, Baden-Powell and many another manly, knobbly-kneed son of Empire reached their zenith at the very moment Wilde confronted his nemesis. Empires are male phenomena. They presumably come about in conjunction with an excess of testosterone. The Emperor Claudius alone among the great Caesars excited derisive gossip to observe his unusual taste for women. All the others liked not merely men, but boys. The same could be said for the empires of Alexander the Great or the Ottomans at their apogee of strength.”

Could this be? That the scramble for Africa and territories further afield was due to the repression of homosexuality? It’s a bit of a stretch but, you know, we live and learn. 

Declaring Oxford’s statue of Rhodes a gay treasure would certainly make life easier for all concerned. It would no longer compromise the wellbeing of students and the English may finally come to regard Rhodes as one of their own. Perhaps they are embarrassed by the sheer scale of his greed and savage ambition, but Rhodes is not held in the same esteem as other heroes of empire.

As a gay icon, though, he could be right up there in the Herberts’ Hall of Fame and British journalists may stop referring to this soft-spoken son of a Hertfordshire vicar as a “South African businessman”. 

Jules Stobbs, RIP

The awful news has just broken that Jules Stobbs, one half of the Dagga Couple, was fatally wounded during an armed robbery at their home on a smallholding near Lanseria on Friday morning. According to early reports, four men stormed into the property at about 2.30am, ransacking it. They entered the couple’s bedroom, where Stobbs was shot. His partner, Myrtle Clarke, was unhurt. The intruders made off with two laptop computers, two cellphones and some cash.

It was a previous home invasion, this time by the police in 2010, and the legal hassles that followed that spurred the couple to mount their campaign to decriminalise marijuana. In January 2013, Stobbs and Clarke swung by the old Mahogany Ridge to talk about the case they were taking to the Constitutional Court that year. 

They claimed that, in addition to violating their human rights, the prohibition of dagga costs the South African taxpayer millions of rands each year — money which could be used more effectively elsewhere. Re-legalisation, as they called it, could spark a growth in the industrial cannabis sector; South Africa’s climate, they argued, is ideally suited to growing hemp, a crop which for centuries has been used for food, textiles, paper, fabric, medicine and fuel oil. 

They also claimed that the roots of dagga’s prohibition lay in the racist laws of the country’s colonial past. 

The first, and perhaps most thorough inquiry into the drug was carried out by the British in India. The findings of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, published in 1894, were remarkably unbiased and concluded that moderate use produced virtually no “evil results” in the subcontinent. The commission even warned against prohibition; taxation, it was argued, was the best method to restrict use.

It was a different matter when those Indians found themselves indentured labourers on the Natal sugar plantations. Although dagga was already in widespread use by Africans — and tolerated by Europeans as long as it stayed “in the bush”, as one cannabis history put it — it was felt that the drug would have an adverse affect on sugar production, making cane workers lazy and ill. Oddly, in the goldfields on the Rand, the opposite was found to be the case, and miners were allowed to use the drug, a practice which continued until the first law prohibiting the sale of dagga in South Africa was passed in 1908. International prohibition came 20 years later.

The draconian anti-drug laws introduced by the then interior minister Connie Mulder in 1971 were designed to counter the possibility of inter-racial socialising among stoned young South Africans. As Mulder put it: “When . . . our very existence is endangered by an evil which is often as elusive as the wind . . . we are justified in taking measures which are commensurate with those available to us when the security of the State is at stake. If we fail to do so when it is necessary we might very before long fighting for our existence.”

Those measures included the handing of down of minimum sentences of six months behind bars for a first offence of possession. According to the late Helen Suzman, an estimated 80 000 people alone were jailed for dagga offences in the first five years following the implementation of Mulder’s laws — most of them black. A further 10 000 were jailed for dealing. And still the country lit up.

Thanks in part to Stobbs and Clarke’s activism, which was often dismissed and derided as nuts by establishment editors whose staff were very often baked out of their gourds on deadline, the Constitutional Court ruled in September 2018, in support of a Western Cape High Court judgment, to decriminalise the possession and personal use of cannabis in a private space by adults. Following the ruling, the couple then set about launching a class action against the state, to erase the criminal records of those convicted for possession under Mulder’s laws.

South Africans owe the Dagga Couple a great debt of gratitude, and I feel that an enormous sculpture of a female plant in full bloom should be erected within the Constitutional Hill precinct to honour Stobbs and his battle for our personal liberties. 

Hamba kahle, Jules, and deepest condolences, Myrtle.