The kleptocrats klap back

Jeremy Gordin writes on Jacob Zuma's letter in response to Cyril Ramaphosa

“A fool can throw a stone into a pond that 100 wise men cannot get out,” Saul Bellow once wrote, probably improvising on a Yiddish proverb.

Still, Jacob Zuma’s letter of 28 August to Cyril Ramaphosa, as president of the ANC, contains this delightful Rococo flourish: “Many, in white circles that [should be “who”] are fond of you [Ramaphosa], and seek to minimize your errors, will fill their barrels of ink and sharpen their pens to condemn me for expressing my views” [1].

These days few own barrels of ink, and most people, especially those to whom the letter is probably referring, stopped sharpening their pens, or rather pencils, a long time ago; they use laptops. Anyway, though he would know and agree with its contents, the letter was not composed by Zuma – he doesn’t have the English language skills.

It was put together by those opposed to Ramaphosa’s “apparent” moves against corruption in the ANC, i.e. it was discussed, planned, and drafted, in more places than merely the Nkandla homestead. Zuma is merely the tip of the spear.

I have written “apparent” about Ramaphosa’s moves because it is one thing for Ramaphosa to say he is acting against something. It is quite another for him palpably to do so.

But what Ramaphosa did do a week ago was send a letter to all ANC members saying that the ANC should collectively hang its head in shame because, as far as corruption is concerned, the ANC is “accused no. 1” (journalist’s Andrew Donaldson’s well-known tag for Zuma). It is to this letter that Team Zuma was responding.

Additionally, it is understood that ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule (go figure) had been requested to compile a list of those accused of, or implicated in, corruption (e.g., former eThekwini Mayor Zandile Gumede), for presentation to the ANC National Executive Council (NEC) meeting that started (apparently later than scheduled) on Saturday.

Zuma’s letter to Ramaphosa, boiled down, makes the following four points. First, it’s not done to hang out the ANC’s grubby underwear in public. Second, Ramaphosa unfairly implicated “thousands of innocent members of the ANC” who have never benefitted from corruption.

Third, Ramaphosa was simply trying to divert attention from himself, which is unconscionable; a stalwart ANC member should “person up” and face accusations as an individual without dragging down the party; more to the point, it is more than possible that some of Ramaphosa’s companies did business with government (national or provincial) while he was deputy president of the ANC and SA [2] ; above all, Ramaphosa has himself been “corrupt” because his successful ANC presidential campaign in December 2017 (CR17) was funded by so-called white monopoly capital (WMC).

Let me interpolate here, if I may, that the phrase WMC has become so nasty, abused, abusive, derogatory, and propagandistic that it’s difficult for the average rational person to read it without his/her lip twisting in irritation. But to Zuma and his ilk, including many ANC members, WMC is easily defined. It means simply “White” money – and moreover money from financial houses, large successful companies, and so on. Given the identity of those who donated to CR17 – much of the data was leaked some time ago – one should not therefore under-estimate the force or sticking power of Team Zuma’s accusation. The phrase “like shxt to a blanket” unfortunately comes to mind.

Fourth, Zuma asks Ramaphosa how he dare lambast the ANC when on his own watch, the ANC has deliberately avoided its own resolutions on land expropriation, nationalization of the SA Reserve Bank, radical economic transformation, and so on?

Notwithstanding the curlicues, shallow rhetoric, and core hypocrisy, it’s quite a smart letter, especially point 4, which holds Ramaphosa’s delicate feet to the fire. But if dealt with quietly and rationally (I wonder what I’m smoking this morning), it could in my view quite easily be countered.

But leaving aside Team Zuma’s diversionary maelstrom, I want rather to consider the letter’s effect, for in terms of realpolitik, it looks to have been effective indeed.

In recent weeks, several people, including Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, were busted for corruption. That was due to the Corrupted doing what members of the ANC (and others) have been doing for at least decades. Using their positions and connections, they looked to cash in from whatever deals and tenders were available.

These recent “opportunities” have been Covid-19-related, PPEs and the like – the “problem” here being that the government has been imposing serious hardship (in some cases, hunger) on its citizens on the basis that it, the government, cares deeply about us and is merely trying to protect us from Covid-19.

Now, even those South Africans who have accepted that the chiefs need to eat first and best, and who have therefore pretty much ignored the aberrant behaviour of ANC “leaders,” could not stomach this, especially as the stomachs of many were empty and they’d forcibly been prevented from going out to earn a crust or two.

Serious indignation and anger erupted. Not even in their worst nightmares would those mentioned so sonorously by Zuma in his letter (Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Sol Plaatjie, John Langalibalele Dube, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, etc. etc.) have ever expected to hear the phrase “Voetsek ANC” uttered by ordinary South Africans (read: people of colour).

Even somnolent Cyril realized he had to do something vaguely decent – or he saw an opportunity to clean out the stables; I’m not certain which. So, he wrote the seven-page letter referred to above. At best, someone might pay attention to him; at worst, he’d have covered his posterior – “Look, I wrote a letter to the ANC members”. At this point, Team Zuma also saw an opportunity to attack Ramaphosa.

But here’s the thing, I believe. For the Corrupted, many of whom (as we have seen) are to be found in provincial or national government and in the ANC, what Ramaphosa did by writing his letter was a much more serious issue than mere politicking or trying to resuscitate land expropriation, SA Reserve Bank nationalization, radical economic transformation, etc. Forget about the National Democratic Revolution – this is about money and money is a far more serious issue.

For the Corrupted, corruption is what we might call, ironically, a bread and butter issue. It’s how they make their way in life, it’s what they have to do to get ahead, especially if their aspirations include – as they so often do –a home in a “good” suburb, a private school for the kiddies, a BMW, fancy duds, the latest mobile phone, and so on. (Remember the photographs of the home, friends and family of Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams that caused her to be placed on “special leave” in April?)

It’s a South African way of life; it’s how the system operates. Trust me (about this, if nothing else): there are a lot of people around – in, as I said, national or provincial government and in the ANC – who would be “destroyed” (not to mention embarrassed) if Ramaphosa has his purported way.

In short, what was scheduled to come up and to be dealt with at Saturday’s NEC meeting was of vital importance, not just to Ace Magashule, Khusela Diko or Dr Bandile Masuku – but to a myriad of others whose houses of (inter alia credit) cards were possibly threatened.

Then Team Zuma struck on Friday and the big question was: what would happen? Or, rather, given decades of ANC fiddling about, would anything happen? For often the pundits tell us that there’s about to be a shoot-out at Luthuli Corral – yet nothing (immediate, or anything that we can see) happens.

So, what did happen? There have been some claims of sound and fury. “Attempts to get Ramaphosa to step down ... continued, with some of the NEC backing an earlier call by Tony Yengeni. Sources within the ANC said seven other members of the NEC have called for the president to go. Former cabinet minister Nomvula Mokonyane said Ramaphosa’s letter ... was spitting on [in?] their faces. She called for Ramaphosa to be removed from the party”.

But I find unidentified “sources” as hard to swallow as hot curry sauce. Journalist Claud Cockburn is alleged to have said: “Believe nothing until it has been officially denied”. I have a different sort of measure. If our Sunday Times tells us, as it did yesterday, that “Ramaphosa stood firm against corruption” and various similar sentiments, then I start to wonder. And if journalist Carien du Plessis is not exactly jumping up and down with excitement and is also quoting “talk”, I wonder some more.

As best we know, what in fact did Ramaphosa do? He said – which has been hailed as some sort of victory by some in the media – that he will “submit” to an ANC integrity commission finding regarding the CR17 funding.

Whoop-dee-doo. Who cares anyway? In other words – if I might switch to boxing parlance – all Ramaphosa did was parry the attack of Team Zuma. And, as even the non-pugilists among us will know, if you are busy parrying a blow, you’re not landing any blows yourself.

In short, action regarding corruption, especially in the ANC, is precisely where it was a week ago.

Mr. Teflon and his team have struck again.


[1] There’s an old saying, by the way, often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain (like so many pithy sayings): “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel,” i.e. newspaper or media companies.

[2] Nothing irks Zuma more (or irked him more, up until, say, 2009) than that  “everyone” except him “cashed in” (as he would see it) on their struggle credentials and connections and made pots and pots of money, while he languished “penniless” in KZN (only Nelson Mandela seemed to care) – and then he was to boot pilloried (and still is being pilloried) simply because Schabir Shaik helped him out.