They came from far and wide, goggle-eyed and incoherent. A gathering of the deranged and dangerous, come together to worship at the altar of their god, Jacob Zuma. It’s been a while since they got together. Out of power, they have no state-funded padded rooms to meet in. But beggars can’t be choosers. Zuma’s court appearance today would suffice. The band was back together. Behold: the lunatic asylum AGM.
The chief lunatic, whoever that is, had obviously issued a song sheet beforehand. It had one line: Jacob Zuma was the best president South Africa has ever had. And all the crazies sang from it. A horrible tune, set to a fingernail scraping across a chalk board.
There was Hlaudi Motsoeneng, fresh from his own abject failure before the courts. He is a special chap, is Motsoeneng. The kind of crazy you usually only find standing on a soap box in Hyde Park, ranting about how they never landed on the moon.
But under Zuma, he found himself perched atop the ultimate soap box - the SABC itself. The Lunatics had never had it so good before. One of their own, with a state-sponsored loud hailer in hand, rabbiting on about the size of his brain to the entire nation. Those were the hay days. When he left, the soap box was not so much dismantled, as decimated into a pile of wood chips.
Zuma was so great, he said outside court. So great. Like Napoleon, who presumably sometimes stares back at Motsoeneng from the mirror.
And there was Carl Niehaus, official Lunatic Asylum spokesperson. He was dressed in fatigues. Because he is at war. With what, we don’t know. The voices in his head perhaps. Good for him.
There is something desperately sad about Niehaus. He is so bad at everything he does. But he keeps doing it. It’s kind of like watching someone performing brain surgery on themselves. And with each chunk of grey matter they remove, the smile gets bigger and the comprehension smaller. Niehaus has been wielding that scalpel for some time now.
Anyway, this was a day out and he was going to make the best of it. What a joy to have an audience to talk to; to once again imagine he mattered. How he bristled with pride.
Supra Mahumapelo, one of the few lunatics who has yet to be removed to a safe place, had a few things to say as well. Among them, that, “those who tell them to distance themselves from Zuma need some serious medical examination”. He would know.
In the background, Zuma watched on. How proud he was of everyone. What a team he had assembled. The A-team. A for Asylum.
Most people would be embarrassed, that the dregs were all that could be mustered up on the day. Not Zuma. He was grateful. Proud that his particular brand of incompetence and chaos so resonated with these brave warriors. He didn’t need sense or stature, reason or argument. He had something much, much better: the pure, unadulterated power of nonsense. And, in the likes of Motsoeneng, Niehaus and Mahumapelo, three disciples who had mastered the art of rubbish.
There were other lunatics who popped up on the stage. Andile Lungisa has a Lord of Rings feel to him. In the book, any given sword inevitably has a range of fear-inducing names attached it is more formal title: “Goblin Slayer” or “Biter”. Lungisa should be known as “Jug Smasher”, a crime for which he was recently sentenced to two years in jail, after he connected a water pitcher with a fellow councillor’s head. But here, he was given a mic instead. Maybe someone told him it was a jug.
Des van Rooyen, lunatic designate in charge of the economy, was there. And, of course, no crazy convention would be complete without Andile Mngxitama. He was there to dispense tin foil caps and provide context. As if to say, “You thought Hlaudi Motsoeneng was off the deep end? Wrong. Let me show you just how far down this pool goes.”
Eventually, the High Priest of Crazy, Zuma himself, would take the stage. And he is the High Priest for a reason – because he knows exactly how to mobilise the unstable and unhinged: conspiracy. Aaaah, conspiracy, the glue that binds South African madness together. If there is anything that fuels crazy, it’s the prospect that some malevolent force is secretly pulling all the strings in the background.
He delivered in spades, this whole corruption thing was a “conspiracy”. And, of course, there was the standard supplementary threat: Don’t provoke me. Uhhhhh, you got a bottom line problem there, old chap. If nine years of relentless public condemnation doesn’t yet constitute some kind of provocation, you don’t really understand what provocation is. Unless, by provocation you mean prosecution? That would be a little more plausible.
When all was said and done, the Lunatic Asylum AGM really only seemed to have three items on the agenda for the day. Item 1: Zuma is great. No objections. Adopted. Item 2: This is all a conspiracy. No objections. Adopted. Item 3: Don’t provoke. No objections. Adopted. Meeting adjourned. Everyone back to your wards. Time to dose up and get those straight-jackets back on again.
It was great to see everyone back in action again. We have really missed them all. It was a pity that the crowd which had gathered seemed to quite enjoy everything they had to say. And not in a “hey, check out just how bonkers this guy really is” kind of way. More in a kind of, “wow, I absolutely agree with that” kind of way. But then perhaps pity isn’t the word. In fact, it’s the problem. This gathering was all about being taken seriously. And, as much as it irks, one probably has to do that.
Sigh. You really can’t win, you know. Put the lunatics in charge for too long and soon enough, the world is your asylum. Cyril Ramaphosa seems to be doing his best to fight back against the crazies. But Ground Zero is KwaZulu-Natal, and rationality seems unable to set foot in that province, even when protected with a lead-lined suit. It’s fairly radioactive with what can only be described as the unconstrained impulse towards demagogic irrationality, wrapped up in a persecution complex and bound together by hate and ignorance. That stuff will burn through concrete.
And it is immune to reason, that is the real problem. You cannot explain to Hlaudi Motsoeneng that Zuma actually broke some pretty serious things in his time. Hell you can’t even explain that Zuma. Both will look at you like you are talking in scribbles. This kind of crazy only understands one thing: power. And you can either crush it or relent before it. But you cannot reason your way out of it. What is disturbing is that irrationality, incompetence, incoherence and irrelevance still has this much power in the first place.
What the Lunatic Asylum AGM made perfectly clear is that, while its members no longer occupy positions of formal power, informally, it still defines much of what constitutes debate inside the ANC. And, as long as that continues to be the case, their agenda will be everyone’s agenda. We operate under the pretence that reason and rationality hold some considerable sway. Those things, however, have never been weaker.
Gareth van Onselen is the Head of Politics and Governance for the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.