OPINION

Rise of the Zumbies

Andrew Donaldson says the former president's court of incompetents is still very much with us

A FAMOUS GROUSE

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IN his celebrated writings, the French memoirist Saint-Simon recorded an extraordinary act of obeisance during the Spanish War of Succession that, oddly enough, brings fresh perspective to recent events in our national democratic revolution.

Back then, in the early years of the 18th century, there was a great reluctance among clergymen and others to call on the Duc de Vendôme, commander of the French forces in Italy, due to his revolting toilet manners: Vendôme literally held court sitting on the throne.

A ducal envoy, the Bishop of Parma, resigned in disgust after Vendôme wiped his buttocks in front of him. It was a struggle to refill the position, but eventually a lowly priest, Giulio Alberoni, agreed to take on the job. 

When Alberoni called on Vendôme, he was received in the same fashion. However, rather than recoil, Alberoni leapt forward and began kissing Vendôme’s backside, crying out, “O culo di angelo!” (“Oh, the arse of an angel!”) 

This was not the first recorded instance of such behaviour. [1] 

But it may well be one of the earliest occasions that such flattery was so handsomely rewarded. Suitably touched by the gesture, Vendôme promptly made Alberoni his private secretary. 

A great political career followed, and Alberoni eventually became a cardinal and served as a statesman in the court of King Philip V of Spain, earning a reputation as a gourmand who advised the Spanish on table etiquette. 

This was not bad for a gardener’s son who had wormed his way into the church hierarchy as a bellringer. In that respect, Alberoni could be considered a forerunner of our own Hlaudi Motsoeneng. 

That is, until Motsoeneng’s career path was cut short following Jacob Zuma’s ouster. Thereafter, Motsoeneng launched his own political party, the African Content Movement, which was utterly humiliated at the polls on May 8. [2]

Zuma may no longer be president, but his court of incompetents is still very much with us, as demonstrated by the controversial selection of parliamentary portfolio committee chairs this week.

Here, then, was the same old sick bag of brown-nosing rubbish. 

Who knows, for example, what strings were pulled and knobs twiddled back in May 2014 to get Tina Joemat-Pettersson the job of energy minister. It was on her watch that 10.3-million barrels of the country’s oil reserves were sold at a bargain basement price without treasury permission, apparently because the stuff was old and stale, or so we were told.

She was duly removed from her post in March 2017, but now Joemat-Petterson is back, incredibly enough, as the chair of the police committee. No wonder she looks like a smug tortoise.

The same could be said of former mineral resources minister and Guptnik-in-chief in the Vrede Dairy Project saga, Mosebenzi “S-Class” Zwane. He now chairs the transport committee. 

Former “premier league” member Supra Mahumapelo is another. He was stripped of the North West premiership when the bankrupt province was placed under administration by national government. But now he chairs the portfolio committee on tourism.

And who knows what twisted thinking resulted in the decision to appoint former state security minister Bongani Bongo as chair of the home affairs portfolio committee. 

Here, indeed, is a piece of work. Bongo was implicated in a Hawks investigation relating to alleged corrupt land transactions during his time as legal adviser in the Mpumalanga provincial government, and accused of earning a R300 000 deposit for a BMW through a corrupt deal. 

He is also currently under investigation for allegedly offering a bribe to advocate Ntuthuzelo Vanara, evidence leader of the parliamentary inquiry into state capture at Eskom. [3] 

But the creme de la creme here is Faith Muthambi, an avowed supporter of the thief-in-chief who will now chair the committee overseeing cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

The former communications minister, Muthambi has been declared “incompetent” by an ad hoc parliamentary committee and found guilty of misleading parliament, a criminal offence. Contemptuous of procedure, she has routinely failed to explain why she spent R300 000 in public funds on transport costs for friends and family to watch her deliver a speech.

But, and perhaps at odds with the reaction of many others, she is not surprised at her new position. 

Her conscience is clear, she says, that she has done nothing wrong. “It doesn’t worry me a great deal,” she reportedly said. “I’ve gone through the test. So where I am, I believe I am a fit and proper person to serve in this committee… If I was not a fit and proper person, I would not have been here on this committee.”

And who could argue with such thinking? Certainly not ruling party MPs. Immediately there came noisome nosing in the nethers. Colleagues prostrated themselves in defence of Muthambi. Chief among the sycophants was new ANC MP Bheki Hadebe, who assumed the position with lip-blistering relish.

“Your track record speaks volumes,” Hadebe dribbled, “you’re a grounded person and given the state of our municipalities I think we could not find a more suitable candidate than you. 

“You will assist us, given your track record like I indicated that you’re grounded. We need your calibre to ensure that we inspire confidence, particular to our municipalities … and collectively, working together, we’ll be able to achieve more so in that you have our full support, in you we trust. Let’s take the bull by its horn.” [4]

It may not be Latin but, to go by the enthusiastic and deferential tone, it would seem that Hadebe has a wonderful career ahead of him. Provided of course that his knees don’t give in and he learns not to wipe his mouth mid-sentence but only after he has said his piece. The smacking of lips and other cooing sounds will however be permitted throughout.

Elsewhere, it would appear that a noticeable lack of appreciation for the immense nobility of Gwede Mantashe, the mineral resources minister and the ruling party’s national chair, has cost journalist Karima Brown her job at Radio 702.

There is a rich irony here, given Brown’s history as an ANC mbongi. But, as they say, that was then and this is now. 

Brown mentioned in an interview with Thandi Smith, policy head at Media Monitoring Africa, that Calvo Mawelo, Multichoice’s CEO, is related to Mantashe by marriage. This link, she suggested, could be problematic.

As she put it: “Now of course you can’t blame people for who they marry and in which families they marry, but these links are insidious. They are not to be ignored because we know how power works; it doesn’t always manifest in formal minutes, in memos, in paper trails, it often gets discussed in the kinds of spaces where people have the freedom to exercise enormous amounts of influence and change the direction.”

It’s not known what Smith thought of this, but Mantashe considered her comments abusive, and called Brown to complain. She told him he was welcome to lay a complaint with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA. Instead, Mantashe called up Brown’s bosses at Primedia, and now she is gone.

Which is a pity. Brown had a unique interview style and was often able to ask penetrating questions and then answer them herself, thus graciously sparing guests on her show the potential embarrassment of saying anything she didn’t agree with. But at least she didn’t answer her own questions in an overtly subservient manner.

Luckily we still have Eusibius McKaiser, who this week joined the yahoo fray of envious media professionals in mocking Daily Maverick journalist Marianne Thamm’s extraordinary scoop this week. 

Thamm had sifted through the bags of garbage outside the luxury Camps Bay villa that members of the Economic Freedom Front hired at the time of the state of the nation address and debate and put together a great story about the champagne (and posh whisky) lifestyle of our champions of the dispossessed and downtrodden. 

Many journalists, particularly at News24, thought such “muckraking” a bit beyond the pale, ethics-wise, and there has been muttering about invasions of privacy and what have you. [5]

Posting a picture of wheelie bins on Instagram, McKaiser wrote: “This morning I spotted this Daily Maverick journalist outside my complex. Before you read their trash beat journalism in the morning, let me spare you the need by confessing immediately. Yes, the Pep Stores receipt is mine. I am ashamed to be busted for pretending to be a middle-class Sandton resident but secretly shopping at Pep stores. My posh politics do not match my secret poverty chronicles.

“The Heineken beer is also mine but I vehemently deny lying about not consuming alcohol this year. The journalist didn't spot 0% on the can and got excited about showing me up as lying about sobriety. They’ll need a drink after reading this because their article is already loaded no doubt ha! 

“As for the unused, unopened condom the reporter tells me via sms they found also, it is neither the sign of an absence of safe sex nor proof of an absence of any sex...confused? Ask a Bafana Bafana fan to solve for (se)x … πŸ‘€” (sic)

This apparently is the winning prose of a “best-selling writer” with a “background” in moral philosophy. It’s very sad, but then there are two types of reporters out there. Those who get their hands dirty, and those who have to wipe their mouths.

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Footnotes:

[1] According to Peter Lukas, editor at www.ElizabethanDrama.org, its earliest use in English literature as a reference to patently obsequious behaviour can be found in the theologian John Bale’s 1545 text, A Mystery of Inequity: “But there ye worshyp him with cappe/ legge/ and knee/ and wolde kysse his arse to please him.” 

[2] Motsoeneng’s grubby downfall is inextricably linked to Accused Number One’s dismissal as president. With the removal of the Zuma posterior as an object of veneration, Motsoeneng unwisely diverted his attention towards his own backside. Like Icarus, he got too close to the sun.

[3] Bongo was despatched as one of Zuma’s envoys to Harare following the November 2017 coup that deposed the frail and ailing Robert Mugabe. No amount of supine grovelling and flattery would wash with Zimbabwe’s military leaders, who considered Bongo a bit light in the diplomatic trousers and promptly used him as toilet paper.

[4] Not the metaphor we would have used.

[5] A bit rich, considering these “victims” champion land invasions.