Will Zuma get bit?

Andrew Donaldson on the ex-President's complaints about the softness of the law


I WONDER how many readers have seen Memento? Released in 2000, this noirish thriller stars Guy Pearce as a man who suffers from anterograde amnesia – that is, an inability to form new memories – and experiences short-term memory loss approximately every 15 minutes. 

He is also a man facing considerable danger: he is searching for the people who attacked him and murdered his wife and, to do so, makes use Polaroid photographs, scrawled notes and even tattoos to keep track of clues and information that he has just discovered and will very shortly forget. Arguably an intriguing premise for a movie.

Back in the real world, though, I wonder if Jacob Zuma suffers from a form of this amnesia as well. 

This week, it was announced that the former president’s arms deal trial gets underway in Pietermaritzburg on May 17. The chances are good that, as the trial progresses, the high court there will be the scene of astonishing memory lapses. Which is understandable. It’s taken years to reach this point and recollection does fade with the passage of time. 

Those called to testify will alas not be elephants. Much will have conveniently been forgotten. The ruminative pauses from the witness box will be unbearably long, punctuated only by the occasional humming and hawing and resigned shrugging of the shoulders. In these long uncomfortable silences, jurors may even faintly hear the singing of Msholozi’s faithful supporters, massed in their thousands on the court house steps. Carl Niehaus may even be there.

This is a matter, it’s worth recalling, that dates back to the late 1990s. Together with French arms manufacturer Thales, Zuma is facing charges of fraud, racketeering, corruption and money laundering relating to the acquisition of ineffective military hardware worth billions of rand. It was a dirty business that resulted in the brief imprisonment of Schabir Shaik, Zuma’s so-called financial adviser.

Since then it has taken almost 15 years of intense wrangling to get Accused Number One into court, a time of pig heaven for his attorneys who’ve coined it at great expense to the taxpayer. Over the years, they’ve diligently plodded away with their delaying tactics, a mind-numbingly grey defence strategy coloured only by the occasional complaint from their client about persecution by western values or some other colonial irrelevancies.

Earlier, on Sunday, the Thief-in-Chief lashed out at the country’s laws, declaring them too lenient on those who commit “heinous” crimes. “For an example,” Zuma was quoted as saying, “today, if I commit a crime, if I kill a somebody in front of all of you, the laws of this country say you can’t say this person is being arrested or charged because he’s killed a person, it says we must say we suspect this man has killed this person. That’s the softness of the law.”

It’s a puzzling attack from a person who only the week before had deliberately violated a Constitutional Court order to appear before the Zondo commission. Such comments are either symptomatic of a very unusual form of anterograde amnesia or just plain idiocy. 

Given that Zuma was a panelist and speaker at an ANC political education session with the theme “Social Cohesion and the National Question”, there’s some opinion that it’s the idiocy. This noxious obsession of arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa that we all cohere into a compliant mass like the North Koreans is a breeding ground for stupid, and Msholozi was happy to provide ample proof thereof:

“I think our laws are not biting enough,” he said. “They are not dealing with people enough. For example, people who were sentenced to life imprisonment, it is always known they will be out in 20 years.” 

Did he really think that? Who knows. But these are words that may come to haunt him during the closing moments of his criminal trial. If he can remember them.

The rise and rise of the Big Men

To London via Zoom this morning and there to hear DA leader John Steenhuisen address the Royal United Services Institute on South Africa’s possible role in countering threats to democracy on the continent. Much of what he had to say was perhaps familiar to us – but not, hopefully, to members of the institute, the world’s oldest think tank on international defence and security.

As Steenhuisen explained, the rest of the world has its own issues, thanks to Covid-19, and hasn’t been paying much attention to Africa. The governments of the developed world are rolling out vaccination programmes and reprioritising budgets to offer stricken businesses and the unemployed financial relief. “But,” he said, “across most of Africa that remains a pipe dream.”

Besides healthcare and economic challenges, the continent faces a third threat, one that makes Africa’s position “infinitely more precarious than anywhere else in the world, and that is the threat of political instability and the erosion of democracy.”

The politics of the Big Man is returning. Intolerance of political diversity is growing, opposition leaders are jailed, their followers attacked, constitutions amended to allow multiple-term presidents become presidents-for-life. The countries where democracy is under the whip were rattled off: Uganda, South Sudan, Chad, Republic of Congo, Benin, Zambia, The Gambia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Angola, Zimbabwe … all the usual culprits.

Their leaders, Steenhuisen continued, cling to power for decades, nationalising state assets under the guise of “ownership by the people” to the extent that their children are the richest people in Africa and their citizens the poorest. “This scenario is not the exception to the rule in Africa. It has become the rule.”

What can South Africa do? Not much at present. It has joined the ratbags, its moral authority eroded since the Mandela presidency “through a combination of our own corrupt leadership and a cowardly apathy towards the abuses of democracy of the continent’s Big Man leaders”.

Again, there is little here that will surprise South Africans. But it may have been of interest to the institute’s members. (It’s difficult gauging reactions at virtual meetings.) As it is, the media here don’t pay much attention to Africa, and it does seem as if the continent has dropped right off the agenda. When reports do appear, they can be quite peculiar. To many readers, Africa must appear a vast safari park.

Much more space in the newspapers is devoted to the current paroxysm of navel gazing about Britain’s colonial legacy. This is a debate that is deemed healthy as it supposedly encourages a much-needed examination of empire and all its works. However, it is a debate that often goes no further than the dockside where statues of slavers are dumped into harbours. It seldom leaves these shores. 

Notes from the couch

Helen Zille denies implanting a microchip in the brain of a complete stranger. In a Facebook post, the DA federal chair reveals her alleged victim is an unidentified man whose supporters claim they have an X-ray of the chip’s location. They demand that she remove it or face arrest. “The saddest, weirdest thing is happening,” Zille writes, “and I am not quite sure how to deal with it.”

Well, ideally, she could have kept this to herself. But after sharing it on social media, the newspapers picked it up and the matter’s gone rogue to the extent that her denials now seem wholly implausible. In fact, I’m quite surprised that I myself don’t believe she planted the chip. 

But, and now that it’s in the public domain, the only option perhaps left to Zille is trepanning. It sounds risky, this centuries-old practice of drilling a hole in the skull in order to mess about in someone’s head; as a trusted source notes of pre-Columbian Incan brain surgery: “Not every patient survived.” But the technology has greatly improved and those going under a Black & Decker nowadays need not fret unduly about the procedure.

On a more philosophical note, Zille’s experience indicates that conspiracy theorists are in clover. The past year has been a bumper one for irrational responses to the existential crises of the modern age. Awash with anxiety and doubt, it’s understandable that the afflicted of like mind, if I may, should be reassured and comforted by one another’s warped takes on reality. 

While these people are more likely to be both left and right-wing extremists than political moderates, it’s not entirely the case that these people are a bit dim. Those with a lower level of education are the more probable conspiracists, but studies show they are also common among the well-educated.

Such findings appear to embolden the worst of these people, reinforcing already firm convictions that they alone are the deep thinkers with a unique grasp of complex issues. These are the mad bastards who assail hapless dinner party guests with fake news about George Soros and Bill Gates’s plans for world domination. There is no point in discussing anything with such people. They are not reasonable and, besides, they’ve done their “research”. A decent microchipping programme may however help in identifying which social gatherings are best avoided.

Country life

Typical of scandals that periodically rock the UK establishment, here’s another steeped in privilege and characterised by casual cruelty, naked lust and, uh … poor breeding. It’s all here, a classic case of toff Tory entitlement and disregard for the consequences of base behaviour.

The Daily Mail last week reported on a curious incident relating to the abrupt departure from Downing Street of Katie Lam, senior aide and ally of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former special adviser. It appears the PM’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, took exception when Lam “attempted to prevent” Dilyn, the Downing Street rescue dog, from peeing on her handbag. 

The incident took place in the No 10 garden. Did Lam kick out at Dilyn, or did she merely deny him relief by picking up her handbag? Such details were absent from the Mail’s report. But whatever Lam did, it greatly angered Symonds and, as they say, a row was duly sparked. 

One of Lam’s friends told the newspaper: “Katie did nothing wrong. She did what any woman would have done when they saw a dog about to relieve itself on her handbag. She is brilliant and a massive loss to No 10.” In a classic advanced reverse ferret, the Mail distanced itself from suggestions that Symonds may be a powerful, behind-the-scenes figure plotting the removal of those Downing Street staffers she distrusts — but not before repeating these charges. 

Dilyn, meanwhile, was formally described as a “Jack Russell cross”. This, really, is posh for “brak”. But this doesn’t excuse anything, and it was not surprising that further reports of hooliganism appeared at the weekend. The dog is a profligate pisser and frequently soils the carpets at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence. Staff are pretty steamed about it.

Dilyn has also gnawed away at the furniture and once even attempted to shag a stool made from the foot of an elephant shot by Teddy Roosevelt. This grotesque item is probably valued at Chequers because it has “historic importance”. On another horrifying occasion, the dog reportedly humped Cummings’s leg. More than three months after his dismissal, the Vote Leave campaigner is said to still hold a grudge. Perhaps Dilyn didn’t send flowers or call afterwards. Poor Dom.

Such behaviour is expensive. Damages at Chequers have been costly. According to one source, Dilyn ran through a cabinet meeting there, chewing on an antique book, prompting Johnson to shout, “For God’s sake, I’m going to get another £1 000 repair bill! Someone please shoot that fucking dog!” That hasn’t happened, of course, although a local farmer has offered his services should the dog once again stray into his fields. 

But a puppy isn’t just for Brexit, as the regulars at The Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) will tell you, and Johnson has since declared that Dilyn is not going anywhere. “The dog stays,” The Times quoted him as saying on Tuesday. He was talking to pupils at a secondary school in London and revealed that “leaks” about Dilyn’s behaviour had somewhat soured his view of the press. 

“When you’re a journalist,” he said, “it’s a great, great job. It’s a great profession but the trouble is that you always find yourself abusing people or attacking people. You feel, sometimes, a bit guilty about that because you haven’t put yourself in the place of the person you’re criticising.”

And sometimes you find that you just make stuff up. Which is why The Times fired Johnson when he was a reporter there. He went on to become the Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, where he made up more stuff about bendy bananas and the unflattering sizes of Italian condoms. Following that stint, he went on to edit The Spectator, where he enjoyed a long adulterous affair with the magazine’s wine correspondent. All of which may or may not explain Dilyn’s behaviour.

More from the beasts in the field

To India, where authorities have halted an agricultural college exam on cow science over concerns that it may not be all that scientific. According to reports, the online paper was to have been the first in a new curriculum advanced by the Hindu nationalist government. Hindus believe cows to be sacred, and some maintain the animals possess extraordinary medicinal powers. These beliefs have deepened since prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party came into power in 2014. 

Party officials claim cow dung protects from radiation and that the cow is the only animal that both inhales and exhales oxygen, thus conveniently dealing with all that climate change nonsense. Officials have also endorsed the use of soap and health drinks based on cow dung and urine. Their course material also claims that Indian cows are “alert” and “emotional towards humans” whereas western cattle have “none of these feelings” and are “lazy”. The course also claims that Indian cows absorb the sun’s energy through the hump on their backs, something that foreign cows lack, and this enables them to produce milk that is laced with gold.

The new curriculum is based on the recommendations of 2019’s National Cow Commission, which set out to “infuse curiosity into all Indians about the cows [and] the unexplored business opportunities the cow can offer, even after it stops giving milk”.

There is a sinister side to all this, The Times of London reported. The BJP has come down hard on the trade in beef and leather, dominated by Muslims. Vigilante gangs, dubbed “cow protection squads” have attacked and killed several Muslim drivers at road blocks where trucks have been searched for smuggled cattle.

Unsurprisingly, the cow commission chairman, one Vallabhbhai Kathiria, insists there is nothing unscientific about the exam and it must go ahead.