Mistrust of 'white capital' feeds the South African president's racial populism

“It’s a single minded onslaught,” says my friend Jakes with emphasis. “The whites in Cape Town. The Afrikaans millionaires. The (mainly white opposition party) DA. The media –they’re also still mostly white, you know that. And who do they want to replace Zuma with? Cyril Ramaphosa, the co-opted black mining tycoon. The killer of Marikana (1).” Jakes knows he’ll be called a conspiracy theorist. “But regime change has happened before. Saddam Hussein wasn’t a good guy, but he was better than what Iraq has now.”

My friend ANC veteran Jakes verbalises exactly what Zuma’s supporters think. They know the guy –Zuma- isn’t squeaky-clean.  But who is?  Whites have been telling blacks they are dirty for ages.  Whites are such hypocrites. Everybody knows that they have stolen everything, but a black guy can’t have a swimming pool.

Everybody knows that whites have stolen everything, but a black guy can’t have a swimming pool.

Jakes feels more than aggrieved at the sanctimonious ‘Down with Zuma’ campaign the opposition has been waging. In his view, the pinnacle was reached in December last year, when a business sector outcry caused the removal of just-appointed black newcomer Des van Rooyen to the Finance Ministry. “White capital wants its puppets in power. Everything was fine when the finance ministers were talking to the Oppenheimers (business family in diamonds, EG) and the Ruperts (idem, in tobacco and luxury goods). But when a new guy is rumoured to be in business with (Zuma’s friends, Indian business family) the Guptas, all hell breaks loose.”

In the narrative that he has now adopted, Zuma represents black interests in the face of white capital dominance. “They want blacks to continue to live in misery. This talk of Zuma and swimming pools and Guptas is just a diversion.”

Jakes is coloured, and old enough to have brought up children under apartheid. He has good reason to distrust old white capitalists. Anton Rupert, who has demanded Zuma’s resignation, is the son of Johann Rupert: a member of the apartheid elite Broederbond who had even been in the running for president way back, at the time when Jakes had to explain to his seven year old son why he couldn’t go on the big slide in Water World with the white children. “But dad, I want to go, why can’t I go?” the boy had asked. Jakes’ rant now is interspersed with references to his rage then.

Another story is about a white employer who lowered his promised salary as soon as the system registered Jakes as ‘coloured.’ Such white businessmen still call him ‘my friend’, he says, pat him on the shoulder, lord it over him with his small business, even now. “RAGE,” he says, with eyes spitting fire, when I –god, I am such a typical white- nod and smile and tell him how I think his stance is partly informed by apartheid trauma. “Don’t call it trauma. Call it rage.”

Apartheid ‘light’

We –Jakes and I and all our friends- were for Zuma when he started. We laughed at the Democratic Alliance’s ‘Stop Zuma’ posters, the shrill declarations from DA leader, madam Helen Zille, that only the DA could ensure proper governance. We knew that Zille and the DA were basically apartheid ‘light.’ They would keep the black majority in dry villages, squatter camps, crime-ridden urban ghettoes. Their white middle and upper class supporters would remain bosses over an underclass which they would treat reasonably well as long as it would cost them very little; they would smile at it and give it their old clothes.

In return, they would see black subservient faces smiling back and delude themselves that they were loved. Delude themselves that the nasty ANC of the blacks with guns, who blew up police stations, was all in the past. Nice Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk of course had put a stop to that. They didn’t even remember that they had once regarded nice Mr Mandela as a terrorist too.

Many of such whites kept harping on about former ANC-guerrillas who had killed white civilians. Fighters like Robert McBride, who had bombed a restaurant frequented by police in Durban in 1986. (McBride had been caught and spent years on death row before he was finally given amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and now had a job in the police.) They hated McBride, but were on first name terms with the former apartheid cops in charge of guarding their expensive walled enclaves. They were especially happy when they saw that the police now still went after black burglars, and that the prosecuting agency, the Scorpions, went after ‘corrupt black politicians’ like Jacob Zuma.

The prosecution of Jacob Zuma was their favourite dinner party topic. They were particularly wary of Jacob Zuma. Even when not ANC-voting, they were sort of fine with then President Mbeki (2), who was urbane, well-read, UK-educated, pipe smoking and a gentleman. Jacob Zuma was the peasant. He hadn’t had much schooling. He was accused of taking a bribe.

Thabo Mbeki had started using the judiciary for his own ends.

They didn’t know it, but the prosecution of Jacob Zuma is where it all went wrong. Because that prosecution was the first time that a new black leader was using the judiciary for his personal interests. And it wasn’t Zuma; it was Mbeki.

The prosecution of Zuma was started on shaky ‘arms deal bribe’ grounds. Zuma’s business contacts hadn’t even obtained a tender in said deal, in which an estimated 600 million US$ in commissions was suspected to have gone to other politicians, including Mbeki. Heading the hunt for Zuma was Mbeki’s close ally Bulelani Ngcuka,  appointed by him –Mbeki- to head the prosecutorial authority and to, as it turned out, go after a lot more political rivals than Zuma alone. Many in South Africa remember the days of the ‘walking dead,’ the politicians who had been judicially targeted by Mbeki and Ngcuka.

In Zuma’s case, evidence later showed that Ngcuka had been directing the prosecution even after his, Ngcuka’s term, had expired. When this came out, Mbeki was asked to step down by his own party, the ANC. Jacob Zuma became President.

What happened then is that Zuma continued to do what Mbeki did. Only better.

If there ever had been a moment where South Africa’s new leaders could seriously start working on closing the wealth gap and building a fair, progressive, efficient state, it had passed. Zuma, having been bitten once, was not about to get bitten twice. If the state is after you, you must control the state.

The network and the vassals

Zuma was good at networking, establishing loyalty, binding people to him. It was how he had run the erstwhile ANC intelligence service, Mbokodo. It started invisibly, an appointment here, an appointment there. A nice woman to head the airline; another one to head the police.  An associate for the new reformed prosecuting agency, the NPA. With the opposition and the media harping on about Zuma as usual, it seemed not very serious at first.

But then the second term came and all Zuma did now was appointing vassals, all the time. The NPA was now exclusively doing his bidding. The state intelligence service’s senior management was fired after it started to investigate the dodgy Guptas.  New appointments to the service included people close to a tobacco smuggling syndicate involving Khulubuse Zuma, Jacobs nephew.

Meanwhile, throughout the country, rural chiefs were getting cars and other presents. Provincial leaders were promised ‘more access’ to the treasury. On village level, where a contract and a contact meant the difference between abject poverty and a Mercedes, it was a fight to the death. Reports of shot local councillors and ANC members started popping up with increasing regularity.

Reports of shot councillors and ANC members started popping up with increasing regularity.

Next was the tax agency, the SA Revenue Service. SARS had been investigating some gangsters in the Western Cape as well as the tobacco-smuggling mafia. But these tax targets had links to Zuma. Within months of discovering that his business friends were under scrutiny from the tax man, Zuma’s new secret service started feeding fabricated stories about SARS to the media. SARS managers, the stories said, were running a brothel and spying on ANC politicians.

A media ombudsman would find, two years later, that the stories had been untrue. But by then most of SARS’s top management had been suspended and left. The new commissioner, Tom Moyane, was a Zuma-loyalist.

Then came the control of the elite police unit called the Hawks. First, its head, Anwa Dramat, a former freedom fighter, was removed on a fabricated charge around the death of Zimbabwean suspects. It didn’t matter that the charge was deemed unfounded by the police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate IPID, which had investigated the case. The new Zuma-appointed boss of the Hawks simply also arrested the head of IPID on the charge of falsifying his own report.

The opposition and the blackness

The IPID head so arrested and charged was Robert McBride. The same Robert McBride who was the embodiment of the ‘terrorist’ narrative that had sent shivers around white dinner tables for the past three decades. Within a day, that narrative changed: McBride, now Zuma’s victim, became completely acceptable to the opposition. Who now moved on from shouting against, to shouting for, Robert McBride. Which was, of course, immediately recognised as hypocrisy by Zuma’s supporters. (“If only the whites would say they love Zuma,” says another friend of mine. “He’d be gone in a minute.”)

Whites were now shouting in support of McBride.

That being said, it is important to note that whiteness has shifted. The ‘old’ white opposition and its ‘old’ black ‘puppet’ allies now find itself increasingly in the company of progressive blacks. There is the growing black urban middle class that would like the lights to stay on: many of them are former ANC members who want to build, not destroy. Then there is a young multi-coloured intelligentsia that is vested in a constitutional democracy; there are the students, who want universities to –affordably- work. All these don’t vote for the DA, least of all the followers of Julius Malema in the Economic Freedom Front. But in contemporary South Africa they are lumped together –bien  étonnés de se trouver ensemble- by Zuma.

In turn, the Zuma camp has appropriated blackness.  Having discovered the useful positioning of himself as a champion of ‘black’ against ‘white’ capital, the President makes increasing use of identity politics. He criticizes cartoons denouncing his actions as ‘racist,’ makes fun of clumsy white pronunciation of the word ‘Nkandla,’ and jokes in Zulu to an adoring ‘native’ audience when people of other language groups are also present, leaving them nonplussed as to whether they were just insulted or not. He panders to conservative ethnic elements in the black population too: cosying up to xenophobic Zulu king Zwelethini and appointing Berning Ntlemeza, a former apartheid cop, to head the Hawks are only two examples.

Meanwhile also, the wealth gap is not addressed. The state is getting worse at providing health, education, even black empowerment. If it once was an instrument of white capital, it is now being destroyed, to be replaced by a medieval system of vassals and their sheriffs.

The Hawks under Ntlemeza and the prosecuting agency NPA now operate increasingly as Zuma’s personal hit squad. Besides arresting and charging former police officials Dramat and McBride they are also investigating the abovementioned former SARS managers on the basis of discredited allegations and even Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan, who served SARS first as Commissioner and then as Minister of Finance in a previous term. (Zuma hates Gordhan, who is seen as a champion of foreign investment and therefore ‘white capital;’ his appointee Ntlemeza knows this and feels free to address the Minister in rude terms, stating openly that the minister 'mustn't think he is above the law.')

Three other individuals in the judiciary and police, seen as opposed to Zuma (former prosecutor Glynis Breytenbach, former police chief Johan Booysen and reportedly also NPA deputy director Willie Hofmeyr) are also facing charges deemed frivolous by most experts.

In recent days there have been even more worrying developments. The Helen Suzman Foundation, which had laid a judicial complaint against top Hawk Ntlemeza, was raided by armed individuals in civilian clothes who were only interested in information on laptops. On Sunday, EFF opposition leader Julius Malema was ambushed by ten police cars and police officers with rifles and held up for a while without any explanation. The Friday before that, a private investigator who had threatened to expose Ntlemeza’s ‘corruption’ was arrested at the airport on a charge of ‘trying to leave the country,’ and spent a weekend in jail.

Meanwhile, -and, in view of the ‘pro-black’ and ‘anti-white-capital’ narrative of Zuma’s supporters, ironically- cases of serious crimes against black people remain unaddressed. From threatened ANC members in villages, to murdered anti-mining activists in the Xolobeni titanium mining area in the Eastern Cape, to the case of the 34 miners shot at Marikana: local activists have asked police authorities for attention many times in vain.

Betting on money and power

On the news that night Zuma, as usual, plays the victim. He didn’t know it was wrong and he is sorry, but he is not going anywhere. The twitterati, predictably, shout at him. Except for one. “We support our leader but we don’t own smartphones,” says one lone tweet.

At the ANC press conference, an hour later, secretary general Gwede Mantashe seems acutely aware of this. Mantashe says “we cannot solve this problem in the media; we have to do this on the ground.” On the ground is where the many are who are yet to see a state that listens to them, a police that is fair or jobs that pay a living wage. Until then, Mantashe knows, they’ll bet on knowing someone with money and power.

Mantashe then emphasizes how happy he is with the Constitutional Court. How the Nkandla judgement is proof that there is law and order that holds power accountable. The ANC will stand by and protect the judicial state, he says. That is a change. A few years ago, when Zuma appointed conservative, religious, judge Mogoeng Mogoeng to head the Constitutional Court, clearly intending to meddle even there, Mantashe defended, saying that judges can be racist, too, and that appointments should be made with the need for racial redress in mind. But now that the country has started crumbling, facing a descent into warlordism, Mantashe doesn’t criticise judges anymore. Has he already imagined a Zuma-captured courtroom, charging and imprisoning him, telling him that nobody is above the law?

So it was a good thing last week that that same Mogoeng and his fellow judges proved that they were serious about the Constitution and about right and wrong.  (Mogoeng had that little smile about him when he delivered the judgement. As if he was thinking ‘bet you didn’t expect that.’) But an even better thing -a Constitutional Court must after all, uphold the Constitution-, is that new heroes have emerged in this tormented country. Public protector Thuli Madonsela battled for two years to have right prevail; deputy minister of finance Mncebisi Jonas came clean about the temptations offered to him by Zuma’s mafia; more and more office bearers are taking courageous stands in ‘Guptagate.’

There is a new struggle in South Africa, and new fighters are making history here.

Picture: President Jacob Zuma addresses foreign nationals outside Home Affairs offices in Marabastad, 8 Feb 2016, Pretoria ahead of the State of the Nation Address. (Photo: GCIS). Flickr/creative common.

(1)    Marikana: the scene where South African police killed 34 striking miners in 2012. Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist, was seen as partially responsible for the bloodbath because he made a phone call to the then police minister encouraging ‘action.’
(2)    Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism, which caused the withholding of life-saving ARV’s to a dying population should also be remembered, especially now that the ousted one seems interested in a come-back.