For those in power some inclinations twirl around like a carousel. My New Year reading concerns a rural President utterly ill-equipped to oversee a modern economy and whose rackety administration was riddled with corruption. The sleaze in the Republic being so pervasive, the Commissioner of Police even published an open letter, admitting “the rottenness of the entire police force” – but which, he lamented, he was unable to reform because of lack of support.
This is not Jacob Zuma, the capo of modern South African vice, but President Paul Kruger at the tail end of the 19th century. Historian Charles van Onselen, in his riveting new book about that period, observes, “As in most systems characterised by disparities in power and wealth, the classic short-circuiting mechanism was corruption.
“In developed economies, where wealth is relatively well-entrenched within certain sectors, such as the United States, money is often used to acquire high political office. In underdeveloped or persistently weak economies, where money is harder to come by, as in parts of Africa, it is high office and the selling of favours that is most often used to acquire wealth.”
Those opposing propositions still hold true. In The Cowboy Capitalist, Van Onselen records that Kruger saw little wrong with politicians accepting “gifts” in return for business concessions (ie bribes), or with newspaper proprietors being “subsidised” (bought). Zuma clearly sees nothing wrong with such graft, and appears to think that it’s his due.
Van Onselen adds that prior to the Anglo-Boer War there was a “gradual erosion of the gerontocratic, patriarchal, near feudal-dominance and style exercised by President Kruger and his cohort.”
Opposition was led by younger, better educated Afrikaners. Today this is again the hope for South Africa, as Zuma’s venality has finally driven him into a cul-de-sac.
The mental universe of the narsisstic leader knows no colour barriers. In 1960 the then South African Prime Minister Verwoerd proclaimed, “I never have the nagging doubt of wondering whether I am wrong.” This could easily be a tweet from Donald Trump, finger poised on the nuclear button while he also tweets his personal assurance that he is “a very stable genius.” Jacob Zuma also seems untroubled by doubt, merely driven by low political calculation and high greed.
Confronted with massively documented evidence of corruption – his own, his family’s and close associates – Zuma pretends that he has no idea what people are talking about. The Johannesburg Sunday Times recently published a snippet from 25 years ago about Stoffel van der Merwe, the retiring secretary general of the apartheid National Party. “His refusal to accept that anybody in government was accountable for the unbelievable levels of corruption and waste in public funds has finally driven home the realisation: nobody actually governs South Africa, some people merely have the privilege of looting it.” And so it goes.
But wait. Some things do change, even if it’s only a matter of consistently upheld principles in changed circumstances. When I left South Africa in 1970 and arrived in London, broke, I approached the London editor of a large South African group of newspapers with some ideas for articles. My first suggestion was that as Peter Hain, then organizing sports boycotts, seemed to be the most hated man in South Africa, it would be a newsworthy twist to have a rounded
profile and interview with him to balance the vitriol published back home. “No thank you! I think we’ve heard quite enough of that young man,” harrumphed the editor, a kindly old buffer. Instead he commissioned my second proposal: to interview an eighty-year-old South African who spoke from his soap box every Sunday at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. After a lifetime of adventuring he’d had every millimetre of his body – including his face – covered with tattoos, and so had “pre-sold” his entire skin to a taxidermist for a respectable sum.
That old fella will be long dead, though he may live on if a taxidermist’s display case still exhibits his bizarrely tattooed skin (“Yup, every inch,” he boasted when I indelicately pressed him). But forty-eight years later Peter Hain remains consistent, despite our dramatic change in regimes. He has been instrumental in initiating a British inquiry into possible money laundering by Zuma and his paymasters while our own prosecutors and police cravenly look the other way.
The dedication for Van Onselen’s book reads: “For those in search of history without borders.” He reveals that the run-up to the Anglo-Boer war was not merely a Whitehall/Pretoria spat, as
hitherto assumed, but involved considerable intrigue on the part of the many highly-paid American engineers working on the Rand. Today Peter Hain again shows that our rather parochial sense of South African exceptionalism is susceptible to winds, and principles, without borders.