Heh heh heh. An ugly sound echoing through the silence of our collective shock. A humourless, dusty wheeze, the kind you expect from a cartoon baddie whose villainy has desiccated him.
It seems a cruel sound, a pure expression of power mocking the powerless. It’s tempting to project all kinds of evil onto that sound; to plunge into a morality play haunted by dead-eyed Faustian patriarchs. It’s easy to cast Jacob Zuma as a super-villain. Easy, but wrong.
I think we’re mishearing the laughter. Some of us hear a demonic cackle. Others hear a nervous giggle. But I hear a man who is having an honest, hearty chuckle because he’s watching a ridiculous spectacle: us.
Jacob Zuma is laughing because he finds us comical. He’s laughing because we’re all worked up about Nkandla, and yet we told him he could have it, last year. Eleven million of us said ja well no fine, putting in X next to his face, knowing about Nkandla, knowing that the X was a signature on a blank cheque.
Oh, I know it’s not that simple. After the 2014 election result I expressed amazement that so many people would vote for a man clearly taking the national piss, and some ANC voters immediately took me to task. What I didn’t understand, they told me, was that the ANC was bigger than Zuma. They weren’t voting for Zuma, they were voting for the movement. And if Zuma was a bad or divisive leader, the movement would remove him.
Thirteen months, R250-million and one giant presidential “fuck you!” later, I’m still wondering how those redeployment plans are looking. But the fact is it doesn’t matter what voters intended then, and it doesn’t matter what we mutter now. Powerful politicians see what they want to see. What matters is what our actions told Zuma, and in eleven million Xs he saw eleven million endorsements of his appetites.
Last week he saw something even more pleasing: 50-million white flags. He saw that even when we are deeply offended by the callous actions of our leaders, we do absolutely nothing about it. He saw no marches, no candlelight vigils and no gatherings of the clergy or civil society. He saw no burning government buildings, no attempts at vandalising his home. He saw no ANC branches meeting to discuss the movement’s response to the official funnelling of vast wealth to leaders while poverty persists. In short, he saw a nation of enablers swallowing their anger and keeping their heads down.
“Do you really think the South African public is that stupid?”
Of course, there were isolated objections, mostly involving questions of intellect. The DA said that the Nkandla report was “irrational”. Journalist Marianne Merten asked the whitewashing press conference: “Do you really think the South African public is that stupid?” Pundits suggested that Zuma had miscalculated, that he had not understood what Nkandla means.
They were understandable responses. The opinion-writing, news-reporting classes prize logic and cleverness. And yet when has reason ever had anything to do with power? When has rational debate by intellectuals ever stopped a determined chief or a king or a president from taking exactly what he wants? Does the government think the South African public is that stupid? Well, it doesn’t really matter how clever or stupid we are. This is about immobility, not intelligence.
Besides, I think Zuma has misunderstood nothing. I think he understands exactly what Nkandla means. It means much more to him than it means to us, so we can assume he’s given it plenty of thought. And I think he understands South Africans far better than we would comfortably admit. He has a reputation as a keen observer of people, and we’re not that hard to read.
He’s seen how we operate. In a nation of activists and democrats, not paying back the money would have been a potentially career-ending gamble. But he’s watched us, and he knows that there is almost no risk, because this isn’t a nation of activists and democrats. This week we confirmed that beyond all reasonable doubt.
To be fair, many South Africans have a good reason for doing nothing. About one in five of us works for the state, and while they might be disgusted by the Nkandla fiasco, is it worth losing their livelihood over a political opinion? As for those hundreds of thousands of civil servants higher up the food chain, pulling down massive salaries for doing almost nothing – well, why would you bite the bloated sow at whose teat you are snoozing?
And the rest of us? Why do we do nothing? Are we punch-drunk? Lazy? Crippled by confusion? Or do we trust in democracy; feel, deep down, that ultimately this, too, shall pass? I don’t have any answers. But I do know that the laughter is honest. And maybe, when you see it through Number One’s eyes, it is funny.
First published in The Times and TimesLive