“Student leader”. That’s what the journalist called Mcebo Dlamini.
I reread the paragraph to check if I’d missed a line somewhere, perhaps one in which Dlamini was described as a fantasist who admired Hitler, who called Jews “devils”, who claimed that Wits had head-hunted him to do a “secret” degree in nuclear physics, and who was now leading a minority of students at the university. Nope. It just read “student leader”.
Because, of course, that’s how we roll. An integral part of our shared South African-ness is a refusal to name things as they are. We can be outspoken, loud, even rude; but without fail we’ll call a spade a fork.
Decades ago, politicians enforced white supremacy but called it “good neighbourliness”. They shot schoolchildren but called it “restoring order”. These days the policies have changed but the coyness remains. When Julius Malema threatened journalists with violence, their colleagues giggled and called him “charismatic” and “controversial”. When corporations collude to fix prices we are told that “free enterprise” can be “complex”.
Of course, none of this is new to any of the angry South Africans dispirited by this country’s ongoing rush towards insignificance. But what is remarkable is that our angriest, most outspoken critics seem themselves to be indulging in a strange kind of denial.
You see it in our incredulous responses to the latest abuses of power. We find it shocking that the SABC has lost R400-million and disgraceful that Hlaudi Motsoeneng is still employed. We wonder exactly what Blade Nzimande is paid for, given the omnishambles that is higher education. And as for Zuma, well, don’t get us started! Has he no shame? Why would he do everything he’s done when he knew he’d be found out?
I don’t want to knock anyone who voices these sorts of ideas. It is important to speak out against bad government.
But here’s the thing.
Zuma isn’t in government. Neither is Nzimande. Because there is no government.
Hlaudi doesn’t work for the national broadcaster because we don’t have one.
SA Airways isn’t a dysfunctional airline because it’s not an airline.
What they are – what all of it is, from the corridors of the Union Buildings right down to crumbling rural municipal offices – is an ATM.
withdraw as much as you can, as fast as you can
The entire edifice that we still insist on calling “the public sector” is a vast cash-dispensing system, and everyone with the PIN code has only one job: withdraw as much as you can, as fast as you can.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. In 2010, Zwelinzima Vavi famously warned us of a “predatory elite”. The SA Communist Party dispensed with its usual gobbledygook long enough to use the word “looting”. Even Gwede Mantashe admitted that people in the government were using their positions as “a stepping stone to power and accumulation”.
But I would argue that, for all our huffing and puffing, we remain naïve. After all, you’re only shocked by Zuma if you believe that he is a civil servant answerable to the public. You’re only outraged by Hlaudi and the SABC if you believe that they are still somehow connected to a functioning bureaucracy. You only talk about money being “lost” if you believe that there is a system in place and that something has gone wrong. Which, of course, is not the case.
“Why do they do it when they know they’ll be caught?” Well, it’s basic maths. By the time they’re caught they’ll have pocketed tens of millions. And what does “caught” actually mean? Nothing. If the only price of acquiring multi-generational wealth is to be called a thief by some columnists, many more of us would climb in with both hands.
All of which is why the outrage is starting to sound a bit foolish. When people get robbed by a gang dressed as police, they immediately recognise that they’ve been duped. Not us. We’re still aghast, telling each other “Sjoe, those were really unprofessional cops, hey?”
The looters have about 30 months left. That takes us up to the 2019 elections, at which point the ATM’s code will be changed and a lot of peripheral gang members will be cut off. Those B-grade gangsters will need to crack on if they’re going to take their 10- or 15-million before they’re ousted or audited. They know what they need to do.
And so do we. For starters, we need to take our collective head out of our communal arse and dispense with naïve beliefs. We need to look past the illusion of politics and see the ATM.
Journalists need to say “stolen” instead of “lost”; “looted” instead of “misallocated”. For our own intellectual clarity, we need to stop believing that these are good people doing their job badly and start understanding that they are bad people doing their job well.
And in 30 months, either they go or we do.