corruption

What would you do for R4-billion?

money

OK. No more metaphors or parables. Just some numbers and a simple question. R1-trillion. That’s how much South Africa’s nuclear plans, revived last week, will cost.

The minister of finance says the project will only proceed at a pace the country can afford but Jacob Zuma also swore at his inauguration that he would put the interests of the country first so we all know what this administration’s promises are worth.

20%-25%. That’s how much is lost to corruption in public procurement contracts in the EU.

R250-billion, or 25% of R1-trillion. Assuming we South Africans are more or less as corruptible as Europeans, that’s how much money will be stolen by connected insiders before the project is finished. Some of those connected insiders will, of course, be on the outside: London brokers and bankers, Kremlin fixers. This deal is primarily for their benefit, not ours, so let’s assume they will help themselves to the lion’s share, say, R150-billion, leaving R100-billion for South Africans to divvy up.

So who gets what? At the bottom of the pile there’s the shabby aristocracy of hustlers in their pointy shoes and white pleather armchairs; the otherwise-unemployable heads of small PR firms that exist only on government largesse; salmonella-stalked catering businesses run by the venal youngest son of the criminal brother of the second wife; easy-come easy-go lords and ladies living from tender to tender, leaving behind them disputes, half-built public buildings, and short, rancorous terms as school principals or management consultants.

They are on the periphery of power, scurrying after the crumbs off the table, but there are many of them, let’s say a thousand, and they know how to monetise favours. R5-million apiece? That’s R5-billion.

Above them on the food chain: the lawyers, accountants and financial advisers; the curators of smallanyana skeletons. They are as anonymous as a line of grey suits, but they are positioned deep in the machinery of patronage, as essential to the flow of dirty money as valves in a sewer system. Let’s say there are 500 of them, and they’re each content to peel off R10-million – a solid year’s work, carefully squirrelled away offshore or perhaps laundered back to respectability. Another R5-billion.

There would be rough patches. But it would be worth it.

Then: the lieutenants; the made men in this mob. They’re old comrades, friends, backers, enforcers, godfathers-turned-kingpins. And they’ve joined this operation with clear eyes. The plan was explained – keep us in power long enough to ink the nuclear deal and we’ll make you richer than the Lord God Almighty – and they went away and thought it through. There would be rough patches. They would be loathed by former friends and comrades. They might be betrayed at any point, their place in the queue usurped by some harder, sharper operator. The media would hound them. But it would be worth it. Say, R300-millon each – an Nkandla and change – for the hundred hardest, closest lieutenants? Another R30-billion.

Which leaves R60-billion for the masterminds; the feared, fawned-over few who were once interested in politics and power before a bigger prize rose into view.

Is it reasonable to imagine an inner circle of no more than 15 people? Fifteen superb strategists, winning a decades-long chess game in which the champions each get R4-billion? Why not? Why else would they cling on so fiercely? On its current course the ANC will be dead in 10 years: why sacrifice everything, including the party, just to hang on to evaporating power? Why? Because that R100-billion is coming down the road and it’s close enough to smell.

Many South Africans still insist on believing the country is being dismantled for ideological reasons rather than financial ones. They can’t believe that people would act the way they’re acting just to make a buck. It seems too obvious. There must be some other incentive.

Except I don’t think there is. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this, to think as pragmatically as the kingpins are thinking, is to ask yourself this: if you had manoeuvred yourself within range of R100-billion, tax free, untraceable, what would you do?

What would you do for R5-million? Spend a couple of hours a day on Twitter, accusing the critics of government of being racists or sell-outs? Of course you would.

What would you do for R10-million? Buy a sensitive case file and shred it or pass it on to a colleague of a colleague who sometimes drinks in Saxonwold? Would you lie in court? Why wouldn’t you?

What would you do for R300-million? Help pay a British PR firm whose pithy inventions – “White Monopoly Capital!” – might distract voters from your plan for a few more months? Would you publicly endorse people you knew to be criminals? Would you willingly become known as a parasite preying on the poor you used to claim to love? It’s a no-brainer.

And finally: what would you do for R4-billion? How many of your former friends would you sacrifice? How many media firestorms and opposition marches would you sit through, knowing that in the end it would all be worth it? How quickly would you sell your country if it meant more money than you and your family could spend in five lifetimes?

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even politics. It’s just money.

*

Published in The Times

Red lights and mixed signals

traffic-light-red-light-jpg

I see it in the red lights.

I see it in the blank expressions of the people in their cars, carefully ignoring my existence, as they sail through the intersection. Nothing to see. Didn’t happen. And if it did, well, everyone’s doing it nowadays.

I don’t know if the same thing is happening in South Africa’s other cities, but in Cape Town we’ve subsided past some kind of tipping point.

A few years ago, if someone ran a red traffic light you’d huff and puff and hoot.No longer. These days you assume that at least two cars are going to cruise through. Being five or six car-lengths from an amber light is no longer an invitation to slow down. And so, when the light turns green for me, I sit patiently and wait for the small procession of entitled arseholes to pass.

It’s difficult to read their minds (partly because so few South African motorists have one) but it’s safe to assume that many of them are thinking two things as they bump serenely over the corpse of common decency.

The first is an angry thought that they mull over many times a day, namely, that they live in a country being destroyed by crime and corruption.

The second, less a thought than a comforting feeling, is that driving through a red light has nothing to do with either of the above.

Now I’m not suggesting that running a traffic light is a sign of societal collapse. There isn’t a fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse named “Being A Dick On The Roads”.

But this week, as I watched the light-runners cruise past, I was reminded again of all the petty crimes, the minor corruptions, that people indulge in every day; and how easily we absolve ourselves. I remembered which corruptions we object to and which we let slide. And I was reminded yet again that for a country with a fairly dogmatic view of right and wrong, our approach can be bizarrely haphazard.

Sometimes the hypocrisy is amusing. I once found myself in conversation with a lawyer who was explaining to my half-turned-away head that corruption was killing us. A week later it emerged that this self-righteous bore had been running a grubby little con on the side.

At other times, our collective tolerance feels shocking and self-destructive. For example, there are literally millions of rapists living in South Africa and yet our response to the war on women is to urge them to be more careful when they go out. In this country we tell women not to get raped because we resolutely refuse to tell men to stop raping. The national consensus seems to be that rape is a crime with a victim but no perpetrator.

But what about large-scale corruption? Surely this is one crime to which all South Africans respond with united and co-ordinated vigour?

Not even close.

The fact is that, for all our anger and frustration, we tolerate corruption. Want proof? Look at who’s in the Union Buildings. The party that perpetrated the Arms Deal is still in power. Listen to polite conversations about the 2010 World Cup construction cartels. The price-gouging co-conspirators are still forgiven as businesspeople “just trying to do business in an anti-business environment”.

Why?

Perhaps we forget the feeling of the thing. When you’re being battered with new revelations it’s hard to hold onto the old ones, and forgetting starts to feel a little like forgiving. The truth is that we huffed and puffed and hooted at the Arms Deal or some new corporate con, but we still waited, even though the light had turned green for us.

Remember that sense of letting it all slide? “That was terrible!” I fumed – but then what? I don’t know the law. I don’t want to be in government. I don’t know how construction companies work. So all I could do was try to look stern and say, “And if you ever do anything like that again, I’m going to get really cross!”

And Thabo Mbeki’s ANC heard my tinny little hooter – and a million like it – and heard the emptiness of the threats, and saw the complete absence of meaningful consequences; and Jacob Zuma and his litter of corporate piglets pinched themselves as they saw a fortune present itself to them on a tray.

No, in this country we praise right and denounce wrong, but I suspect that this might be self-soothing, a way to persuade ourselves that our home is a country and not simply a once-productive mine that has been abandoned by its former owners and is now slowly being sold for scrap. And mines are dirty places. You live near one long enough, you get dirty. It just happens, slowly, and to everybody.

Now, though, the red light is showing. So: stop or go?

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Time to call things by their name

photo6“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.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Dying for Zuma to leave

jacob-zuma-sleeping-1

You know people who know people who can get things done. Like rigging a roulette table at a casino.

You don’t know who or how, and you don’t want to know. Plausible deniability. All you know is that it’s Saturday night, the booze is flowing and you’re winning. Not all the time, of course – the guys who rigged it knew what they were doing – but it’s ticking along nicely enough. Just stay put for another four or five hours, and you’re going to clean up, cash in, and walk away.

Except, at about 9pm, just as you’re really getting warmed up, someone in your entourage comes up and whispers in your ear. He’s uncomfortable, he says. He worries about how this is all panning out. He thinks you should leave, and that the crew should move to a table that hasn’t been rigged.

Madness, right?

Which is why I don’t think Jacob Zuma is going anywhere. Why would he walk away from the table just as the long con is paying off?

Still, it’s fun to indulge the anxious fantasy that politics is about doing the right thing, so let’s leave the casino for a moment and imagine a scenario in which the ANC decides to recall Zuma.

The first hurdle is, of course, ego. The ruling party has proved that it is much more concerned with saving face than saving the country, so how exactly would they sideline Number One while keeping his dignity intact?

There’s one solution that’s so obvious I’m surprised we haven’t read any think-pieces about it: Zuma needs to fake his own death.

For example: 100 orphans are tipped into a lake after an enraged white supremacist surfaces and capsizes their boat. Zuma happens to be on the shore, having led his flock down to the water to drink deep of the Kool-Aid. He hears the cries of the children and dives into the lake.

For hours he swims like a man possessed by Ubuntu-demons, dragging orphan after orphan to safety. But the exertion takes a terrible toll on a man of almost 74. His organs of state are failing. He is having, you might say, a constitutional crisis.

At last he scoops all 100 children into his arms and begins to run. He sprints across thorns, between Thuli Madonsela’s CIA handlers, and over the testicles of white monopoly capital, until he reaches a rural hospital. The children are saved – but no! The doctors tell him that there is no electricity.

He readies himself for one final sacrifice

Zuma is incensed: after all he’s done to avert load-shedding by de-industrialising the country! No, say the doctors, it’s the cables: they have been stolen, probably by unmarried women, and now there is no way of getting the electricity from the substation to the hospital.

Zuma immediately understands what he must do. He readies himself for one final sacrifice … and then he grabs the substation in one hand and the hospital in the other.

Ninety-million volts crackle through him, but he cares only for the children. “Save the babies!” he gasps, arms outstretched, glowing with a holy blue light.

The doctors work frantically, saving life after life. All except one. The father of the nation is spent. He is no more.

Handled right – a sombre statement on TV by Cyril Ramaphosa, an infographic in The New Age explaining how electricity works (eels, fairies, etc), state funerals in Pretoria and Uttar Pradesh – it would be an exit for the ages.

Even better, it would be a goodwill windfall for the ANC. Nothing rehabilitates a reputation like dying. A wife-beater has a fatal stroke while torturing a dog and within two years he’s remembered as a passionate man who died doing what he loved most. Were Zuma to be heroically fried tomorrow, Mmusi Maimane would lead the nation in prayer and Julius Malema would concede that although he’s no longer 100% for Zuma, he’s definitely somewhere in the mid-50s, possibly even nudging up towards 60%.

The problem, though, is if the ANC writes Zuma out of the soap opera that we all inhabit, he’ll have to stay dead, lying low in Nkandla for the rest of his life. Just nipping down to the corner shop for a Sterri Stumpi would be a logistical nightmare, involving an elaborate ghost costume and clouds of dry ice. Then again, ghosts are supposed to be transparent, and Zuma has made himself so transparent in recent months that the ruse might just work.

No, in the end the ANC is going to have to fall back on the old classic: Shaik Syndrome. A nondescript ailment that will leave Zuma alive but reclusive, alert but silent, waving and smiling from the sidelines. Maybe a chronic heart problem caused by loving us too much?

In the end, maybe. But of course this isn’t the end. The old gambler is ordering another drink. He’s not going anywhere. Why would he?

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Guests of the Godfather

Godfather-Ring-Kiss

I’m embarrassed. Not because I didn’t know. Of course I knew. I just didn’t know how much I didn’t know.

If you’d asked me if everything that happens in this house was legitimate, I’d have hedged. I’d have told you that I’m just one of a few upstairs house guests, and we don’t get to see what goes on in the downstairs rooms, but from up here we do have a view of the ornate, wrought-iron front gates, and we see who comes and goes.

Most days it’s our host, sliding out in his convoy of black limousines. I admit I had stopped wondering about that: about why a man who claims to be so loved by so many needs a bulletproof car and a platoon of armed guards. Perhaps I’d stopped wondering because there was so much more to wonder about.

Like arms dealers, for starters. They arrived just after my host bought this place. We quite liked him back then. He’d booted out the last owner, a real little shit, and he was dignified and generous. So when the arms dealers came up the driveway, we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. For our own protection, he said, and led them away down to the secret rooms we aren’t allowed to peep into.

After that, I just kind of went with it. The police were always coming around and we’d crowd at the windows and catch snatches of conversation – fraud, drunk driving, missing funds – but they always went away and our host waved up to us and told us all was well.

And I believed him. I must have, because I stayed. Now that I’ve woken up, I can see the ludicrous lengths I took to stay asleep. Like a few months ago, the gates opened up and in drove a guy called Omar. Wanted for genocide in Sudan. Genocide. And what did I do? I went out into the corridor and tut-tutted with the other guests and used words like “outrageous” and “disgraceful” – and then went right back to my room and made myself a toasted cheese sandwich.

I know why I was like this, of course. Nobody likes acknowledging that they are the guest of a gangster. It’s upsetting. It makes exhausting demands on your sense of yourself as a moral person. Because if you’re a moral person, how can you make a life for yourself in a home that is fundamentally rotten?

the real problem is you know how it all ends

But that’s only half of it. I think I’m OK with being less moral than I hope to be. I’m flexible that way. But the real problem with admitting to yourself that you live on the top floor of a Mafia godfather’s mansion is that you know how it all ends.

It ends with shocking violence, or in late-night pandemonium, throwing things into a suitcase and then a frantic rush over a high wall. It can never end well, because only the most intelligent criminals grow old peacefully and launder their money into respectable legacies, and I fear that my host is not looking like the most intelligent of criminals.

So I’d gone on, kept safe by the easy cynicism favoured by people who live in slowly unfolding disasters they can’t or don’t want to walk away from. Cynicism feels good because it makes you look informed. On point. Ahead of the curve. It convinces you that eye-rolling is an action and not just a reaction. It persuades you that seeing a train wreck is the same as avoiding it.

I’d like to claim that it was last week’s revelations about the Guptas that woke me up, but we’d all seen the brothers shuttling up and down the driveway for years. No, something else broke through the bubble of cynicism and left me mortified. It showed me how naïve I had been in my small condemnations of small crimes; how I had so completely underestimated the scope and ambition of my host’s corruption.

What woke me was what happened after the Gupta story broke.

Nothing.

Our host simply smiled up at us, saying that everything was fine. The firm had met. The naughty Guptas were going to be given a time-out. Business as usual.

Well, almost. My host will have to find a new source of money, perhaps one that doesn’t have newspapers and television stations and can therefore remain hidden for far longer.

But otherwise he’s going to keep doing what he’s done for decades -waving and lying, lying and waving – until he’s so rich that he can’t remember why he’s trying to get richer. Until corruption is the only way anyone can remember. Until every beam and floorboard in this mansion has rotted, and one day it all subsides into a stinking pile of rot and mould.

Yes, I’m embarrassed.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Help yourself, Jacob

Copyright World Economic Forum www.weforum.org / Eric Miller emiller@iafrica.comHeh 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

The heist to end all heists

BuddiesThe alarms have all been tripped. All of them. This isn’t the familiar, daily smash-and-grab. This is huge. A heist to end all heists.

We go to our windows, careful to stay out of sight. It’s still far away, but the first reports are already flickering like sparks from a bulldozed lamppost: they’re working on an international scale; the Russians are involved; they have earth-moving equipment and engineers. They’ve even got nuclear scientists. And they’ve hit the mother lode. It’s going to take decades for them to cart off all the cash.

We know what we’re seeing because we saw a proper heist once, back in 1999. This one’s much, much bigger, but our response is the same. We just stand at the window, twitching the curtain, angrily saying that someone should do something. Not us (because what can we do?) but someone, like the police or Thuli Madonsela or foreign investors or something.

They know we’re watching, but they don’t care. We’re just scenery to them now, a fleeting impression to be remembered one day when they’re lying on their private beach, laughing about the old days when they were making their pile. “Remember when you and me and Skippy took that side road, and there was that newspaper editor standing there going, ‘Stop, thief!’? I just saw an open mouth and a wagging finger. God! He looked so angry! ‘Stop, thief!’ Shame. I wonder what happened to that guy.”

Maybe once they feared us; feared that someone would be a hero or try to get in their way. But they needn’t have worried. In 1999 we shouted and pointed but we didn’t actually do anything. Even our angriest words were polite. An arms “deal”, our newspapers called it, as if something equitable had been arrived at. As if all that money had somehow bought something worthwhile. As if a heist could be a deal.

That’s when they learned that we’re just mannequins in our windows. We’ll shout things like “Pay back the money!” and “Consult us before you pay Russia to build six new nuclear power stations!”, but they know we don’t mean it. If we meant it we’d be massing outside their fences, shaking their gates, dragging them out in their pyjamas. Instead, we’re arguing over whether Danny Jordaan is a good choice for mayor. They can relax.

they can begin the work of getting hot money to cool down

That’s the secret: relaxing. Waiting. Stretching out and letting the years tick past. That’s all they have to do to get away with it. And we’ve shown them how. We’ve taught them. All they need to do is grab the brass ring and then wait.

Even if they do the unthinkable and mortgage our future to the Kremlin, it’s going to work out for them. As the sun rises over the enormous crater in our national psyche, a trillion rand potentially signed over to one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, we’ll shout accusations and condemnations. Then there will be headlines. There might be a commission of inquiry, but even if it goes anywhere the result will just be more headlines. And then it will all go quiet, and they can begin the work of getting hot money to cool down.

The signs are encouraging. The takings from the last heist are coming along nicely. In 1999, they were called ugly things like “bribes”. Now, they’re property and educations. Left in the dark for almost 20 years, they’ve fermented into something that smells like respectability. And we’re okay with that. We don’t want to remember the origins of wealth. We love our fairy tales about beautiful people who got rich without ever getting filthy first.

No, they know they just have to wait. If you wait long enough, you never have to pay back the money. Endure five or six years of shouting from the mannequins, and you get to the keep the house and the fire pool. It’s yours forever, to hand down to your family, to create a dynasty. Some critics might remember you as a taker without a conscience. Who cares? Fuck them. In 50 years they’ll be dead and your family will be rich, celebrating your memory as a patriarch, a founder, a giver, a saint. All you have to do is wait.

The arms deal cost R30-billion. Its foulness is still washing up everywhere. If a trillion rand goes to Vladimir Putin’s personal fiefdom in return for our nuclear future, we will be buried in a tsunami of filth so deep that we’ll forget what clean air smells like.

It’s possible we’ll get six working power stations. It’s possible they will be safe. But whatever happens, the moment the deal goes through, we’re toast. We might end up with clean electricity, but the lights will have gone out on the possibility of good governance, and nothing will be clean again.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive