Tjatjarag – An appetite shared with all the world

2011-08-27 14:17

South African exceptionalism is a malady noted by many foreign correspondents and encouraged by several like the New York Times’ Bill Keller, the Financial Times’ Patti Waldmeir and even our own Allister Sparks.

All three have written books and essays about South Africa’s miracle transition, knitting the global narrative of the rainbow nation.

Together with the truly amazing statesmanship of our founding father Nelson Mandela and the impressive vision of his successor, Thabo Mbeki, we bought the idea of being somehow different, a people blessed by God to, well, be special.

A people who would, naturally, not fall for the pitfalls of post-colonial Africa. Us, be corrupted? You’ve got to be kidding!
The myth was aided and abetted for freedom’s first decade by our very own Archbishop Desmond Tutu who for the past few years has preached a very different gospel.

He’s gotten that we are a pretty normal and absolutely fallible bunch. Just like our president.

It took journalists from the developing world to put right this South African ­exceptionalism. The long-time correspondent for The Hindu in India, MS Prabakhara, who loved South Africa and worked his final stint here before retiring, wrote an essay on South African exceptionalism and why it was misplaced.

Using his country as telescope he pointed out a long time ago that Congress parties like the ANC come apart in factional battles fought around greed.

Trevor Ncube, owner of M&G Media, which publishes the Mail&Guardian, pointed to the Zanufication of the ANC. He was wrestled for that but how wrong was he, really? And ruefully I recall now how Ugandan, Kenyan and Nigerian ­colleagues laughed when President Jacob Zuma was fired from his previous job as deputy president on the allegation that he had asked for a R500?000 retainer to sweeten the path of arms dealers.

“That’s nothing,” they said, “wait till the real eating starts.” “Eating” is a colloquialism for corruption.

The real eating has started now. The series of investigations into the business dealings of the ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, and his cronies reveal systems of corruption so sophisticated and entrenched in the state that it makes even a dewy-eyed patriot want to cry.

The Amigos case in KwaZulu-Natal is similar. The money involved is simply unbelievable. There’s more. Lots more. We are eating now and eating a lot.

Sadly, President Zuma does not have the moral authority to clamp down on corruption. His Achilles heel is so exposed and bleeding that the youth league’s lions will rip him apart if they go down – they have already begun gorging themselves at his familial business empire; the arms deal as well as his personal fallibilities.

My bookshelf is newly gifted with Michela Wrong’s book, It’s our Turn to Eat. It is like reading about our own country except that it is based in Kenya and tells the story of John Githongo, the anti-corruption czar forced from his own country when the revolutionaries of the National Rainbow Coalition discovered fancy cars and big-bucks tenders. The apposite lesson is that we are totally unexceptional in our appetite for eating.

Sadly, the South African state’s only ­armoury in the fight against corruption is the Special Investigating Unit’s
Willie Hofmeyr – nowhere near a figure like Githongo. I’ve had the misfortune of sitting across from Hofmeyr when he didn’t want ­information revealed and the good ­fortune of editing when he did. He is more politician than graft-buster.

And government thinks it can ignore Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. I hope she doesn’t end up ­exiled in London as Githongo was.

All we can try to do is learn history’s lesson and attempt to be exceptional.
 

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