Enter the Age of the Henchmen

2014-05-05 10:00

You will vividly remember those images from last year: ministers lined up in front of cameramen and scribbling reporters.

The purpose: to tell the nation they would leave no stone unturned in their quest to discover the truth about how the Gupta wedding-guest plane landed at Air Force Base Waterkloof.

You will also remember the image of the same ministers once more lined up before the media. The purpose: to tell the nation President Jacob Zuma had nothing to do with the landing. It was all the fault of a few “name-dropping” government officials.

There was a similar image of some of these ministers and several other colleagues later that year. The purpose: to tell the nation they would leave no stone unturned in their quest to uncover the truth behind the overspending on Zuma’s Nkandla homestead.

Then there were the images that followed the release of the interministerial task team and the Public Protector’s findings. The purpose: to tell the nation the president knew nothing about the R246?million upgrade at his residence. It was all the fault of junior officials.

In your mind, you will ring countless statements by ministers and governing party mandarins re-enforcing the message that the president has never done wrong in his life.

He never took money from Schabir Shaik and other shady characters. They just gave him the dosh. He didn’t mean to sleep with the daughters of his comrades and close friends. They seduced him.

High up in the memory bank will be the clarifications of the president’s numerous stomach-splitting statements. There will be some ominous utterances that ran contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and democracy. But he didn’t really say that. It is the news media that misquoted him.

Once you have visualised these images and the statements, you will be tempted to send a message to the Vatican urging Pope Francis not to wait for Zuma to die before canonising him, for it is obvious that in our midst walks a saint whose impeccable image is tarnished by mere worldly beings.

If you are a cynical citizen, you won’t appreciate how blessed you are to be in the warm and secure arms of living sainthood.

You will instead process these images and tell yourself you are living in the Age of the Henchmen. In your mind, the ANC big dogs who have defended the president are just amoebic lackeys.

Your biased views will have been backed up by the ANC’s handling of the Nkandla saga. They will have been further reinforced by the shutting down

of the parliamentary probe into the matter. A closer look at the main players in this week’s decision will cement your views.

The playmaker, you will have observed, is one Stone Sizani. In 2007, Sizani was at the forefront of the drive to get Thabo Mbeki to stand for a third term as ANC leader as a way of saving the party, and the country from a disastrous Zuma presidency.

He subsequently underwent a Damascene conversion and now thinks Zuma is the best thing to have happened since John Bishop stopped presenting the news.

For his conversion, Sizani was rewarded with the position of chief whip, a position he has used to be Number 1’s great enforcer in the ANC caucus.

It was this chief henchman who ensured the ANC left naming its representatives to the Nkandla ad hoc committee until the eleventh hour, that the terms of reference were interpreted in the narrowest way possible and that the party’s contingent comprised fellow henchmen.

These henchmen were a mixture of ambitious party enthusiasts and old-order relics. Among them were Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela, a bright and energetic MP with ambitions for higher office. The relics included Cedric Frolick and Luwellyn Landers, who served in apartheid’s Tricameral Parliament and would have once been considered sellouts by most members of the caucus.

Their conversion to the ANC’s gospel and desperation to have their past forgotten has earned them powerful roles as Luthuli House bouncers who unquestioningly carry out instructions in Parliament. The committee’s other deployees were nonentities who will do anything to get noticed.

By the time the committee sat for its first meeting, it was obvious to anyone with half a brain that the process was not going to go anywhere. The henchmen were going to make sure of that.

This culture of the henchmen has been one of the hallmarks of the Zuma years. During his time in office, Mbeki was accused of surrounding himself with “yes men” who did not challenge his thinking. The nation suffered greatly for that. But as dishonourable as that was, at least that was about ideas.

In the Zuma age, the role of the yes man is to defend the president’s wrongdoing.

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