The speech that caused the trouble


I was slightly early for lunch with a deputy minister yesterday when I saw a missed call from Jessie Duarte, my one time home-girl and the governing ANC's deputy secretary-general.

"Salaam", I greeted, the greeting of peace, as I returned the call. I was happy to hear her and had wanted to call and request an article for a series I am editing called "What is to be done?" as a way of offering thoughts on what had happened to our country on the State of the Nation evening and where we take things from here.

Jessie was agitated and her words spilled out. In effect, she said the ANC was angry about reports of a talk I had done at the Cape Town Press Club where I had advocated for citizen engagement and activism rather than the South African habit of looking for a Messiah. Duarte was telling me about Markinor research into President Jacob Zuma saying I had said people should rise against him.  

People wanted to boycott City Press but she wanted me to come over and talk – I said I’d happily do so and present the talk. We tentatively set a date.

Lunch done, I walked across the road to St George’s Cathedral to see Father Michael Weeder and get a booklet I’d contributed to on Lent Reflections. My phone rang again. This time, the secretary of our chairperson Koos Bekker. He needed a briefing because the ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was calling to complain about City Press.

Then, the ANC put out a statement about the talk. The calls left me flummoxed and unhappy, especially since neither of the ANC leaders had read or heard my talk, so here it is. I think it’s a ringing call for civic engagement and activism, not a call for insurrection against a president. Let me know your thoughts.

The speech that caused the trouble:

Speech to Cape Town Press Club

The State of the Nation

It was Branko Brcik of the Daily Maverick who first alerted me to the signal jamming last Thursday. While we watched the fashion, he said Ranjeni Munusamy inside the House had told him there was no signal. Being naïve and trusting, I assumed it was a temporary glitch, but then the word from journalists got louder and louder.

The minute you stepped into the Chamber of the National Assembly, communication was dead. We punched our phones, searching network, all a little disbelieving at first. We asked anyone official what was happening and they knew nothing. To be honest, we were a little confused and divided in the press box.

Some people wanted to follow channels and lobby – which our leaders in the SA National Editors Forum did. And others wanted to alert the House to this grotesque act of censorship. Which we did by shouting "Bring Back the Signal", led too by Sanef.

When you face censorship, here’s what to do

Would you have done the same? Really? My lesson then was that you have to act immediately. If our brave colleagues had not, we would have been stuck in a process of cover-up where an investigation would be ordered and the outcome never revealed as the hot jamming potato was passed from authority to authority.   

I’ve learnt about the power of immediate action through several incidents of gagging at the Mail & Guardian when I was editor. We immediately defended attempts to gag publication rather than allow the interdict to succeed and argue later. Eventually, the Supreme Court of Appeals, in a judgment for e-tv, ended the practice. 

When you face censorship, here’s what not to do

My lesson then was to stand up against censorship. It’s detrimental when you don’t, as I learnt in the Spear episode. We published an art review including an image of The Spear by the artist Brett Murray and then I took it down. It is a decision I regret profoundly because while I took it down to initiate and encourage dialogue on all the issues of black dignity the painting raised, it was turned into a political show of force.  Both the ANC and the SA Communist Party used the campaign for political gain.

Later, we would see cartoons of clowns come under political threat and other art and culture would face the same censorious impetus.

Now the public broadcaster, the SABC, is in a censorship mode that begins to approximate the era of the Broederbond there. You will not see images of looting and protests in decisions made arbitrarily by its COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng. It bans adverts [City Press adverts were banned]. Cartoonist Zapiro is a permanent no-go zone for the SABC.

The moment demands civic action of all us. Here are some ideas: write to your MP to demand accountability. Join the Right to Know campaign. Make yourself part of the chorus of voices raised against what happened in the National Assembly on Thursday Night. The South African Catholic Bishops Conference, the Human Rights Commission and the SA National Editors Forum have all issued strong statements against the jamming of the signal and the censoring of the parliamentary feed.

There is no Messiah – you are your own liberator

My experience is that middle-class South Africa is often in search of a Messiah.  There is none. It’s not [deputy president] Cyril Ramaphosa. Or EFF leader Julius Malema. Or DA leader Helen Zille. The lesson of our past is that ordinary people in unity for the right cause remain the most powerful force in the world. Each of us is own leader. And our own liberator.

My lack of trust in elected politicians does not mean I don't know that the phrase and the moment of #Paybackthemoney has altered our politics completely. #Paybackthemoney is a campaign started by the Economic Freedom Fighters in August in response to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's recommendation that President Zuma repay some of the undue benefit he accrued due to the renovations of his presidential estate at Nkandla.

The slogan placed the battle against corruption centre-stage, which is where it should be. Until then, a huge ANC was able to railroad its way through too many scandals. I think here of the arms deal, of Chancellor House [the ANC’s business arm] and Guptagate [the illegal landing of a jet containing large numbers of the family and friends of the Gupta dynasty at the military’s Waterkloof air-base]. These are the pockmarks on our way to being a just-like-the-others emerging market.   

Each of those scandals ended in no justice and confined largely to history’s unaccountable dustbin. 

Nkandla will not go the same way because of the #Paybackthemoney campaign and it may serve the purpose of raising the public appetite against a cancer which I am not sure we can excise. South Africa is deeply corrupt – R40bn is misused annually in the public service and collusive practices in the private sector are shown to increase the wealth gap.   

The President and Nkandla

At a lunch about 10 days ago, President Zuma turned to Nkandla. The furore about his renovated home has clearly hurt him for he was impassioned in declaring his innocence. He had, he said, been cleared by a parliamentary report. He was, he said, the subject of a double standard. If apartheid prime minister PW Botha had an airport built for him, then why could a man from Nkandla have a renovated home? In other words: the furore is racist.  Or “ruralist” – part of a narrative that favours urban over rural, he implied. 

Despite the best intentions of the State and Parliament, this scandal will not go away. A whitewashed Cabinet report and a whitewashed parliamentary report got short shrift from the public. It is the Public Protector’s report that owns the day – undue benefit and that the President must pay back the money.

Will President Zuma go?

What will be done? Will the President leave?  Does the ANC still exercise a countervailing force over its president? Or does he rule the roost as Carol Paton argued so persuasively in the Financial Mail last week? I think Carol’s right. Earlier, a member of the ANC’s top 6 leadership had told me a strong view in the ANC that President should pay back some money. And watching Presidency staffers, I believe some of them to be visibly unhappy with how Nkandla has come to subsume the governing programme. The President will take no counsel on the topic. It’s this theme I am watching with great interest – how long before the ANC understands that President Jacob Zuma is a liability to its long-term electoral fortunes and its reputation?

The jury is out. With secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, the President has ballooned the size of the ANC, especially in KwaZulu-Natal which accounts for over a third of the party’s membership building him a bulwark that will last to 2019. I don’t think the party any longer possesses the ability to self-correct as it often has done in its 103-year-old history or even to deal with corruption in the ways it has promised to in a score of resolutions.  

The security state

Which is why what happened at Parliament last Thursday ushers us into a different era where a party that used to exercise its huge majority with a light hand tightened its grip. Are we a security state now? The unprecedented signal jamming and the gerrymandering of the parliamentary feed, which in turn feeds into all broadcasters suggest so.

I think State Security Minister David Mahlobo ordered the unscrambling of a signal jamming device placed in the National Assembly which means he ordered the scrambling. What does this say about the respect for the separation of powers?   Who were the White Shirts?  And why didn’t they wear blue uniforms? Read academic and activist Jane Duncan's book on the security state and see how persuasively it places our state right there.

What was a military helicopter doing flying overhead last Thursday? Why were DA supporters outside the precinct stopped from protesting? Is every institution of state being turned to party political ends? I think here of the Hawks and of the SA Revenue Service where independent leaders have recently been removed, allegedly for starting politically sensitive investigations.  

Are opposition parties being spied on? The Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete seemed to suggest so when she spoke in the North West at the weekend and outlined how the ANC was aware of every step the EFF would take on Thursday evening, in reports in the Mail & Guardian. She and her team had thus been able to plan for the occasion based on accurate intelligence.

Here’s what happens in a security state

The Constitution can be subverted as we saw last week. Opposition will not be accepted but will be regarded as enemy or cockroaches. As we saw last week. In a security state, the Intelligence services run rampant beholden to political interests.  As we saw last week.  We have an Inspector General of Intelligence, but she is not an effective check on the State Security Agency. Intelligence and security can be misused to political ends. The police similarly so. The EFF are subject now to a Hawks investigation, which started last week – the same Hawks who have placed numerous other investigations on the backburner. Why are they so quick to act against the EFF?  Perhaps because it is shaping as the first significant political threat to the ANC since 1994.

The actual State of the Nation address

In those circumstances, the State of the Nation address thudded to a barely heard halt. The economy coloured the address. So did energy. Neither the sets of policy solutions on the table were convincing. The economic policies – the 10-step plan – was similar to what we’ve been hearing for years now. The key shaper is still state-led growth – stimulation by beneficiation and infrastructure projects as well as incentives like for motor manufacturing in the Eastern Cape as well as Gauteng.

In energy, bets are on nuclear at a cost of R1-trillion by 2023. It’s not going to work but the presidential gaze has turned away from the hard nuts and bolts of getting Medupi working and amplifying the grid with alternative energy sources like sun and wind.

Communications is a boondoggle and Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi has as much of a chance of getting to analogue switch-off on June 1st as I have of owning the Audi RS7, black with leather trim and a sports steering wheel. Freeing up bandwidth to improve data speeds would stimulate a new economy but we are stuck, as we have been for seven years now. 

And, the state faces a huge lawsuit for its decision to go with an encryption model to deliver the digital spectrum which could further delay our future.

In social measures, the state is going to be hard-pressed to pay grants to a new group of recipients – as it looks to increase the age range from 18 to 23 years old.   But, I am not here to have you dusting off that British passport. Or checking your lineage to see if you can secure one.

Life is good in our country

My uncle, Mac Carim, a funny guy, had us over for Christmas lunch. As we ate (biriyani; salmon frikkadels;) and ate (my aunt’s cheese-cake; the other one’s apricot tart) and swam, and danced, he remarked: “Life’s terrible in Jacob Zuma’s South Africa, hey?” Not really. Life’s good, as it is today.

It takes a change of perspective and definition to know. In my opinion, it comes from your geography to your country. If you call Mzansi “this country”, then your stance will generally be one of disdain and distance with the constant idea of going. A bit like Zelda la Grange musing to millions on Twitter by wondering if Francoise Hollande would have her – I mean, when did the Huguenots arrive? I went to the slave lodge in Cape Town to remind myself where we’ve come from.  

If you say “our country”, the descriptor can allow a more comfortable position of critical patriot. And to change the way you see our country. Our courts are trusted and increasingly the arbiters of our democracy. Be this in the sphere of free expression, the fight against corruption and for social justice.  

We have a very strong civil society. Our tourism economy is strong. I have seen people from Latin America, the rest of Africa, Europe and the Indian sub-continent in a few short days here. Wouter Kellerman who recently won a Grammy is only the latest South African doing something notable and inspiring on the global stage. I read a few weeks ago that Nandos, yes, our Nandos, is now the UK’s favourite fast food chain. 

The President announced on Thursday that 270 000 young people are in jobs because a youth wage job incentive is working. If we can crack the youth employment conundrum, that would be fantastic. And we look to be on the way. 

We pay social grants to 18 million people making this a social support system of unprecedented scale and depth across our continent. In middle-class circles, this is called a dangerous dependency but it’s a vital safety net and it keeps the country stable.

Society is moved by forces other than the political

Yesterday, I walked through an exhibition on peace in the Company Gardens. It’s wonderful. In the early Nineties, we were the poster-child of the global peace movement, a nation that chose peace over conflict; truth and reconciliation over obfuscation and division. 

Twenty years on, our racial peace is fraying and I’m not sure we’ve lived up to the promise of being reconciled with our past. There is a lot of work to do. I looked yesterday at the images of Madiba and of FW De Klerk; proud at our quad of Nobel peace prize winners which also include Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late ANC leader Albert Luthuli.  But I wondered: why do our political leaders today lack the capacity to build on that legacy?

Does Helen Zille’s DA possess the ability to do more than oppose? Is the EFF right to turn Parliament into a site of struggle? How has the ANC carried the mantle of statesmanship it was bequeathed by its President third removed? 

We are in a phase of political leadership that is neither visionary nor united.   Increasingly, I find that we are in a phase of leading from the middle where a society is moved by forces that are not political. I don’t even think that those forces are business right now. That sector is running scared – cowed by former president Thabo Mbeki and sidelined by President Zuma, it has no idea of how to be a citizen in South Africa in the 21st century. I think our moral high-ground and global reputation is held by civil society and by the creative sector. Here, I find South Africans pushing the edge: be it at the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg; the Soweto Theatre; David Tlale’s studio and Kirsten Goss’s jewellery. Or perhaps Cassper Nyovest and KO – our hip-hop movement is right up there, giving Kanye a run for his money.

- Statement by the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, on the signal disruption in Parliament on the occasion of the State of the Nation address.

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

Send your comments to Ferial

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