A week is a long time in politics

A week in politics is more than a long time, sometimes: it can mark the beginning or the end of an era.

It is hard to believe that it was just this time last week that the man who sold his country, former president Jacob Zuma, was flatly refusing to step down from office. By Friday, in the State of the Nation address, a new man, President Cyril Ramaphosa, was resetting the tone for the nation, and Zuma was toast. Those who had depended on Zuma’s favours, who had enabled his vices, who had grown fat and arrogant along with him, those whose dumb stupidity was enough to entitle them to high office, have looks on their faces these days of utter bewilderment as South Africans, with justifiable schadenfreude, await their fall from office and the day of reckoning.

Ramaphosa’s speech on Friday rose to the moment: he spoke of renewal, of hope, of the civic virtues; he put bad guys on notice and asked the good guys – men and women – to lend a hand, with an emotive and effective reference to Bra Hugh Masekela, the great jazz hero who has just passed on to the big blue jazz club in the sky. And if some of Ramaphosa’s speech was mere ANC pablum – the self-deluding soviet-style recital of targets supposedly achieved and miracles of revolutionary accomplishment – that can be forgiven, at least for now, as the nation feels the weight of nearly ten lost years lifted, if only a little, from its tired and disillusioned shoulders.

Perhaps the boiler-plate vacuity was necessary – a consequence of the shortness of time, the speed of events, the need to reassure the faithful and placate enemies. But sooner or later – preferably sooner – the new President is going to have to show what he is made of. As the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro famously wrote, in a paraphrase of Palmerston – ‘power reveals.’

His ascent to power will show us all, over this year and the next, who Cyril Ramaphosa is, and whether his presidency is simply an event, in the long chain of events, or the beginning of an era. But let’s be honest: as far as new beginnings go, SONA on Friday was about as good as it gets.

South Africa in the news

For our overseas family and friends: South Africa is in the news again, and for all the wrong reasons. President Jacob Zuma’s “night of the long knives,” in which he purged a third of his cabinet, including the respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and Gordhan’s deputy, Jonas Mncebisi,  has caused consternation and a growing backlash, not least amongst members of his own party.

The country’s Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, has spoken out openly against the decision, as has the party’s Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe. The South African Communist Party, which is in alliance with the ANC and has a number of ministers in Zuma’s cabinet, called on Friday for the President’s resignation. What happens over the next few days and weeks is likely to have long-term repercussions, and consequences for the ANC at the 2019 elections.

The project that has brought me back to South Africa from Canada is housed in the Government Technical Advisory Centre, a component of Treasury. Everyone we have spoken to has been acutely aware of the storm clouds gathering. And yet, what has struck me the most, perhaps, is the strong dedication one senses, amongst senior officials, to the Treasury as a key national institution and pillar of good governance. This is one of the things that gives one hope for the country.

The other, of course, is the pushback from ordinary people, who are sick and tired of incompetence and corruption, and are vocally reclaiming the space for democracy. At the funeral this week for struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada there was loud applause for Gordhan, and even louder applause when a former president, Kgalema Motlanthe, read from a letter that Kathrada had sent to Zuma, calling on him to step down in the interests of the country.

Listening to the talk shows on radio, and following the conversations on Twitter, one hears the occasional voice in defence of the President’s actions, but the overwhelming mood, it seems, is one of anger and defiance. South Africa may be entering perhaps the most decisive period in its post-apartheid history, and the currents of freedom and democracy are running deep and strong. Whether they are enough to turn back the tide is something we will no doubt find out, over the next year or two.

It is a privilege, meanwhile, to be here, in this country I love, with all of its faults and its troubled history, working alongside the proud public servants who have served this country so well and will continue to do so.


News Roundup

So here’s a roundup of today’s news (just following a trend here: all sentences these days seem to begin with ‘so’).

In South Africa, the bad news is good news. Attempts to frame the Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, and ‘capture’ the Treasury, have come unstuck. Large demonstrations against corruption and the abuse of power have brought out not only the unwashed masses but struggle stalwarts of the ANC and even captains of industry. Meanwhile, President Zuma has withdrawn his court attempt to stymie the release of a report on ‘state capture’ by the erstwhile Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, whose stature as an icon of South Africa’s democracy is now indisputable: the report itself has unleashed what must be the biggest political scandal in South Africa since the arms deal.

If much of what these developments reveal is bad – confirmation, if confirmation is needed, that there is something very rotten in the state of Denmark – it is also hugely positive: proof, if you will, that South Africa is not its neighbour Zimbabwe. State capture and corruption have done enormous damage to the democratic project, but the democratic project has come back roaring. Viva democracy, viva!

Meanwhile, in that global beacon of democracy, America, the nastiest, most vicious election in modern history slouches towards its no-doubt temporary resolution; with the spectre of that bigoted, know-nothing con-artist hovering over the nuclear button one can only hope that ordinary Americans will elect the only competent adult on the ballot. More, that they will have the grace to celebrate the fact that the best man standing is a woman. Today’s Globe and Mail pretty much sums up the views, I guess, of most Canadians, and the rest of the non-demagogic world, in this editorial.

In other news, it has been announced (by me) that the writer of this blog will be flying to Madrid, Spain, on Sunday, for rioja and tapas. There will also be some work done, preparing for an interview for a major project back in – you’ve got it – South Africa, followed by three days of freedom to explore the city and its multitudinous offerings. I believe the squid sandwiches in Madrid are fantastic.

Finally (to circle back, in a manner of speaking) a story about Zimbabwe. Not about Bob, that bankrupt despot, but Zimbabwe’s elephants. Specifically, the elephants we saw, in their hundreds, along the banks and in the waters of the great Zambezi. Namibia’s desert elephants, as you might expect, are very careful with water:  not so the elephants of the Zambezi, whose playful abandon and exuberance you might detect in these images.

A final word from the editor: blog service may be interrupted next week by squid sarmies and rioja. Expect an update in the week of 14 November, if you don’t hear from me sooner.

Oh, and don’t forget to look at my portfolio.