Thursday, August 18, 2011

While the ANC Plays Big Man

R. W. Johnson coins the phrase “Big Man” politics in his article “
”The future of the liberal tradition in SA.” He suggests the downfall of the ANC will come ultimately, as a consequence of its disregard for the law which is the hallmark of its Big Man politics: “The prospect is thus of Big Man government throwing its weight about to less and less effect, a sort of Nigerianisation of South African life, and the threatening collapse not just of ANC government but of government altogether. Such a collapse has already occurred in many parts of the country. Municipal government disappeared years ago in towns like iDutywa and Butterworth. East London City Council has not met for two years now.
Pietermartitzburg, which has had continuous municipal government since 1854, went bankrupt in 2009 and the council has been wound up. Many other councils are on the brink…”

Watch this space … Here is an excerpt from his lecture on the subject. I found the article at

The future of the liberal tradition in SA
RW Johnson
18 August 2011

RW Johnson says the task is to stand firm against the final wave of racial nationalism

R.W. Johnson, 43rd Hoernlé lecture of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Johannesburg, August 17 2011:
The Future of the Liberal Tradition in South Africa
“…many features of the new political landscape constitute great difficulties for liberals. First, our rulers have a cavalier attitude to the rule of law. This is apparent in a host of ways: in the way that Mbeki tried to use the law to bring down Zuma, replete with such improprieties as the NPA, on the eve of the Polokwane conference, briefing the media about impending charges against Zuma; in the corresponding way that Zuma and his backers treated legal proceedings as merely a complex game which had to be kept stalled long enough for Zuma to ascend the presidency, after which all charges against him would be conveniently forgotten.
In such hands, the law became merely a set of moves in a game of political Monopoly. If Mbeki wins, Selebi remains as police chief and Zuma goes straight to jail. If Zuma wins, he gets a Get Out of Jail Free card, Mbeki can't even appear on SABC and Selebi goes straight to jail.
But the disregard for the law goes much deeper: it is visible in the machinations of the Judicial Services Commission, in the low calibre of many of those appointed as judges, in diminishing confidence in the integrity of the courts and in the increasingly sleazy and dysfunctional conditions in which the law is actually administered. Since respect for the rule of law is one of the most sacred liberal canons, this inevitably leaves liberals in a state of anger, despair and protest.
Second, liberals look to a rational form of political authority, disciplined by accountability. They do not feel comfortable with African "big man" politics, nor with the intense factionalism which it inevitably breeds as rival would-be big men jostle for control and patronage. But that is, of course, exactly what they have got.
Mbeki was a classic African philosopher-king type, comparable with others of this genre who have done so much harm to Africa, insistent on their own genius and also, effectively, on their own right to rule beyond any normal set of constitutional safeguards. Despite the fact that he was guilty of one genocide against his own HIV sufferers and that he supported other African genocidaires in Zimbabwe, Sudan and elsewhere, he had many courtiers and praise-singers, including several absurdly obsequious biographers. The normal checks and balances of constitutional government were not enough to contain him and in the end he was brought down by his own arrogance and by another big man.
Zuma's South Africa is almost resplendent in its celebration of the big man. At its apex sits Zuma himself, now quite openly a traditional Zulu patriarch with many wives and fiancees, a special fiefdom of Nkandla which attracts all manner of state investment, and a spreading network of crony business deals among his extended family. There is a sad irony in watching the likes of Jeremy Cronin and Ben Turok lending their ideological support to this phenomenon, for Zuma is quite clearly the Zulu peasant living his dream of becoming the Zulu king.
More than anything he resembles Sixpens, the populist black leader in Arthur Keppel-Jones's When Smuts Goes (Gollancz, 1947). Almost equally striking is Blade Nzimande, flagrantly denying the rule that the SACP leader should not be a Minister, so that he too can have the big car, the big salary, and the big expense account that make a Big Man. The model is clearly that of the Zulu chieftaincy, which is what makes the SACP rationalizations for this behaviour so comic.
Other Big Men abound. Think of Khaya Ngqula as head of SAA who had a major interest in a company which supplied the airline with jet fuel, its biggest single cost item, who spent millions of Rands on sports stars of his choosing, who had himself helicoptered between Jo'burg and Pretoria, and who gave away endless free air tickets to friends. Even now Ngqula refuses to pay back any of the R50 million he irregularly spent.
Or think of Bheki Cele, the national Police Commissioner, compromising the Dewani trial by referring to the accused as "a monkey" and presuming his guilt. One is reminded of how his predecessor, Jackie Selebi, stormed into a police station and referred to a black policewoman as a chimpanzee because she didn't recognise him. For the great cry of the Big Man, also found in the mouth of Julius Malema, is "Don't you know who I am ?!"
What have Selebi and Cele got in common apart from ready recourse to monkey talk? Well, mainly the fact that neither had the slightest police or legal experience before becoming national Police Commissioner; that both were given this job simply because the Big Man on top thought he could trust them - and so both of them became Big Men too, throwing their weight around. Moreover, a Big Man is expected to distribute patronage and spoils to his extended family and client network which, in liberal terms, is corruption pure and simple.
This "Big Man" phenomenon is very widely witnessed. It was only because the head of Athletics South Africa, Leonard Chuene, was caught out in public lies over the Caster Semenya affair that he was deposed but it immediately emerged that Mr Chuene had run athletics as his own private fiefdom. After a forensic audit it was reported that he could face criminal charges for poor corporate governance, alleged misappropriation of funds and tax evasion. Perhaps the choicest item was that ASA had bought him a wonderful big Mercedes - and then sold it to him for R1, though ASA continued to pay for the car's maintenance and insurance of course.
Similarly Mr Gerald Majola, the chief executive of Cricket South Africa, helped himself and his family to extremely luxurious travel privileges, secretly appropriated large bonus running into millions of Rands, when discovered repaid some of these but throughout the ensuing fracas resisted all calls for an independent inquiry and managed to expel those who called for one. In the end Standard Bank resigned its sponsorship rather than be associated with such skullduggery but Mr Majola continues to preside lucratively over South African cricket. The fact that he has had the South African cricket schools week renamed after his own brother, Khaya Majola, is an authentic Big Man touch.
In politics the Big Man style is particularly noticeable in the way ministers spend millions on their cars, always travel first class and stay in the most expensive hotels, for it is understood that these are the essential trappings of a Big Man. To suggest that any Minister should forego any of these perks is to suggest that he is not really a Big Man after all. Yet under Seretse Khama in Botswana not only did cabinet ministers travel tourist class but so did the President himself. Similarly, when David Cameron came to power in the UK he immediately instructed that all ministers should travel only tourist class to show that they took the financial crisis seriously. Such an instruction is simply not thinkable in South Africa. And, of course the empowerment of women as interpreted at cabinet level means that any woman minister is also a Big Man.
Liberals feel a revulsion at such behaviour which is clearly derived ultimately from an African chiefly model of authority. Truth to tell, liberals have always felt a bit queasy, even under Mandela, about such chiefly trappings as praise-singers, though these could easily be dismissed as merely folklorique. For liberals look naturally towards a modern democratic polity. They would feel equally uncomfortable if they had to share political space with a feudal prince - and for the same reason, that the prince, like the chiefly model of authority, is pre-modern.
Inevitably and indeed quite typically, we have seen liberals react against such displays of Big Man political style, most notably in Helen Zille's campaign against so-called "blue-light bullies", the ANC big men who push ordinary motorists off the roads as they hurtle along, ignoring speed limits.
Similarly, ANC leaders since the 1950s - Luthuli, Mandela, Tambo and Mbeki - all carefully presented an educated, modern and monogamous image and most liberals feel a mixture of laughter and dismay at the speedy reversion to an uneducated, thuggish and polygamous Africa represented by Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema: again, what jars is the pre-modern.
It is important to say that many within the ANC are fully conscious of the importance of the rule of law and that by no means all Africans in authority affect a "Big Man" style. Nonetheless, liberals find themselves in the situation of having endlessly to fight for the rule of law against all attempts to ignore and suborn it; to oppose corruption root and branch - which, very often, means corruption committed by Africans; and to oppose the Big Man style which is almost wholly African.
So, while Helen Zille can dress up in African shirts, make speeches in isiXhosa and toyi-toyi all she likes, at the end of the day she will be denounced an unAfrican or even anti-African. There is no way out of this for liberals and the only consolation is that many Africans will quietly agree with them.
It must be remembered, after all, that Albert Luthuli was a liberal through and through who always lived a modest life. Although a real chief he never attempted to insist on chiefly authority. So there are excellent African exemplars of liberal principle. In the long run standing up for these liberal values will have the same significance in post-apartheid South Africa that standing up for merit, not race, had in apartheid South Africa.
It will take courage to stand up for liberal values in the situation now developing for we are in a position where the cumulative blunders of the ANC will interact with its own increasing corruption and factionalism to produce more and more situations which are beyond the government's control.
Put crudely, ANC government in its first decade and more was able to rely on the gradually wasting asset of systems, infrastructure and institutions inherited from the previous era. But the impact of ANC rule was to white-ant all these things so that they are now all ceasing to work. At the same time the country is running up against resource constraints in many directions, including water, electricity and food.
Only good management will see us through - and good management is the thing in shortest supply. At the same time the internal struggles within the ANC over position, power and money are becoming rougher. Death-threats are now the ordinary currency of politics. We have had eleven assassinations over such issues in Mpumalanga province, several more in KwaZulu-Natal and probably more than we realise elsewhere. It is purely a matter of time before we have another major political assassination.
The prospect is thus of Big Man government throwing its weight about to less and less effect, a sort of Nigerianisation of South African life, and the threatening collapse not just of ANC government but of government altogether. Such a collapse has already occurred in many parts of the country. Municipal government disappeared years ago in towns like iDutywa and Butterworth. East London City Council has not met for two years now.
Pietermartitzburg, which has had continuous municipal government since 1854, went bankrupt in 2009 and the council has been wound up. Many other councils are on the brink, in the Free State, the North West and elsewhere. Inevitably, as local governance collapses, so does the rule of law in many cases and there is already a visible ratepayers' revolt, often with the setting up of de facto alternative local authorities. In a situation of this kind authority will tend to gravitate to whoever can provide direction and efficacy.
This gives a heightened significance to the DA's attempt to prove itself superior at the running of provincial and municipal government. Already the contrast between Cape Town and the Western Cape on the one hand and the rest of the country on the other has taken on the proportions one normally sees only in the contrast between one country and another.

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