The night careers were sent to sleep with the fishes
A new Family takes charge as South Africa tries to become a legitimate business
Monday night’s cabinet reshuffle clarified a few things.
For example, it confirmed that Bathabile Dlamini is, as suspected, not actually a human being but rather a supernatural manifestation of our collective despair – let’s call it the Ghost of Belligerent Incompetence Past, Present and Future – and will remain in government until she is formally exorcised at full moon.
It also reminded us that a great deal of politics is pantomime. For all his huffing and puffing about the evil ANC, Julius Malema is close enough to his former comrades to be able to tweet cabinet appointments before they are officially announced. How quickly would Malema change costumes of the script demanded it? We may yet find out.
Most importantly, however, Monday night’s appointments, and our reaction to them, revealed that most South Africans still don’t have the faintest clue how far up Shit Creek we really were.You saw it in the ambivalence of pundits in the hours following the reshuffle: the new cabinet, many agreed, was an awkward compromise; a tense balance between captors and reformers; two steps forward and two back.
If you’d been in a coma for the last six or seven years, you might have listened to them and thought they had a point. If South Africa had been a nation state for that time, run by politicians, it might have been a somewhat disappointing reshuffle.
But, of course, South Africa hasn’t been a nation state run by politicians. Since at least the start of this decade it has been a criminal enterprise run by gangsters, for gangsters.
Which makes Monday night so extraordinary. Because on Monday night, the new Godfather called together his consigliore and caporegimes and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Made men (and Lynne Brown) were told they were out: their careers sleep with the fishes. And in their place? Law-abiding technocrats.
Of course, the vast majority who remain are Family insiders. This is, after all, still a family business. But the only reason you replace made men with technocrats is because you’ve made an epoch-shifting decision: you’ve decided to go straight.
The Godfather is a modern and worldly man. He understands the old ways – loyalty, omerta, family – but he also understands when tradition must move out of the way of progress. And so he has understood that the Family (and the neighbourhood in which it operates) will be safer and more prosperous if it becomes a legitimate business.Some of the hard men remain. You can’t just whack caporegimes like “DD” Mabuza without expecting blowback. And nobody wants a war. But this Godfather has shown that he is playing the long game. He’s shooting for a legacy: 10 years of reform and prosperity. He’ll get to the hard men in good time.
All of which is why I’m not ambivalent about Ramaphosa’s cabinet. Those who could be removed immediately are gone. Those who will take time to remove are being manouevred towards the exit. Pravin Gordhan is now in charge of Eskom. Nhlanhla Nene once again holds the keys to the Treasury in his safe hands.
But if you don’t believe me or aren’t swayed by mafia analogies, just ask yourself: Would you rather have this cabinet or the one Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would have conjured had she won at Nasrec?
Maybe this is two steps forward and one step back. But that’s an offer I can’t refuse.