The idea of Cyril as Putin’s seat-warmer is too ghastly to bear

Ideas

The idea of Cyril as Putin’s seat-warmer is too ghastly to bear

When Tito Mboweni compared us to Russia, I can only hope that he was employing empty rhetoric

Columnist


When Tito Mboweni told us on Wednesday that “we are in a post-Soviet Union era”, two groups of South Africans got confused and angry. The first group was the trade unions, although, to be fair, you could make them confused and angry just by asking them to explain how money works. And the second group was me.
The outrage of the unions is easy to understand. It must have been a terrible shock for them to learn that the Soviet Union no longer exists and that the inevitable triumph of global communism might be pushed back a year or two. Some of the less intellectual unions – Sadtu, for example – might also have heard “post-Soviet Union” and thought Mboweni was referring to a union of post-Soviets, presumably representing workers who spend their days mailing Soviet clothes to consumers. This would have been very upsetting indeed. Why was it a Post-Soviet Union era now? What did they have that Sadtu didn’t?
These sorts of panicked questions bring me to the second group thoroughly freaked out by Mboweni’s Soviet allusion: me.
Now, I know talk is cheap and I know that politicians throw words around the way sweaty frat boys throw banknotes at exotic dancers, but a budget speech is not something you toss off in a morning. It is curated and vetted by an army of mandarins, its every paragraph weighed and calibrated so that none contain even a whiff of an alarm.
Which is why it’s safe to assume that when Mboweni compared SA to Russia, he wasn’t being flippant.
So. If we’re going to accept as serious his rather alarming comparison of our little country with the gigantic, murderous mess that was the Soviet Union, and if we’re now in the post-Soviet era, then just where the hell are we in Russian history right now, Minister?
I assume we’re well past the early 1990s drama when hardliners tried to take back the country from reformers by intimidating them with tanks (or, in our case, driving a truck through the window the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park). Also, let’s move on from that one, because in that analogy, FW de Klerk is Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela is Boris Yeltsin, so, well, maybe not.
It also seems very unlikely that our western and south-western provinces are about to declare independence and leave, although it would liven things up quite a lot if the Cape Party won the May election and the People’s Kiff Ubuntu Republic of Cape Town was formed, with a constitution based on the teachings of Jordan Peterson and Instagram poets, and Toto’s Africa as its national anthem.
So what’s left? Well, if we’re not in Russia of the 1990s then we must be in the 2000s. Which seems about right, what with shadowy former operatives of self-proclaimed liberation armies coming into power and dividing up the country between their oligarch pals.
But if Vladimir Putin is Jacob Zuma, then who is Cyril Ramaphosa?
If we follow Mboweni’s comparison literally, then there’s only one answer, and it’s a ghastly one: Ramaphosa is Dmitry Medvedev.
Officially, Medvedev is Putin’s prime minster. Practically, he is a man with no real power, employed as a seat-warmer to make it look as if Putin contests elections and surrenders power to democratically elected successors. Medvedev is window dressing, cynically and badly covering up the vast corruption that is the modern Russian state.
On second thoughts I’m going to tell myself that Mboweni’s Soviet allusion was just empty rhetoric and not a Freudian slip. He was just shooting the breeze. Right, Tito? I mean, they’re just words, right? Tito? Tito?

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