We don’t need big plot twists or grand climaxes from Cyril’s cabinet
Politics is not a blockbuster epic, and politicians can never deliver that final, deeply satisfying ending we crave
Say what you like about Cyril Ramaphosa, but you can’t fault his timing. By waiting until after the final episode of Game of Thrones to announce his cabinet, he has made sure it will only be the second-greatest disappointment of the year.
I don’t want to compare the HBO television series to the ANC. One is a quasi-medieval fantasy that has disgusted millions of fans; a vastly expensive production crammed with absurd characters and prophecies that are never fulfilled. The other is Game of Thrones.
Both, however, have fallen foul of heightened – and then deflated – expectations.
Intense disappointment is a powerful emotion. Politicians know it can also be dangerous: there is a strong case to be made that revolutions occur not when people are trapped in despair but when they have been given hope, and then see that hope extinguished.
When Ramaphosa reveals his cabinet and reads out some of those familiar, disgraced names, there won’t be a revolution. There will be new names to temper our disgust. There may even be one or two shock omissions, distracting us from the fact that beneficiaries of state capture have been given another term at the trough.
Still, there will be outrage and angry questions. How do the remaining zombies keep lurching onwards? Why has Ramaphosa kept them around when he and every other sentient South African understands that they are poison?
I understand this response. But I would suggest it is a misleading one, formed by our relationship with stories and how we expect them to play out.
On the weekend I found myself chairing a panel at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, talking to Ralph Mathekga, the political scientist and pundit, and academic Leon Schreiber, who starts a new career as a DA MP on Wednesday. Both are eloquent, hugely informed, and intelligently passionate about this country. But instead of lobbing rhetorical grenades or raining fire down upon their political foes, they both spoke about small, incremental moves. The protection of the state, they reminded me, isn’t about vanquishing movie villains. It is, instead, about painstaking processes, unglamorous bureaucracy, and unsexy, complex safeguards maintained by people who measure their words and avoid the showbiz histrionics of Twitter.
Politics, in other words, is not a blockbuster epic with a grand finale. Politicians might woo us with a great rags-to-riches yarn. They might promise us a happy ending. They might even insist that that happy ending is about to arrive sooner rather than later. But they can never deliver that final, resounding, deeply satisfying climax we crave, for two reasons.
The first is that politics never ends, and therefore has no narrative structure. It doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. All it offers is an endless now, in which politicians describe a heroic beginning and promise a utopian end.
The second reason, however, has to do with the basic stuff of politics: pragmatism and strategic compromise.
Not surprisingly, these tend to be absent from our favourite stories. Imagine the Fellowship of the Ring heading off to Mordor, only to be called back: “Yeah, er, sorry guys. I forgot you also have to take Carbuncle the Treacherous Orc-Magnet with you because it turns out his dad is the king of the Bog-Trolls of Underwhelm and apparently they’re accusing us of elitism and unilateralism ... ”
Imagine the Avengers having to leave Thor behind because focus groups have found that the presence of a pagan god upsets the value system of the monotheists they’re trying to save.
Imagine Harry Potter and Voldemort blasting magic laser goop at each other only to be interrupted by a message from the Ministry of Magic, demanding an immediate ceasefire because fights to the death on the ruins of Hogwarts are undermining magical unity.
All of these would make terrible stories, but they’d all be good politics.
This week, when Cyril Ramaphosa engages in some good politics, it will look like a terrible story.
But right now, we don’t need satisfying plot twists or grand climaxes. Fiction and its passions are of no use now. What we need is evidence that small, vital, incremental moves are being made; that unglamorous but all-important departments and institutions are beginning to be safeguarded; that slowly, slowly, the state is being quarantined.
Of course, we want the last nine years to culminate in fire and spectacle. Of course, we want the deep satisfaction of seeing our national villains begging for forgiveness or getting locked up.
But there are no endings in politics. The long now continues. And if it is to continue for Ramaphosa, it must continue as patiently and carefully as a quill – held not by a writer but by a painstaking bureaucrat – crossing a t, dotting an i, and then moving on to the next line.