Book extract: RW Johnson’s ‘Fighting for the Dream‘’
By the author of the bestselling and controversial book ‘How Long Will South Africa Survive?’
RW Johnson’s bestselling and controversial book How Long Will South Africa Survive? was published at the height of the Zuma presidency and it offered a chilling warning. As national elections loom, Johnson examines the state of the nation in his latest book Fighting for the Dream (Jonathan Ball Publishers, R275). Here is an extract from chapter five:
Ramaphoria did not last long. Zuma had allowed his powerful barons to loot – unless they went too far and caused a peasant revolt. This is pretty much what happened in North West province, where the premier, Supra Mahumapelo, was alleged to have looted and tyrannised the population. However, he had placed all his bets on Dlamini-Zuma, and when Ramaphosa won at Nasrec, the province’s enraged citizenry rose up, demanding change. So serious was the civil disorder thus caused that Ramaphosa had to break off in the midst of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London and fly home to deal with it. But Mahumapelo’s summary removal clearly threatened other party barons, particularly Ace Magashule, who was already under suspicion for his involvement with various Gupta pieces of criminality. So Magashule did all he could to hinder the investigation into Mahumapelo. ANC meetings in the North West called to inquire into the complaints against Mahumapelo were arranged at awkward times in remote places, and sometimes in areas where there had been recent lion attacks, thus making it difficult to achieve quorums. But Mahumapelo had provoked such popular hatred that the opposition to him was not to be discouraged, and after several weeks the errant premier was forced to step down – though even then he remained chairman of the provincial ANC, a post from which he was only dislodged later and with difficulty.
This was an early indication that Ramaphosa’s position was not strong, an impression confirmed by his difficulty in forming a new cabinet. Under pressure from powerful factions in the ANC, he ended up with a cabinet that still included a number of ministers widely regarded as compromised. He managed to have more honest and competent boards installed at Eskom and Transnet (though even so the Eskom board included anomalies such as Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, who had all but destroyed the University of KwaZulu- Natal and had neither business nor engineering experience). Ramaphosa struggled to impose himself, however, when it came to dismissing Tom Moyane, a crony of Zuma’s who had misdirected the tax collection system while commissioner of the South African Revenue Service (SARS). When the judge presiding over Moyane’s disciplinary inquiry recommended his dismissal, which recommendation Ramaphosa immediately acted upon, Moyane resisted fiercely and challenged the decision in court. Given that Moyane was believed to have cost SARS anywhere between R50 billion and R200 billion in lost revenue, this was an extraordinary display of chutzpah.
Clearly, there were all manner of Zuma appointees and clients in powerful and lucrative positions throughout the public sector who were determined to fight their corner. Many, after all, had virtually no skills, and if they lost their government positions might end up unemployed. Under Zuma’s patronage they had been able to steal, achieve rent-seeking goals and set up gatekeeping positions. They would fight under Zuma’s banner or anyone else’s, but they would fight. And the really disturbing thing for them about Ramaphosa was that, even in the case of Zuma, he had taken the position that the rule of law must prevail and that he would not interfere with it. The days of pliant police and prosecutors could well be over.
The problem was that Zuma had been in power so long and the odds on Dlamini-Zuma being elected had seemed so good – in which case the whole Zuma system would have continued undisturbed – that not a few of those in power had continued on their merry way. Thus, the managers and directors who were robbing the VBS Mutual Bank of its depositors’ funds had felt secure because they had taken out insurance by extending a large ‘loan’ to Zuma himself and making a R2-million donation to ANC funds. Had the Zuma faction stayed in office they would have got away with this, but once Ramaphosa won the bank failed amid huge scandal. In Mahumapelo’s case, the state arms firm, Denel – which had been entirely suborned by the Guptas – gave Mahumapelo’s son a R1.1-million bursary to help him become a pilot, although Denel had no history of making such grants. This relatively small detail was one of the straws breaking the camel’s back. A furious Pravin Gordhan, by now returned to the cabinet as the minister of public enterprises, immediately ordered an investigation. After all, Denel had had to borrow money simply to pay salaries a few months before.
Gordhan, the SOEs and the ‘Indian cabal’
The key mover in this new dispensation was Pravin Gordhan, who began to comb through the SOEs, evicting at least the more notably corrupt individuals. He was not to be brooked, and when, for example, the board of Transnet, the mammoth state transport corporation, failed to take action against miscreants he simply replaced the whole board. Moreover, miscreants might find themselves not only sacked but also reported to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), and also relieved of substantial sums; the Transnet CEO, Siyabonga Gama, was sacked and ordered to pay back R151 million. Gordhan was regarded with horror – as a veritable Robespierre – by the Zuma-ites, for they were long used to a culture of impunity.
Gordhan was fearsomely unpopular. He was a true believer in the old ANC vision, and smart enough to know that whether or not that dream could be saved would depend not only on uprooting corruption but also on re-establishing a culture of accountability. But corruption had long been systemic and utterly pervasive, operating through the patronage networks that had put down roots in every corner of the country. The result was that when one centre of corruption was eliminated it was like pulling up a convolvulus weed in the garden – one would find that its tendrils reached everywhere, into the most surprising places.
A good example was the VBS Mutual Bank, a black-owned bank with Venda roots (it was formerly the Venda Building Society). Having a black bank had long been a BEE dream, and there was always much support for the idea of a state (ie black-run) bank, though how yet another SOE was supposed to compete with the well-run commercial banks was not explained. VBS had solved this problem by corruptly inducing municipal treasurers and other notables to place deposits with the bank at attractive rates. However, the bank’s managers and directors were just as busily stealing the money. When the bank began to founder in 2018, its CEO tried to claim ignorance, but as the appalling scale of the thievery became apparent, his voice died away. It turned out that the bank’s shorn depositors were widely spread throughout South Africa and even into Namibia and Botswana.
The scandal widened when it was revealed that money had been funnelled from VBS to the EFF via a network of front companies, and that a considerable sum had been paid to the brother of Floyd Shivambu, the EFF number two. Certainly, it was the party’s national chairman, Advocate Dali Mpofu, who had defended Tom Moyane, and it was at this point that the EFF began to make bitter and racist attacks against Gordhan and other Indian South Africans at SARS and the South African Reserve Bank. The EFF went so far as to accuse all Indians of racism against blacks and cleverly suggested that an Indian cabal was at work in Ramaphosa’s engine room. This was a quite conscious echo of complaints in the 1980s about an Indian cabal at the heart of the UDF and showed that Malema had sensed that the Ramaphosa team was in part the old UDF reconstituted. It was a strange piece of targeting, though: the Guptas had been far more prominent, after all, and they weren’t even South Africans. They had been a far greater affront to African nationalist sensibilities.
By April 2018 the Zuma faction was openly complaining of a purge against them, citing not only the removal of Mahumapelo and the changes to the Eskom and Transnet boards but also attempts to displace the Eastern Cape premier, Phumulo Masualle, and replace him with the pro-Ramaphosa Oscar Mabuyane. A purge, they warned, would cause the ANC to implode. This was a sensitive issue. The fall of Mbeki, followed by a sweeping purge of his supporters, had seen a significant breakaway from the ANC in the shape of Cope. Zuma himself had repeatedly warned of the repercussions should the party axe him. And, of course, in a patronage-based system like the ANC’s, it was inevitable that there would now be pressure for jobs from a hungry throng of Ramaphosa supporters. • Fighting for the Dream, Jonathan Ball Publishers, R275.