Writing African corruption: the looters, the sourpusses, the idiots and the decent people in between

On the South African draft Protection of Information Bill, the prospective Media Appeals Tribunal, and all the protests

The current war in South Africa between media and state is not a war between plundering dictators and brave freedom-of-speech fighters. It is also not a war between a patriotic nation-building movement and counterrevolutionary agents

But it is a war. The vocabulary includes words like attacks, threats, tribunal, state secrets, clampdown, jackboot, agenda, sinister, lies. It includes, most worryingly, broad stereotyping. ‘The media’ have an ‘agenda’ and are ‘un-South African’.  The government and the ANC have morphed into a would-be dictatorship, and are engaging in a new ‘apartheid’ clampdown, no less.

There has never been a war where I found it so embarrassing to be on the side where I am. Of course I have to be with ‘the media’ –I am part of it. And, having been an investigative journalist all my life, I can’t be with a bunch of governing party looters; I can’t be in favour of a bill that allows almost every civil servant to sit on ‘state secrets’, and I can’t be for a tribunal that may be at the beck and call of a lot of incompetent ‘nephews-of’, who know very well how useless and greedy they are and will use any tool  at their disposal to attack those who verbalize these identities.

So ‘with the media’ I am. I am with the bunch of sourpusses who keep writing about potholes, when every bloody road has potholes (potholes? Really? Who tipped you off, everybody?), and do not notice the newsworthiness of a road that is being successfully maintained. Those who, instead of recognizing the astonishing news of an African health minister who sends his child to an African state hospital, start nagging about how he may have gotten ‘preferential treatment’ there.

I am with the idiots who described (thank you, Nic Dawes of Mail & Guardian, for this example) a village rondavel as a ‘holiday home’; those who scream blue murder if a minister is found to live in a R 3 million Rand house (that is 300 000 Euro’s folks, my neighbours in Centurion have a house like that), or has a Mercedes, or a R 700,- dinner.

>With hypocritical idiots, too, who are perfectly OK with abuse of power (the old example of that South African FBI, the Scorpions, manipulating leaks to journalists to slander their targets, will serve here) if it victimizes other people, and only wake up when said abuse might limit their own self-satisfied existence. (Before a tribunal? Moi?)

Of course I have often been such an idiot myself. I have written stories that hurt people without justification, and I have felt self-satisfied about that. Maybe I have to live through this as a punishment.

Strangely, I can only see this war-like scenario, where politicians feel scared that someone might take a picture of their car, and journalists are scared of a prospective media tribunal, happening in South Africa, and maybe to a certain extent also in the rest of Africa and the developing world.

I don’t know it from my original country, Holland, or even from the UK or France. French politicians have gone before court and one was jailed briefly, I believe, in the Angolagate scandal that journalists revealed. Mark Thatcher got a slap on the wrist for his arms- and mercenary deals. But these incidents never gave rise to a war, or even to feelings of animosity, between ‘government’ and ‘media’. I am no historian or an expert in the development of the industrialised world, but I venture this may have something to do with the fact that these countries have been industrialised, crystallised out their class divisions and democratised a very long time ago indeed.

If their elites are corrupt (and they are), they know how to hide it and be classy about it. Even if something goes wrong and you have to be in jail for a few weeks, some arrangement will be worked out. You are still a classy guy. You’ll quote Oscar Wilde or something, write your memoirs. Go live in the country manor.

The western elites are only bothered by media revelations sporadically, because they have already arrived. They don’t need to acquire lots of ostentatious wealth in a relatively short time, like our nouveaux riches. They had all the freedom in the world to go about that when they started. And the beauty of it was that nobody scrutinized them then. They owned the factories, the banks, the resources, and the media. (They still do).

If there had been an outside media, outside political elite control, like is now the case in South Africa, history would have been very different. Just think what the Rockefellers in the US, at the time when they amassed their initial wealth, would have done to a press that would behave like we do vis à vis our new elite now.  If they would have written about the shenanigans within the Rockefeller family, the dodgy deals, the palaces, the chandeliers, the feuds, the secret bastard children, the empire-building. Imagine that these media would have worked with an FBI that was not loyal to the elite, imagine that they would actually have presented a very real danger of jail to the plunderers-of-then. I think we would have seen scores of journalists murdered, and not a soul to be very appalled about such things (human rights and press freedom and watchdog press ethics are all very recent).

Sometimes I pity our new elite, for having started so late, and having to deal with these media that come from another class, another world, another universe. To have to deal with NGO’s and worldwide anti-corruption institutions and all that. Shame. How are you ever going to amount to anything, like that? The Greek civilisation was built by a looting, plundering, enslaving elite, and we as their European descendents are grateful and proud. How is Africa going to emulate that, with all of us standing in the way of primitive organic accumulation, capitalist-style, when it is finally happening here?

The west was allowed to have slaves, pesticides, child labour, and, for a long time, no democracy.  That’s how it industrialised, advanced, enslaved others.

>Poor Africa, where the new elites have to behave.

Not only do they have to behave, they are also watched very closely when it comes to job performance. Can they govern? Can’t they? Is there wastage? Budgets not spent? I can just imagine the despair of the MEC who is found guilty of baby deaths, because she did not manage to ensure the delivery of sufficient hand soap and towels to the hospitals in the province. Of course she should have ensured just that, but how? She hasn’t been in state management for decennia, like the Sir Humphreys (we must all watch ‘Yes Minister’ again) of the established bureaucracies. She is only just from political activism and speech-making. The nice civil servants, who came to power with her, -also very recently-, fumble. The old ones, the Sir Humphreys, who know the people in soap and towel procurement, who know the delivery people, who know how to work the lists and the schedules, left for a job in the private sector.

Or they were not very good at all the above either, and stayed.

We have a rusty and inefficient state machinery run by looters, incompetents and a few well meaning people, some of whom may actually be doing a good job. The designers and former drivers of the machinery now stand outside, ignore what works (miraculously) and harp on what doesn’t. They laugh and ridicule. The desperate MEC from the above example might, in this scenario, well end up taking an offer from an Italian, Indian or Russian company, to do the soap-and-towel-thing for her. In exchange for the nice tender of course. Hey presto, now the MEC is corrupt, too. Let’s put her in jail.

Can we even begin to understand how hated we must be? Even by decent people, whom we have alienated with our cameras, our harping on ‘holiday homes’, our self-satisfied watchdog behaviour, where we are always right (and courageous), and they are always wrong?

Add to this mix 300 years of racial inferiority, with ‘you are stupid, you can’t do this’ refrains in every new leaders’ head, and a press that doesn’t say it, but daily confirms that it actually thinks that? A press that is all to happy cosying up to that privileged Madam in the Cape, who is somehow now the embodiment of all the right values in South Africa?

A press that, after yet another year of nagging, suspecting, calling names, teasing and rubbing it in, when the minister finally prepares to go on holiday, sends him off with a final humiliation in the form of a report card? (Adriaan Basson, 29, gave you a C-Minus.)

Shouldn’t we all take a deep breath and concede it would be a miracle indeed if a new elite would, a), not enrich itself, b) be perfectly able to drive an old bureaucracy that was only built to keep people down, c) be able to not only drive it but also transform it, d) be totally magnanimous about being watched and harped on and hurt, often unfairly, and on a daily basis?

Isn’t it time that we conceded that we do indeed understand, and very well, that we are perceived to be nasty?

And racist, that too?

At the moment, I think I simply want to be with the decent people. On both ends of the divide. I want to work with the Health MEC,  report on the new initiatives taken to prevent more baby deaths, and see how that goes. I want to write that article about the arms deal and the possibility that the murder of Chris Hani had to do with that, for the 17 year old ANC Youth League girl who asked why that information was kept from her. I want to nail the looters just as much as that girl does, and I want her to read me and think of me as her ally. I want to ask myself everyday who my public is, and if I am actually living up to my own claims that I am working for that public.

I want to work with Gabriella of the South African History Archives, who is a thoughtful part of this debate, and who talks of engagement with the community at large, and taking public interest seriously.

Maybe I am naïve, but I hope that if we as journalists stop behaving like God’s gift to democracy and start looking at what we really do and what we really are (and not glibly, like in ‘of course we need to have self regulation’); if we start taking South Africa and its citizens, including the well meaning new politicians –even if they fumble- seriously, we may end up not being hated by all.

Of course, if we end up being hated by the looters, that is fine. If there is anything we can learn from the ANC, in the best traditions of Tambo and Mandela, it is this: talk and work with all well-meaning people: people who want to do the right things; people who know they can’t build Rome in a day, who are willing to learn and take criticism. Let’s not be foolish in our demands and expectations: the ANC, after all, never demanded of whites that they should join MK in their droves. Avoid going for individual players, try  to see where the ball is going. In the process, the buggers who are actually bad will become isolated. We’ll end up with the majority.

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Mandy’s book of the week

Evelyn was on The Midday Report with Mandy Wiener discussing The Unlikely Mr Rogue. Listen to it here.

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