‘The return of Molefe to Eskom and the ridiculous reasons offered for it makes even Trump’s explanation for firing James Comey seem plausible’

Here are two — of several — quotes plucked from the weekend which seem to describe the depressing national condition into which the Jacob Zuma presidency has plunged South Africa with its continuing attacks on the rule of law, good governance and sane economics.

First: “We haven’t had a president in a long time, maybe ever, who’s presented this kind of frontal assault on so many institutions.”

Second: “I feel as though our system of [constitutional] checks and balances is under assault and is eroding.”

Actually, the quotes are real but their target is not.

The first appeared in the Financial Times weekend edition, and is culled from a US Republican operative’s dismay and fear following the extraordinary decision of President Donald Trump to fire FBI director James Comey, coupled with his later warning that he would release tapes of their conversations should Comey dare speak against him.

Many in Washington view the sacking — and the conflicting versions offered for it — as a cover-up of the links the FBI was investigating with regard to Russia’s meddling in the US election and the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Moscow.

Trump is the first to dismiss a hostile press as purveyors of “fake news” and even as “enemies of the people”. But it is more difficult for him to be so dismissive of the originator of the second quote.

James Clapper served as the director of US national intelligence and, inconveniently for Trump (who loves the military brass), is a retired lieutenant general in the US Air Force.

And these comments were offered before the latest outrage engulfed Trump: that, last week, the US president allegedly boasted about highly secret, third-country intelligence reports to the Russian foreign minister.

Still, whatever the outcome after barely four months of Trump’s extraordinary, if chaotic, presidency it is worth noting that the US system, whose leaves if not roots he is so busily shaking from the tree, is a long-lived oak dating back to the 18th century.

But perhaps, on the “misery loves company” rule, South Africans can derive schadenfreude from Trump’s serial offences against the manners and methods expected of US presidents, at least since Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974.

But our own misery index is right now in the danger zone. And our constitutional order is barely 20 years old.

Two quotes from real, if maverick, local worthies seem to sum up the sense of despair which cascades across our benighted republic in the days since the compromised Brian Molefe was returned to Eskom and violence erupted across South Africa.

Wannabe president and ANC veteran Mathews Phosa suggested in a weekend speech that Zuma, his cabinet and ANC MPs must take joint responsibility for both the “destruction of the economy and the rape of the poor”.

Such remarks might not win Phosa many inside votes, but probably chime with the majority experience.

Yesterday, no less a figure than former ANC cabinet minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi confirmed that Molefe and the Eskom chairman — at the behest of the Guptas — blackmailed the world’s largest commodity and mining company, Glencore, to give up one of its mines to the president’s favourite family. No wonder foreign investors are fleeing.

On the other side of the divide, chronicler Rian Malan wrote on Monday: “The rainbow nation is dead, weakened by a long illness … [and] confirmed by a virulent new strain of anti-white extremism in the country.”

After citing serial anti-white quotes from both known and unknown South Africans, Malan concludes his piece with an ominous warning to fellow members of local minority groups here: “Most mornings, I wake up feeling like a Jew trapped in Nazi Germany circa 1938, trying to convince myself that most Germans are nice people and the extremists can’t possibly mean what they say.”

Of course, anyone who makes a confident prediction about our future does not know what they are talking about, so extremists might prevail and the constitution could be binned and worse. Or they might not. But I am as confident as can be that this country is very unlikely to end up in any manner, shape or form like Nazi Germany. But that is the bleakest and most extreme comparison imaginable, so not actually reassuring.

But of course there are other more recent and closer examples, such as Uganda and Kenya in the 1970s, when minorities (in their cases, Indians) were dispossessed of their properties and forced to flee. That is what can happen when poorly performing governments and shaky constitutions target and victimise minorities for quick political gain.

The point about both Phosa and Malan is not that what they say is either right or wrong. They describe an intensity of feeling and despair about our current travails — most of which a dash of proper, or any, leadership could have avoided.

The new leadership on offer hardly seems resolutive for the dire condition into which we have plunged.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who in my presence voted in favour of the current constitution, now denies its essence and preamble, which promises both equality for all races and an animation of democratic values for every citizen.

In a speech last week she decried the fact that the white minority, fully covered by this constitution and some descending back nearly four centuries, are “colonisers”. And she added, in her charmless way, that she could not understand why they hadn’t left the country. Doubtless should she win the presidency, many of them will flood the departure gates of OR Tambo Airport and not return. Let’s see how that all works out.

Cyril Ramaphosa — whose presidential bid as the anti-present and future Zuma(s), and precisely for this reason, seems to be gathering strength — cannot talk about the constitution at all.

His crowning achievement, the drafting of the very constitution itself, seems to be a millstone around his neck: perhaps not as heavy as Marikana, but not to be touted as the race to be more nationalist and less inclusive is seen as the winning formula.

On the opposition side, and courtesy of the damaging and entirely self-inflicted wound around colonialism (of all topics), DA leader Mmusi Maimane is currently hamstrung from beating the drum credibly for a nonracial future. This while his party’s legal processes stretch on, seemingly into the long distance. Instead of being able to close the issue and play offence, he is on the defence at a crucial time.

To suggest that South Africa is on autopilot would be a grievously misleading description since that would suggest some or other course has been set.

In fact, the return of Molefe to Eskom and the ridiculous reasons offered for it makes even Trump’s explanation for firing James Comey seem plausible. But both Molefe’s re-arrival there and the firing of Comey could relate to Moscow.

In Zumaland, at any rate, it’s a case of everyone-for-themselves-and-grab-what-you-can-get-while-you-can-with-full-immunity. What will be left over in two years’ time, in the absence of a course correction, is anyone’s guess, but the current race to the bottom leaves few winners.

The US will probably shrug off Trump and his damage. It’s that big and rich and has centuries of resilience and fewer fractures than we have.

But at home, the results of all the damage inflicted on our system is less certain. Just maybe, the Constitutional Court with a ruling on a secret ballot on removing the president will, yet again, ride to the rescue.

  • Featured in The Times
  • Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA.