At first blush, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu and our dethroned former president, Jacob Zuma, have zero in common. The one presides over one of the most successful economies in the world, the other drove ours into a ditch. Zuma is a staunch ally of the Palestinian cause; Netanyahu has made a career out of demonising his near neighbours.
But the current prime minister of Israel is facing a career-ending moment with the filing of corruption charges against him by his attorney-general last Thursday. And unless a new government can be formed in the next two weeks, with or likely without Netanyahu at its helm, then for the third time in one year Israel will head back to the polls.
In a neighbourhood characterised by strongman dictatorships, military autocrats and theocratic despots, it is refreshing that the much-criticised Jewish state at least allows its people to choose their government. Although in Israel’s case, the people’s choice remains indecisive, as the past two electoral deadlocks, in April and September, have proven.
However, in addition to both Israel’s prime minister and our very own Zuma facing corruption charges and trials, another link is the good old conspiracy theory which both of them and their diminishing corps of allies use to bat away the charges.
When the charges against Netanyahu were pressed last week, he countered with the claim that this was “an attempted coup” against him and called on his supporters to rise up and “investigate the investigators”. The risible charge collapsed on itself when people were reminded that Netanyahu himself had appointed the attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, who had once been his cabinet secretary. It little helped the beleaguered premier, who now faces an internal party revolt against his leadership, and by the weekend he had walked back his incendiary comments.
Back at home, readers will be wearily familiar with Zuma’s use of the conspiracy theory to refute all and any charges against him, and since these are directed to the court of public opinion, rather than the courts of law where he nowadays loses every round, they have some saliency.
In November 2018, that excellent chronicler of our national condition and its ailing psyche, Gareth van Onselen, delivered the Liberty Lecture on the topic of conspiracy theories under the title “The Great Age of Deceit”. He dissected how in SA there are “three grand conspiracy theories” – the oft-made claim that the CIA is manipulating SA politics; the idea of white monopoly capital as an all-controlling force for evil; and the narrative that underpinned Jacob Zuma’s election in 2007, “that he was the victim of political subterfuge”.
It will be observed that beyond endless filibustering through pointless interrogatories, the only basis of Zuma’s current legal defence against the corruption charges finally finding their way through the KwaZulu-Natal High Court, after a decade of delays and stoppages, is “the victim of conspiracy” rebuttal. Let’s see how that works out in the New Year.
This past weekend we were provided proof that the conspiracy theory is now truly a bipartisan affair in SA.
On the subject of affairs, or the lack of one, depending who you believe, we had the example of the hitherto obscure DA mayoral committee member in Tshwane, Sheila Senkubuge. Her portfolio includes roads, and she decided to plough her own conspiracy theory to bat off excruciating charges emanating from an audio tape, purported to be of her close encounter with her political boss, Tshwane mayor Stevens Mokgalapa.
While much attention has been focused on the alleged nature of the encounter, what is even more remarkable is the defence offered by Senkubuge.
She claims that it only surfaced because “she is a target because of her success as a female politician”. Hubris meets conspiracy here, resulting in delusion.
Actually, it is no stretch of mind or imagination to think of slightly more successful female politicians in the world, who might or might not be the target of some envy, or even a conspiracy.
I was reminded of this very recently while reading the excellent third volume of the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, Herself Alone, by Charles Moore.
But the jarring note in this monumental work is when Moore states that the removal of the “Iron Lady” by her own party colleagues in 1990 was “the result of a conspiracy”.
In language as elegant as Moore’s fine use of it in his biography, one of Thatcher’s most loyal (and still living) cabinet colleagues, William Waldegrave, provided a perfect riposte.
“It was only a conspiracy,” he wrote in a recent review in the Financial Times, “in the sense that one might say of a railway accident that it was a conspiracy between rails, engine, wrongly switched points and the law of physics.”
And, famously, Thatcher lost that fight and, as the volume reveals, lost her essential purpose in life, the remainder of which she lived in some bitterness at what she termed “treachery with a smile on its face”.
Zuma will be convicted or acquitted on the facts which emerge in his much-stalled trial, and Netanyahu likewise. The Israeli politician, like Zuma, once dubbed the “great survivor” might, in the same way, find himself on trial shorn of the shield of his office, and with far fewer supporters than he ever imagined. That is what loss of power does and what it reveals of the essence of political transactional relations, which seldom result in do-or-die friendships.
Just look at the case of the titan Thatcher or, from the obscurity of Tshwane, the likely demise of Senkubuge.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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