“An October surprise” is American political-speak for news deliberately created or timed to influence the outcome of its November presidential election.
US Election Day, just ten days away, sees the two most unpopular candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, ever recorded in polling history, face off against each other.
Neither has really needed the addition of an ‘October surprise’ to tip the outcome. But as Friday night’s FBI email bombshell exploded over Clinton, it has detonated an explosion over her hitherto winning campaign. This has given the ‘October surprise’ a dramatic new meaning.
Equally, the profane and sexist ‘locker room chat’, of more than a decade past, between Trump and the nephew of President George HW Bush, has seen Trump’s numbers tank. Only against Trump, do Clinton’s negatives move into positive territory.
But with the imploding Trump campaign, it could be argued that the candidates’ own responses, pre-dawn Tweets and jarringly ill-tempered and scantily prepared debate performances have been far more self-wounding than any hostile surprises delivered from outside.
But while South Africa is busy ‘decolonising’ everything, we have also managed this month to import the concept, with excruciating local particularity, of the ‘October surprise’ or several of them, and most from the own-goal department.
The stun gun grenades and burning coffin of minister Blade Nzimande outside Parliament on Wednesday, courtesy of the police and the Fallistas respectively, provided a grim tableau in searing heat to the doses of bad news being delivered with chilly efficiency within the portals of power by Pravin Gordhan.
Of course, Gordhan’s own position is pretty excruciating: he’s the harbinger of bad news –from the bare larder of revenue collections to near zero growth requiring swingeing tax hikes .And he swops his parliamentary podium this week for the criminal dock in Pretoria next week on spurious fraud charges.
Then just a few days before the mini-budget, government announced it was resiling from the country’s solemnly undertaken public international law commitments and human rights obligations. It would tear up the Treaty of Rome and withdraw from the International Criminal Court, which – in a different now vanished age, Nelson Mandela and justice minister Dullah Omar had championed.
This ironic and grotesque juxtaposition was pithily summed up by editor Waldimar Pelser during the delivery of the speech by the embattled finance minister: “Gordhan delivers his mini budget to a government that is prosecuting him while shielding Omar al-Bashir, a war crimes fugitive.”
If any more depressing “October surprises’’ were needed, gloomsters are spoilt for choice: an estimably independent and admired Public Protector has yielded to one, who based on her first steps and actions, seems to regard protecting the president and the predations in the ‘state capture’ report as her first order of business. All this feeds into the vortex of the December non-surprise, our sovereign credit downgrade, already written into the price of the country’s credit default swaps.
But I found myself surprised by two items of good news in a bad news October.
The first was a political memoir I was sent to contribute the afterword, recently completed by a leading opposition politician.
Dene Smuts died extremely suddenly earlier this year. But she completed the literary equivalent of her political last will and testament just days before her death.
The book Patriots and Parasites- South Africa and the Struggle to evade history, to be published next month, is a revelation.
For a work on politics by an MP of twenty five years’ service, it is revealing. This is precisely because it avoids the bomb-your-own -ships, tell-all tattle tale which often reduces memoirs of this genre to the equivalent of a sugar rush of disclosures and the carb.loading of self- gratification.
Smuts follows the Tim Noakes equivalent with this book. And like his diet, the ideas in her volume will live on for a long while yet.
She follows the burning current issues –from anarchist students, to the latest attempt to proscribe hate speech and the deep disappointment of low growth blighting every other prospect of future success –back to their source and suggests a much needed course correction or several of them.
The only personal matter she covers, other than her participation in the processes which inaugurated both our constitution and most significant legislative acts since democracy, is her resignation as editor of Fair Lady in 1987.
She writes of the decision of then MD of Naspers Ton Vosloo to dump an article she commissioned favourable to opposition politician Denis Worrall, then standing against the Naspers-backed Cape NP leader, Chris Heunis: “It took me two minutes to decide… The matter was very simple: either I had editorial independence or I did not: If I did not, then I wasn’t interested in the job.” Fortunately, jettisoning her editorship led to her stellar career in politics.
It was while reading her book this week that I had dinner with a leading businessman who, in the horse race, or beauty contest manner, to which politics is reduced, asked me two questions.
“The first question is when will Jacob Zuma go, and the second question is: who will replace him?” my guest enquired. Of course business leaders, even the best of them, are fixated on the power question and who wields it.
But, in her unsparing prose, Smuts reminds us, that in everything from the suborning of the independence of the national prosecuting authority to the cronyistic closed, essentially, corrupt system which often masquerades as transformation , it’s not just about the baddies versus the good guys.
At the end of a depressing chapter on power abuse, Smuts quotes the wise observation of academic Jonny Steinberg. He cautioned against ‘a simple belief that there is a good ANC and a bad ANC’.
Such a binary view ‘brings failed hopes and poor solutions.’ Indeed Steinberg echoes Smuts’ on noting that in every major current crisis –from re racializing dialogue , to the destruction of prosecutorial independence and to the corruption of the police – it commenced on the watch and with the assistance of Thabo Mbeki, not Jacob Zuma.
Our current rulers and the anarchists baying outside parliament this week, might in Smuts’ view, lack the ‘’subtlety and sophistication of Mbeki.” But the root of our problem is the over concentration of power in the hands of the executive and the president.
Smuts quotes approvingly, “too much power is a temptation to use it badly.”
But far lower down the political food chain than the office of the president, was my visit this week to Home Affairs to renew a passport. This experience used to be the bureaucratic equivalent of a joyless death march. But, in the modernised, customer –friendly precincts of its office in downtown Cape Town, I experienced its transformation into a centre of service excellence. Smuts, who once served as opposition spokesperson for this portfolio, would approve.