Like the Roman emperor, those who do the dance of opposites need more than a wall of mirrors to guard against stabbings in the back

A few days ago I viewed the ruins of the palace of the emperor Domitian on the Palatine Hill opposite Rome’s famous Colosseum. Our informative guide provided no end of anecdotes on the once magnificent splendours of the Flavian dynasty and their monuments.

One nugget that caught my imagination was her description of the emperor’s dining room, which, she informed us, based on archaeological reconstruction, had a vast mirror on its one wall, something of an innovation 2,000 years back. She advised this was not just for the purpose of vanity. It also allowed the emperor to see whether anyone was conspiring, literally, behind his back.

Whether historically correct or an apocryphal flourish, it did not, in the long run, assist Domitian, who was assassinated in AD96, the last Flavian to bestride the empire, which back then controlled much of the known world.

Whether or not looking in the rear-view mirror was an effective guard against political mortality in Roman times, today’s political class need to keep watching their ever-widening circle of opponents, both internal and external.

The weekend ANC land summit was, among its other features, notable for the fact that Jacob Zuma, unblushing after his recent appearance in the criminal dock, popped up to lend his  views to party proceedings. He clearly is un-embarrasable.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s confidant and walking partner, Trevor Manuel, had just days before described the Zuma presidency as “a total disaster for South Africa”. No doubt, as he cleans up the mess left by the nine-year Zuma presidency, Ramaphosa would agree with the former Finance minister’s assessment. But it’s passing strange that the event that brought Ramaphosa and Zuma together was to perfect the notes on a signature tune from the Zuma era of ruin and stagnation: land expropriation without compensation.

There is some political provenance for this concept in the ANC political hinterland, however ill it sits with the needs of a modern economy. But the polar and political opposite of the ruling party, the Democratic Alliance, has taken a very firm stance in favour of both property rights and legal restitution anchored in the current constitution.

However, as the DA sits in control of major cities dependent on an uneasy alliance, if that is not too grand a word for the  ramshackle arrangement it has with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), one supposes its mayors need more than a wall of mirrors to prevent their own political assassinations

Perhaps that explains the peculiar “bromance” in Johannesburg between DA mayor Herman Mashaba and the EFF which leading members of the mayor’s party have described as the “economic freedom fascists”.

Notwithstanding the EFF determination, thus far unavailing, to “slit the throat of whiteness” in the form of Mashaba’s party colleague Athol Trollip in Nelson Mandela Bay, the Johannesburg mayor was exultant about the EFF.

At his recent state of the city address, Mashaba tweeted a photograph of himself with a beaming EFF chairman, with the tag line: “It’s truly great to be in the company of Dali Mpofu just before I deliver my second (address).”

Doubtless when Mpofu’s day job as senior counsel took him to Cape Town to provide legal rescue from the party’s current nemesis, mayor Patricia de Lille, Mashaba’s Cape colleagues were less enthusiastic.

But Mpofu repaid Mashaba in coins minted from the same currency of mutual admiration. He commended mayor Mashaba for his decision to in-source 4,500 security-guard jobs from private contractors and place them, with more to follow, on the city payroll.

An abhorrence of labour broking and “casualisation” of employment is a key pillar for both the EFF and Cosatu. DA labour policy, vague and general though it is, points in the very opposite direction toward market flexibility .

A reminder of how odd is this dance of dialectical opposites  emerges from the pages of an interesting new book by political journalist Jan Jan Joubert, entitled Who Will Rule in 2019?

He describes how, in the aftermath of the 2016 municipal elections, there was no overall winner in Johannesburg. And when the EFF and DA sat down to discuss who would rule the city, “In that meeting Julius Malema raised for the first time the EFF’s unhappiness with the candidature of Herman Mashaba as mayor of Johannesburg. (Party chairman James Selfe is recorded saying) ‘We said we would think about it. It was discussed by the DA leadership … and the party decided to stand by its candidate.”

Doubtless the EFF unhappiness, which it overcame on the basis that the “DA was the lesser evil when compared to the ANC”, was prefaced by Mashaba’s moniker as the self-styled “capitalist crusader”. Indeed, he went straight from presiding over the Free Market Foundation to running  for mayor. But maybe necessity indicates to him that he has to check his capitalistic credentials at the door to keep  walking down the corridors of power.

And the same applies, with more consequence, for the so-called business-friendly president Ramaphosa. His embrace of power has meant adopting or going along with   a raft of policies and positions which, whatever their intention or legitimacy, mean one basic thing: the attainment of an inclusive and growing economy becomes ever more of a very distant mirage.

The emperor Domitian’s dining-hall mirrors did not save him from death at the hands of an ever-widening circle of opponents. Whether temporising on core beliefs and economic sensibility is good or bad for political longevity is less clear cut.

But about 900 years after the end of the Flavian dynasty, the great Arab thinker Ibn Hazm left us a useful clue in about AD1064. He wrote: “He who treats friend and foe alike will only arouse distaste for his friendship and contempt from his enemies.”

A useful  tip  from antiquity  for these modern times.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
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