American dissident and writer James Baldwin once noted you can judge the state of a nation’s educational level by the quality of its political speech.
By this metric, and on both measures, SA today scores off the charts.
Hot on the heels of the global report (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) revealing that 81% of fourth graders in SA could “not read for meaning” came some clear meaning, in language as debased as our currency, from the minister of defence and military veterans.
Thandi Modise informed parliament last week that “fokol” was placed on the infamous sanctioned Russian ship, Lady R, when it docked in the secured naval base at Simon’s Town last December.
Back at the mythical dawn of democracy here in 1994, such language would have resulted in the immediate withdrawal of the word, or the offending member would have been removed from parliament. But the presiding officer, Supra Mahumapelo — whose North West province (over which he once presided) is a poster child for state, provincial and local failures — couldn’t rule on the matter. In all respects he is no Frene Ginwala, who would not have countenanced such indecorous incivility.
But let’s not cavil on form and go to substance. If there was nothing loaded onto the ship, why the need for a judicial commission of inquiry to determine, in the minister’s delicate phrasing, “fokol”? And why, a week after the ministerial whitewashing, which came six months after she was asked to answer the question, did the SA Reserve Bank (Sarb) in more decorous but far more alarming language, warn of the cost of Modise’s dalliance with Russia?
On Monday the Sarb, in its biannual Financial Stability Review, underlined how “unconvincing” the government’s “neutral” stance on the war in Ukraine was perceived by the markets and governments of allied countries. As the bank warned further: “The events reported in the media, and recent remarks by the US ambassador to SA, could change perceptions about South Africa’s neutrality, which could build to a point where it triggers secondary sanctions being imposed on SA.”
No doubt, the Sarb, about the last remaining credible institution of state, will be brushed off by government ministers and advised, as Andre de Ruyter was when he implored government four years back to introduce renewable energy to keep the lights on, to “stay in your lane”. But when the same bank must defend the debauched currency with the only weapon at its disposal, the interest rate, it is a fool’s errand to ignore the warning or shoot the messenger. But that’s the only play the ANC knows.
Talking about a weasel word, the most abused and, like our grade 4 readers, devoid-of-meaning term is the South African claim that in the Ukraine war, it is “nonaligned”.
With forensic precision, Hilary Joffe writing in Business Day, took the scalpel to this nonsensical claim. Our deeds do not, as she writes, align with our nonaligned words: “Nonaligned countries don’t conduct military exercises with Russia on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and nor do they have Russian ships such as Lady R docking at the Simon’s Town naval base loading secret cargo. (If they do, they don’t ignore it for six months and then take more than two weeks to appoint a commission of inquiry after the US outs them for allegedly selling arms to Russia).”
Barely had the ink or electrons dried on Joffe’s column than the department of international relations and co-operation gazetted diplomatic immunity for the internationally indicted war criminal, Russian President Vladimir Putin, for him to attend the Brics summit in August in Johannesburg.
But let’s not confine the abuse of language to our eroding and dangerous foreign policy, which in truth is more a series of prejudices and childish contrariness than serious strategy, despite the costs of which the Reserve Bank warns.
On top of our energy and infrastructural crises, we now have a water crisis. Or rather, for the same reason we don’t have much electricity, have had the crisis for decades now, but after 24 reported deaths from cholera this week, each warning was ignored, most of the monies set aside for plant refurbishment were misspent or simply stolen and credible experts were sidelined and shunned.
In the long run-up to the current crisis In Hammanskraal and the Free State, and likely to spread across the country, the minister in charge of safeguarding and maintaining our water supply was Nomvula Mokonyane. Readers might remember her staunch defence of Jacob Zuma when in 2015 he crashed the rand by firing Pravin Gordhan as finance minister. She announced: “Let the rand fall. We will pick it up.” She didn’t, but her offer might come in handy today. Back then, besides defending Zuma’s rule of corruption and misgovernance, she was also being blessed by the tender-milking Bosasa.
The Zondo commission recommended her prosecution for corruption, citing at great and gory length the “gratification she received from Bosasa”. She remains at large and in December her comrades in the ANC elected her as their deputy secretary-general. Likely — just as with Putin — she has immunity from prosecution. And she has an Aston Matin worth R3m — not a bad payday for a professional politician.
But her period as minister of water truly is where the road to the current water disaster accelerated. In her tenure (2014-18) she raked up billions of rand in unauthorised and wasteful expenditure; the water boards became sites of plunder for her hand-picked appointees and, by 2017 her department was bankrupt. She did, though, sign a water co-operation agreement with Iran, one of the most water-treatment delinquent countries in the Middle East. But ideologically correct at least.
In his newsletter this week, DA leader John Steenhuisen added to the bill of indictment against Mokonyane and her comrades pointing out that, like termites hollowing out a building before its final collapse, the current crises are not “spontaneous events”. Rather, he writes, “they are symptoms of endemic corruption under the ANC, which has diverted funds meant for water provision and infrastructure maintenance into the pockets of ANC cadres”.
Mokonyane spent R3bn on the War on Leaks project, which produced no stoppage of the water losses, and her department spent R26bn on a delayed Lesotho Water Project, with no completion date in sight, and Steenhuisen asks: “Where has all this money gone?”
Proper care and maintenance and joined up policy planning and zero-corruption tolerance would have saved Eskom from load-shedding and prevented the entirely avoidable cholera deaths from contaminated water.
The man nationally in charge of all this, Cyril Ramaphosa, also addressed the water crisis in his weekly newsletter on Monday. Absent actually visiting (yet) the afflicted communities, the president did not finger any comrades responsible. While labelling the cholera deaths “deeply tragic”, he blithely assured the nation that “water quality is generally of a high standard in SA” and “compares well with the best in the world”.
Such stupendous euphemisms and verbal holidays from reality suggest that De Ruyter’s killer description of our president as more country club manager than national leader is way off the mark. No decent country club would countenance such blitheful denialism in its management or their communications.
The famed novelist Martin Amis, who died last week, turned his elegant hand to nonfiction on occasion. Since from Ramaphosa to Modise and even the compromised and corrupt Mokonyane are fervent friends of Moscow — regardless of cost to country — worth reflecting how Amis’s description of the “old monster” Stalin suggests, in one sense at least, they are also good Stalinists too.
In Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million — Amis wrote: “The fact was that facts were losing their value. Stalin had broken the opposition. He was also far advanced towards his much stranger objective of breaking the truth …”