Prof Harry Hindsight and the School of Post-Event Rationalisations have been in overdrive these past days in looted and riot-ravaged parts of SA.

Though conspicuous by their absence from KwaZulu-Natal during the intense first days of the lawless violence, police minister Bheki Cele and the oxymoronically titled “minister of state security” Ayanda Dlodlo proved to be star pupils of this school.

At the height of the “insurrection” or “no coup and no insurrection here” – take your pick from the Tower of Babel voices masquerading as the government – both ministers offered the most cynical rationalisation: “It could have been worse.”

Worry not, they reasoned, that 161 malls were burnt or severely damaged, 200 shopping centres looted, 1,400 ATMs surgically removed or vandalised and more than 200 lives were lost. Government planning and intelligence averted, according to this hapless duo, the burning of hospitals and the destruction of water reservoirs and so on.

Left unmentioned in this hyper and cynical self-serving rationalisation of traumatic failure by the government and its agencies is the utter corrosion of public trust – already severely strained by decades of multiple failures on a wide front – in the capacity and credibility of the state.

From left to right – and most ideological stopovers in between – the one point of agreement is that the core duty of the state is to protect its citizens’ lives and property. We can argue about the expanded or restricted role of the government in the lives and livelihoods of citizens, but the point of intersection across ideological chasms is the core duty of government: protect and serve the people.

Instead, across vast swathes of KZN and Gauteng – including on the major arteries that provide their sustenance – the message from government was “not on our watch it ain’t”. Instead, unlikely heroes in the form of taxi drivers, neighbourhood watches and even mercenaries flown in from Johannesburg and the Free State minded the gap and manned the breaches abandoned by the army and the police.

Back in the 17th century, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes set out his ideological stall in his monumental work Leviathan, which in various forms has been the basis of all government-citizen social contracts since. He argued the absolute power of the state was justified by the habit of the obedience of citizens in exchange for a guarantee by the sovereign of peace and security. The alternative, he reasoned, was a country where life was “nasty, brutish and short”. (In a mid-20th century update of this dystopia, a Nigerian anticolonial wag suggested that life was “nasty, British and short”.)

On any level and however rationalised by inadequate, incompetent and self-serving ministers, last week’s events provided an extreme example of how, weighed in the balance, the SA state and sovereign had breached the social contract with its citizenry.

The best that could be said for Cele and Dlodlo is that they are more or less on the same page as their appointing authority, President Cyril Ramaphosa. Never mind that the 12 alleged masterminds of the “insurrection” are still, as of this writing, largely at large. Or that Cele and a clutch of other ministers essentially condoned the criminality and legal delinquency of Jacob Zuma by enjoying tea parties with him at Nkandla after he had been sentenced to imprisonment. Both agreed with Ramaphosa that ‘‘these actions are intended to cripple the economy … severely weaken or even dislodge the democratic state”. Thus spoke Ramaphosa on Friday night in an address from the Union Buildings, at considerable variance with his hapless and weak appearance before the nation from his Fresnaye home studio four nights before.

Yet, extraordinarily, barely 48 hours later, his defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, had infamously contradicted him. It wasn’t a coup attempt, nor even an insurrection, she said; “It didn’t have a face,” she mysteriously advised the parliamentary committee on defence on Sunday night. This was the same day the hopeless Dlodlo, whose corrupted or incompetent 800 intelligence agents were either blinded by events or more ominously sparked them in the first place, compared last week’s mayhem to 9/11 in the US. A wrong analogy, but a signal of the enormity of the crisis.

Tony Blair, when PM of Britain, used to speak of “joined up government”. Ours by contrast is broken and severed.

A friend of mine – bewildered by the contradiction between Ramaphosa/Cele/Dlodlo on the one hand, speaking of “instigators”, “masterminds” and “insurrection”, and Mapisa-Nqakula telling MPs “to be honest it is none of those” – asked me: “Is she a Zuma lady?”

I hazard that she adjusts herself to whoever is in power, provided she can keep her seat at the cabinet table. This probably explains her half-baked explanation on Tuesday that “the president has spoken; it was an insurrection’’. In other words, “don’t believe what I told MPs on Sunday”. She is offering a defence of ignorance and obfuscation, rather than pure malice. Good to know the country’s defences are in such capable hands.

Veteran politician and soldier Bantu Holomisa suggested after the defence minister’s stunning contradiction of the president had been called out by the presidency and by her own deputy, that “she should start packing her bags, the door is wide open”.

It is unlikely she will see the exit sign so clearly marked. Beyond the lack of consequences for serial malperformance or the sense of shamelessness and impunity our political masters and mistresses routinely display, this minister has got away with so much before, why should her conscience trouble her now?

After all, she was in charge of the Air Force and our national defence when the Guptas breached the security of Air Force Base Waterkloof to land their infamous wedding party there in 2013. In 2017, she smuggled a fugitive out of Burundi (a close friend of her son) using false papers and abusing air force transport. Her sister was briefly suspended from her post at the embassy there but has since returned to high office at Dirco. Then there was the jolly she arranged last year for ANC members on an air force jet she illegally misused to transport them to a party meeting with Zanu-PF in Harare. Her penalty for this misuse and worse, which Ramaphosa described as “an error of judgment”? He docked her salary for three months but retained her in office. Ironically, her husband Charles serves at Ramaphosa’s right hand as his “security adviser”. Maybe that is the explanation for his wife’s retention.

For reasons that defy logic and evidence the sort of half-measures and temporising with the most terrible elements in his own party, Ramaphosa has been characterised as “a master strategist”, “principled”, “playing the long game” and “allowing institutions to do their work”.

Equally, perhaps more persuasively, it could be said he lacks the courage and strength to act decisively and with resolution.

Whichever labels the famous school of hindsight chooses to confer on him, one thing is very clear. By failing to act in time, either by firing incompetent and law-delinquent ministers or cleaning out the rotting stables in the security services and appointing competent and loyal ministers and officials, he is now paying a heavy price.

But the cost for SA and residents, workers and business owners in KZN is far, far higher.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
@TonyLeonSA.

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