The most famous use of animal allegory in political satire was by George Orwell in his 20th-century classic Animal Farm. Its place in the canon of the most influential books of our time is cemented because of its brilliant, indirect, but coruscating account of a magnificent and just revolutionary cause morphing into a nightmare of state corruption and power abuse evinced by Stalinist Russia.
A siren voice against the dangers of Utopian states anywhere, critic Christopher Hollis noted that the real lesson of Animal Farm went beyond Stalinist Russia or state systems. It was also, he wrote, about “the corrupting effect of power when exercised by anybody”. So, when on Tuesday a jumped-up legal nobody, Shaun Abrahams, wearing his powerful garb as national director of public prosecutions, struck against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, SA experienced yet another Orwellian moment.
It didn’t take long for Animal Farm’s most memorable line, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”, to be invoked. In the instant case, expedited zeal — just eight months from investigation to legal summons to bring criminal charges on two counts of fraud against Gordhan.
Dismissed by many legal experts as a “transparently thin” basis for prosecution, the event and amount involved is truly picayune. It involves the alleged irregular extension of one employee’s contract and the further alleged unlawful payment of a R1.1m pension to Ivan Pillay.
But it’s the other case, or noncase, that illuminates Orwell’s equal-treatment commandment. It started in 2007, yet not one of 783 charges for money laundering, corruption and racketeering have been instituted against Jacob Zuma. And as this noncase demonstrates with exhausting clarity, it’s not just lethargy. Here we have the same Abrahams and his National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) using their might and state means to avoid prosecuting Zuma. It doesn’t get much more Orwellian than that.
While one supposes prosecutorial zeal is commendable, just last week the Treasury’s chief procurement officer, Kenneth Brown, revealed that a staggering 40% of the government’s R600bn budget for goods and services is being consumed through “inflated prices and fraud”. This “tainted expenditure” could, as he explained, increase resources for schools, roads and, particularly, universities by about 40% without a single new rand being added to existing budgets.
But of course such cost-cutting ardour and bringing truly gargantuan corrupt practices to legal account is not on the NPA or Hawks’ agenda. It is the Treasury, and a fractional amount spent on a single official, that has upended the markets, roiled the country in political uncertainty and almost ensured a rating downgrade in December. Indeed, Gordhan made a seminal speech recently when he lamented “the rotten product of rent-seeking” in the “gift wrap of transformation”.
It wasn’t long before one of the country’s chief rent seekers, Mzwanele “Jimmy” Manyi, announced he had delivered to the Hawks a package of charges to press against the key figure rooting out corruption on behalf of the Treasury — the same Brown. Manyi heads some or other fantastically named “Decolonisation Foundation”, which has bent the president’s ear not to sign the Financial Intelligence Act into law.
No doubt if enacted it would bring to light all manner of skulduggery. But that would depend on an independent-minded NPA to prosecute.
So don’t hold your breath on that, although doubtless Brown will be next in the frame of the NPA and not, by comparison, the thieves who recently stole R1bn from the Strategic Fuel Fund.
Abrahams, who should lead beyond reproach with probity and excellence, has chosen to surround himself with, and defend the integrity of, two advocates (his deputy, Nomgcobo Jiba, and NPA executive Lawrence Mrwebi), whom the courts have struck off the roll of advocates for “lying” and bringing the authority of the NPA “into disrepute”. Of course, this dubious duo, still in their posts and on appeal, are key allies of Zuma and his eight-year bid to escape corruption charges.
In Brazil, the independence from state predations of the prosecutorial service has effectively charged the politically highest and mightiest — on both sides of its partisan divide — with a slew of corruption charges emanating from kickbacks at its largest state-owned entity, Petrobras. And, it is prosecuting its most popular politician, former president Lula da Silva, with the same remorselessness.
An animal allegory closer to home is the phenomenon of the “tweegatjakkals”. Not as crude as it sounds, this is a metaphor for an animal that has two hiding places, one real and the other apparent.
Deceptiveness, then, is the currency employed by Abrahams when, with nary a legal blush or ethical wobble, he can proclaim that his decision to go after Gordhan has nothing to do with politics.
Beaten only in this bluster was the quote from the man himself, Zuma. With some universities burning and teaching suspended at others, the currency crashing and just two weeks to go until the delivery of the medium-term expenditure statement, Zuma was in Kenya en route to India. But he did manage to mouth off a platitudinous statement from Nairobi, affirming faith in Gordhan and in the rule of law, both of which he has so assiduously undermined.
Last Sunday’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a useful reminder that the wounded buffalo is not unique to our part of the world.
Trump is now going rogue because his party leadership is deserting him after his egregious “locker room” sexism was revealed. That’s why, unplugged, he could threaten to put an independent prosecutor on Clinton, in the improbable event of his election, and suggest she be jailed.
When it comes to Trump, it’s no surprise that Hugh Hefner and Playboy are his moral points of reference and that sexual assault and philandering are, in his universe, the legitimate perks of celebrity-hood. Everyone who has voted for Trump so far knew, broadly if not in gory detail, what they were getting in his political and personal package. The same with Zuma and the Zuma-ites. His party supporters and defenders knew in what wrapping his presidency was encased. We might be surprised at the steep institutional and market costs of it, but this is an argument over quantum, not kind.
But there are big differences between American Republicans and South African ANC members. One of them is that the Republican leadership is now involved in a last-minute act of abandoning Trump’s candidacy to try to save the party down the ballot. As Zuma costs his party votes and burns through the remaining state institutions of excellence and persons of probity in his government, his party appears to be powerless and divided in response. But that’s been the case for the past nine years.
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA