Events suggest the ANC will do anything for its friends. They will even ignore a court order, and rob from the poor to pay the rich

Well, it’s now official government policy: obeying the law is an optional extra. Two leading lights at the heart of authority have pronounced on the subject recently and you, dear citizen, might be forgiven for following their lead.

On Sunday, in an interview with M-Net’s Carte Blanche, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe singled out two of our courts of law for, in his picturesque phrase, “creating chaos for governance”.

In Comrade Gwede’s view, the Cape Town and Pretoria high courts “always see that the narrative is totally negative and create a contradiction”.

The Cape Town court dared to uphold the Economic Freedom Fighters’ right to uninhibited parliamentary free speech. It provided protection for Julius Malema’s statement that “the ANC government massacred workers at Marikana”.

The sin of the Pretoria court was of far greater consequence. It dared to uphold the domestic law and international treaty obligations that Mantashe’s party and the government had freely undertaken: the duty to arrest and interdict an international fugitive, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Let’s start with the formalities. Though it is always good to have a handy conspiracy theory on the boil, Mantashe would do well to study the issue of jurisdiction.

Since Pretoria is the seat of government and Cape Town is the venue of Parliament, it is the laws of jurisdiction — not some judicial plot — that determine which court adjudicates disputes with the government and Parliament, respectively.

Still, such legal niceties do somewhat spoil a good old-fashioned exercise in political extremism. John Gardner, founder of the US NGO Common Cause, once defined such a narrative as requiring two prime ingredients.

“First, an excessively simple diagnosis of the world’s ills, and then the conviction that there are identifiable villains at the back of it all.”

Still, when a leading light in the ruling party decides that the judicial arm of the state is in the dock, and not the state that subverts judicial rulings, then, as they said in Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem”.

Mind you, reflections from US authorities and references to its popular culture are probably misplaced as an explanatory tool.

Better to find a precedent from our new best friend in a less rule-bound society, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Karen Dawisha in her new work, Putin’s Kleptocracy, writes that the unofficial slogan of his regime reads: “For my friends anything; for my enemies the law.”

Just before Mantashe’s lesson in jurisprudence, we had word from SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, speaking at the Popcru congress. His theory of a conspiracy against the realisation of a progressive society contains a cast of many characters.

These range from shadowy “neo-liberal forces” to “old apartheid Broederbond media giant Naspers”, the owners of this newspaper, Times Media, and, of course, the judiciary.

Back when Nzimande was literally in the trenches in the war between Inkatha and the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, one of the most progressive lawyers unearthing evidence of the actions of a third force was Howard Varney.

This week he weighed in on Nzimande and Mantashe’s enthusiastic rubbishing of the International Criminal Court and on the giving of safe passage to Bashir.

“The government is in effect saying it is above the law. It calls into question the very integrity of the constitution itself,” Varney wrote.

Suggesting that South Africa is “experiencing one of the most shameful periods in its history”, he said “we can no longer be counted on to stand up for the oppressed and the victims of mass atrocities”. Given a choice between the victim and the oppressor, South Africa chose the side of the oppressor.

Bare though our international credentials remain after the Bashir fiasco, the one fight in which we remain engaged is for a seat on the UN Security Council.

But it is this very council that has, in most cases, requested the interdictions and arrests of the ICC. So that’s another aspiration gone.

If you want to know the key idea underpinning the current presidency, the answer appeared in the headline story on TimesLive on Tuesday. “Rob the poor to pay the chiefs” was the shorthand for the order to provinces to find another R100-million a year to pay traditional leaders and headmen.

And it’s going to be at the expense of poverty-relief programmes. Unlike those pesky judges, traditional leaders provide the votes come election time.

And that’s the big, animating idea under the current leadership: stay in power at all costs and pay off those who deliver votes.

Once again, Russian history provides the answer to where this all leads. Its 19th-century historian Vasily Klyuchevsky observed: “The state grows fat while the people grow thin.”

This article first appeared in The Times