If you were doing a mental health check on the state of South African democracy today, schizophrenia could be an accurate diagnosis.

On the one hand, never in its 30-year bumpy ride toward the pivotal 2024 election has the outcome been so unclear nor as contested.

Evidence of the rude good democratic health here arrived last Saturday. We saw optics which very few developing world democracies could match: the principal opposition party, the DA, gathered 15 000 supporters right in front of the seat of state authority, the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

No troops dispersed the event, no government supporters disrupted the rally, where anti-ANC rhetoric was mandatory and the DA received, courtesy of SABC TV, the state broadcaster, three hours of rolling coverage of its manifesto launch.

Cadre deployment case

This came hot on the heels of a Constitutional Court order mandating the ANC to hand over to the DA all its records on cadre deployment, suggesting that whatever else might ail the judiciary, state-deference is not among its ills.

Those minutes will only be partial since, conveniently, the ANC “cannot find” records of its decisions on deploying party hacks into key positions of authority for a crucial five-year period – 2012 to 2017 – when state capture reached its zenith, and the committee was chaired by one Cyril Ramaphosa. Still, on the half-a-loaf principle there will be plenty for the DA to feast on.

But state capture hardly began when Jacob Zuma charted the road to national ruin in 2009. Reflecting on Saturday’s television extravaganza for the DA, I was reminded that when I held the position now occupied by John Steenhuisen in the run up to the 2004 election, the SABC allowed the DA manifesto launch about two minutes on the TV evening news, no live coverage, and my message to the party troops was drowned out by a negative voice over by an embedded ANC television journalist.

Of course, Thabo Mbeki and his high command had at the time thoughtfully placed ANC trusty Snuki Zikalala in charge of SABC TV news and the predictable ANC rout of all opposition parties that year was, in part, attributable to the total domination the party enjoyed over all state and many private sector institutions. But the relative economic success of the country obscured this tendency and obliged many private sector actors to “join the caravan of a single vision for South Africa” as commanded by then Minister of Public Service and Administration, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi (sister of the more infamous Athur Fraser).

That caravan has long since derailed and more and more wagons have left the road. But one traveller journeying to the darker and less democratic side of the world was ANC secretary-general, Fikile Mbalula.

Stephen Sondheim’s famous 1973 song Send in the Clowns received a contemporary update, when Mbalula proudly led an ANC delegation last week to a conference in Moscow, sponsored by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to a forum of – George Orwell could hardly improve on this – Advocates against Modern Neocolonialism Practice.

The ANC delegation sat alongside such stellar stalwarts of modern democratic practice as representatives from North Korea, Syria, China and Zimbabwe.

Death of Alexei Navalny

While Mbalula was enjoying Russian vodka and caviar, back at home Cyril Ramaphosa assured denizens at the Cape Town press club that the country’s foreign policy on human rights “remained consistent” across the world. Consistently practising what a Brazilian dictator once called, “for my friends everything, for my enemies the law” – cue uncritical support for undemocratic and worse Russia and hauling Israel on genocide charges before the ICJ.

On the day of the Moscow conference Russia announced that the country’s most prominent outspoken dissident and leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, had died at the harsh remote Arctic prison where he had been jailed on trumped-up charges of ‘treason’ since 2021. During his confinement he had, according to reports, been singled out for particularly brutal treatment including placement in freezing punishment cells and denial of medical care. It was Navalny, too, who had been poisoned in 2020 on an airplane flight with the Russian nerve agent Novichok.

While the ever more oppressed band of Russian opposition supporters were harassed and detained for placing flowers in commemoration of Navalny in Moscow and elsewhere, usual dial-a-quote Mbalula kept an uncharacteristic silence.

Back at home, when asked to comment on the shocking demise of Navalny at the hands of the Russian state, the equally voluble Clayson Monyela, the spokesperson for the Department of International Relations, offered this comment:

There are other politicians who’re being held in prisons and dying. If we issue a statement about one, we must be consistent.

In a sentence you have plain sight of Ramaphosa’s consistency rule. Even the international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, decided this temporising tissue of tacit support for the evil thuggery of Putin needed some massaging. She “noted with concern the news of the death of Navalny” and offered the “hope that circumstances surrounding his death will be thoroughly investigated by the Russian authorities”.

This meagre and tepid fare would be watered down to thin gruel by the fact that the “Russian authorities” in whom Pandor has such touching faith, refused Navalny’s family access to his body, leading his brave widow, Yulia, to accuse the said “Russian authorities” of “lying miserably while waiting for traces of another Putin’s Novichok to disappear”.

If Monyela’s nonchalant response on the death or state sanctioned murder of Navalny is a reminder of the infamous Jimmy Kruger (Minister of Justice in 1977) remark that the death, later proven murder, of famed South African dissident Steve Biko “left him cold” then indeed there are some eerie parallels between that defining moment in our history and today’s events in Russia.

But for all the disfiguring denial of basic human rights in 1977 South Africa, the reason the truth eventually emerged about Biko’s death, which blew a hole in the state-sanctioned cover up, was due to the fact that SA still had the vestiges of a free media (Helen Zille of the Rand Daily Mail led the exposé on this) and an independent legal bar which allowed famous advocate Sydney Kentridge to shred – with forensic brilliance – the litany of lies offered by state witnesses at the inquest, even if the magistrate was totally captured by the state.

If Navalny was Putin’s bravest and effective internal critic, then Bill Browder, author of Red Notice, has proven in the world to be one of Putin’s most effective enemies.

Browder, once one of the largest foreign investors in Russia, attempted to use the Russian legal system to recover his company’s assets stolen by the cronies of the Russian president. His brave lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was murdered in his prison cell by eight guards in riot gear while handcuffed to his bedrail. While the state concocted a fantastic cover-up story, Browder converted himself from private equity maven into an international crusader for sanctions against Russian malefactors, including one of the ANC’s chief funders, Viktor Vekselberg.

In 2016, when I met Browder for the first time in London, I told him how struck I was on reading his account of the terrible circumstances of Magnitsky’s murder and the Port Elizabeth assault on Biko by the security police.

Browder advised that on his first trip to SA he watched on the flight over here the movie Cry Freedom, based on Donald Woods’ (another crusading and brave editor of the apartheid era) account of Biko’s murder.

Browder told me that he used the international sanctions campaign against apartheid galvanised after the death of Biko, as the template for his own campaign against the assassins of Magnitsky and other human rights offenders in Russia, now widened across the world to cripple Kremlin oligarchs.

In 1985, eight years after the conscience of the world was awakened by the gruesome end of Steve Biko and the state which enabled it, the most famous prisoner in South Africa, arguably in the world, Nelson Mandela was to undergo surgery for early signs of tuberculosis.

As Mandela’s official biographer, Anthony Sampson, recounts in the authorised biography:

The speculation and anxiety were intense, and the government seemed alarmed. The Minister of Justice (Jimmy Kruger’s successor) Kobie Coetsee was ‘deeply perturbed’ and was giving the matter his ‘personal attention’. A Swiss professor of pneumology was rolled in and said the chances of recovery were excellent. The government clearly realised, said the London Sunday Times, that ‘the only thing worse than a free Mandela is a dead Mandela.

And the rest, as the cliché says, is history.

But if the apartheid state learned from the Biko murder the necessary lesson, the Putin regime has only learned to double down on prison deaths, stifling dissent and snuffing out the last vestiges of democracy at home and exporting its revanchist imperialism to Ukraine and Africa and elsewhere in the world.

A pitiless autocrat heading a rogue state which kills off its opponents offers up another martyr to freedom and South Africa’s ANC stands alongside the autocrat and against the freedom fighters. Strange days indeed.