Political gestures can be low-cost or ultra-expensive, harmless or dangerous, provide evidence of sunset on the old order or can morph into a false dawn. Political assassinations are at the extreme end of such symbolism.
One hundred and two years ago, the murder in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, famously tipped Europe into the maelstrom of the First World War.
Here at home, last week marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination, in Parliament on September 6 1966, of the architect of apartheid, Dr HF Verwoerd. Someone wrote to me expressing surprise that in a country in which historical milestones receive lavish attention, the fall five decades ago of this giant — or monster — passed with little fanfare.
I was nine years old at the time, and date Verwoerd’s murder to my first real political awakening. But given the liberal proclivities of our household in Durban, there was less mournfulness around this event than the doom-laden music on the SABC radio indicated to be the correct response for most white South Africans.
For the country’s majority and for much of the world, the front cover of the British satirical Private Eye magazine probably captured the moment: it had a photo of a troupe of exultant Zulu dancers as background to its headline: “Verwoerd murdered: a nation mourns.”
But in a historical sense, the muted response last week to the killing of Verwoerd is justified. Far from imperilling the repugnant apartheid order, Verwoerd’s removal changed nothing. Revisionist historian Hermann Giliomee notes that his successor, John Vorster, lacked the intellect of Verwoerd and, he speculates, his imagination and adaptiveness.
Indeed, the 12 years of Vorster simply intensified the repressive state apparatus inaugurated by Verwoerd. The singular June 16 1976 uprising, which happened towards the end of his period in office, saw a doubling down on coercion and the exit of thousands of youths to the ANC camps; but fortress SA still stood for more than 15 years before the ramparts fell.
If Verwoerd’s violent end was a false harbinger of change, how do we interpret more recent, less murderous, gestures here and abroad? It is often in the fleeting image or headline, more than in profound, or any, detail that the clues are salted.
The world economy is in deep trouble. Historically low interest rates, one of a range of monetary policy measures undertaken to prevent a second great depression, has sent the global economy into unchartered territory. The disconnect between the marriage of liberal democracy and global capitalism and the rise of authoritarian populists in response has created a profound disharmony, as Martin Wolf elaborated with such precision on these pages recently.
The world forum intended to tackle and respond to these sweeping changes, the G20, is manifestly unable to provide either a confident or even coherent response.
Seizing on the lack of outcome of the latest G20 conflab in China, The Wall Street Journal’s William A Galston took refuge in interpreting the photo opportunities instead. US President Barack Obama was snubbed on arrival by his Chinese hosts, who declined to provide stairs for the mighty Air Force One, obliging the leader of the free world to exit more ignominiously from the rear belly of the Boeing 747.
This, the journalist suggested, amounted to treating the president “with blatant disrespect” and rendered moot his signature “pivot to Asia” strategy.
As for the obligatory leaders’ photograph at the commencement of proceedings, the Journal was spoilt for choice in the possibilities of interpretation.
“The group photo spoke volumes,” Galston harrumphed. “At one end, President Putin was speaking to President Erdogan [Turkey], who listened attentively. At the other end, President Obama peered curiously at the colloquy. In the middle, President Xi [China] smiled confidently. As the authoritarian entente cordiale flowers, the US is reduced to a bystander’s role.”
The treatment of Obama’s aircraft in China found its local equivalence in the intrepid reporting of Erica Gibson of Beeld. She unearthed the fact that President Jacob Zuma travelled to and from the event in a separate aircraft from his beleaguered and no-frills finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, who flew commercially.
Frenzied explanations were provided by the Presidency as to why this did not symbolise a new page in the cold war between the two men who sit at the heart of our political economy
Actually, you don’t need presidential air charter schedules as symbols to capture the deep dysfunctionality of a South African state at war with itself. Any given day yields abundant fodder of Hawks’ leaks of Gordhan’s imminent arrest or a rogue minister announcing a Cabinet-mandated commission of inquiry into banks at the behest of his patrons, the Gupta family. The denials follow, but the damage is done.
Just how expensive these proxy wars by media leaks become was revealed in the outflow of R10.2bn that exited local equities and bonds two weeks ago. The price of the rand was discounted into the bargain.
Of less significance and on a more cheering (and much cheaper) note, the first symbolic stirrings of the opposition-controlled metros provides some crumbs of comfort. Perhaps, indeed, harbingers of real change. A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to the inauguration of the new mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, Athol Trollip. The sting of the gesture was, literally and figuratively, in its bottom line. It advised that Trollip looked forward to my presence at a “finger lunch afterward, accompanied by a cash bar”.
Doubling down on the hair-shirt symbolism of the new austerity to replace the era of ratepayer-funded ANC excesses is his opposite number in Tshwane, Solly Msimanga. He announced last week that henceforth the mayor and his executive members would be transported in Toyotas, and nixed his predecessor’s decision to procure luxury BMWs for the political lords and ladies. He sent the Beemers to the newly formed Metro Police antihijacking unit.
In such symbols, we find comfort.
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA