Whose swamp are we draining, anyway?


In South Africa, the scuttlebutt is that the State was captured. In the USA, they are using a different term for largely the same phenomenon – that Washington is a “swamp” that needs to be drained. This parallel is often missed by people who don’t see an inherent inconsistency in both promoting Ramaphoria and in lampooning Donald Trump, the disruptor-in-chief.

The two commissions in South Africa – Zondo and Nugent – are really there to drain the swamp. More and more South African citizens have come to realize that Zuma operated in many ways like Chavez – out of self-interest and for self-preservation. He had both a Cabinet and a Cabal.  Some of his cronies were in both, but as the Cabal circle widened, it got easier and easier for them to loot and plunder public resources. The Guptas, for example, were never in the Cabinet, they were ring-leaders in the Cabal. They advised the President and got their hands on the levers of decision-making – like the appointment of senior people to State-owned enterprises, and even to the Cabinet.

This kind of “malfeasance” as Pravin Gordhan prefers to call it has come to be known as State Capture.  We are only beginning to see the damages to the economy.  No one knows how much of the loot can be recovered, or if not, how much “scarring” there will be. South African history could be seriously disfigured if they cannot chase down a LOT of the losses. Ramaphosa’s current initiative to raise R100 billion in investment is a decoy – he is only filling the hole dug by his predecessor. With debt!  So when you are robbed on the street, you go and borrow money from a Chinese money-lender. Does that really put you ahead?

In the USA, one percent of the populations owns 52% of the wealth. That kind of concentration of wealth does not reflect the egalitarianism that was fundamental to its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. The emergence of an American aristocracy is manifest in family dynasties like the Bush and the Clinton families.  Please note it exists on both sides of the partisan divide. Both Republicans and Democrats are playing this same game of self-interest and self-preservation.

Enter the disruptor-in-chief Donald Trump, promising to “drain the swamp”. He could well have spoken of State Capture. John McCain’s recent funeral was another excellent manifestation of how the Elite Establishment in Washington conjoins with the military-industrial complex. If there was ever a military aristocrat in America, it as John McCain, a descendant of generations of senior commanders. He himself was decorated as a hero and later rose to prominence in Washington.  Even at funerals, the joint Establishment takes care of its own.

Donald Trump was un-invited to the funeral.  He was persona non grata.  For he is a mere “populist” not from the Elite. Yes he is wealthy, but it is not “family money”. He is a self-made billionaire, a real estate tycoon, from New York City. He knows all the wiring diagrams of that city including the mafia because you don’t succeed in real estate in NYC without being able to read all that intelligence.

Sooner or later, the Establishment will “get” Trump. That is inevitable. But they are more likely to “get” him by manipulation of the justice system than through elections, because his record of performance is just too impressive – even in just two years (not to mention winning the Republican nomination, and of course winning the presidential election.)  He is a marked man. He is a target.  Like John Kennedy, it could be an “inside job” that takes him out. Such ironies are not unfamiliar in America. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated after freeing the slaves and winning the bloody Civil War – by an extremist who was a white supremacist and despised what Lincoln had accomplished.

One of the Land Reform movements brewing in South Africa is Abahlali baseMjondolo. At its recent general assembly, its members (almost all black) supported a resolution to cancel the membership of anyone promoting the ANC, and I quote:

“Not long ago a decision was taken that any member of our movement seen wearing an ANC T-shirt must have their membership withdrawn. This decision came from the members and was very popular. This does not mean that our movement is planning to work with any other political party. We have not met with any other party and have not had any discussion on our position on the 2019 election. It just means that our members take the view that we cannot be complicit with a corrupt and, in Durban, gangsterised and ethnicised organisation, that is oppressing us, attacking us in our settlements and assassinating our leaders.”

This is why I ask, whose swamp are we draining? Many people prefer Cyril Ramaphosa’s conciliatory and reassuring language to the militant thought-bursts of Julius Malema. But if we are consistent here, we have to second the emotion of Abahlali baseMjondolo.

To keep Land Reform under the rule of law, which is what Ramaphosa is campaigning on (thus trying to mitigate the threat to ANC support posed by the EFF), what comes across to the poor and landless is oppression. That unfortunately is the “look and feel” of the Red Ants – the black mercenaries sent out to remove people who occupy land illegally.

As it happens, I agree with both Cope and Afriforum that the land was not “stolen”. You cannot apply 21st-century values and protocols to what happened 2 or 3 centuries ago. For example, the Huguenots were the French Protestants, adherents to the movement of Reformer John Calvin, who fled as refugees to Holland. There they were recruited as settlers for the Cape Colony. Thus there is a strand of French words in Afrikaans, because it merged with Dutch and Portuguese in the creole that later became a formal language.  But that was close to 400 years ago, long before the rise of nationalism in Europe that was prompted by the Protestant Reformation.  Another century passed before philosophers like Locke and Hobbes started thinking about something called Humanism. This influenced people like Thomas Jefferson who drafted the charters of the American Revolution. Much later still came the Industrial Revolution and responses to its exploitation of the poor like Marxism.

The point is that we live in the present.  Just as the revolutionaries did in past centuries. The atrocities that were committed against both the Ba Boroa and the Bantus cannot be disputed, or forgotten. But nor should they be the “excuse” for policy correction in the here and now. Land Reform is an imperative today because of the Gini Coefficient, the Inequality, the immoral concentration of wealth. I even disagree that this is a colour or racial issue – it is economic immorality.  It is simply un-democratic. Our founding documents include not just the Constitution but also the Freedom Charter; just as the USA has both a Constitution and a Declaration of Independence. You have to listen to them both.

Part of draining the swamp in South Africa is to clear away the “fake news” that the land was ever stolen or that only one race needs to be targeted in Land Reform. It was Nkruma who said that Africa does not need to move to the Left or to the Right, but to move Forward. Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back. Vested interests are getting in the way, not just those who own most of the wealth, but also those who possess most of the power.

South Africa will certainly come right if the Zondo and Nugent commissions can drain the swamp.  The USA will come right if a populist President can overcome the huge inertia of the Establishment Elite and its manifestation of State Capture.  Could it be that South Africa will need a leader who can stand up to the status quo?  Instead of one who at the heart of it?  Instead of a one-party state we need Coalition government, where transparency reigns and impunity is a forgotten word. Those who captured the state should be imprisoned, not pardoned, that will also be part of draining the swamp.

If I sound a bit confused, it’s because I am!  But I like the noises that Uncle Terror Lekota is making, and the prospect of whites and blacks working together to find a solution that is just, fair and inclusive. Polarization will just tear us apart.

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity