“Australia is so…boring!!” So said the Professor from the University of KwaZulu Natal when I was in South Africa recently. “How so?”, I asked, taking a mild and curious offense to his statement.
He proceeded to explain that he’d been to Australia a few times over the years and that his views had been confirmed by a recent trip by his daughter across the (big) pond. She’d been over for what South Africans call an “LSD” (“look, see, decide”) and spent a month or so meeting with expats and others and looking at job opportunities. Her father said she’d come back distinctly under-whelmed.
“It’s nice…but so boring” she’d told him, describing Australians as grossly over-regulated and of living in a cloud of hesitation and uncertainty, in constant fear of breaking any one or more of the myriad of laws under which they labour. Keep to the left, don’t smoke here, don’t speed there, wear a seat belt, don’t say anything mildly offensive to or about any minority or pompous self-interest group – she described an Australia, viewed through a southern African prism, that was like a super-nanny state gone crazy. She reserved her greatest contempt for what passed for political discourse and debate in Australia, calling it a timid charade corrupted by fear of giving offense to the heaving masses, few of whom really cared about politics anyway.
In her view, Australian’s had been gifted their country by the British invaders, had never fought a war on its own soil, and we were a smug, self-righteous and hypocritical lot who couldn’t even look after our poorest in one of the richest countries on earth and, perhaps most scathing of all, had shrugged off the opportunity to become an independent republic. Compared to South Africa, where a long, bloody and recent revolution had freed the majority from the yoke of apartheid’s oppression, Australia was like the spoilt white brat of the southern hemisphere – lazy, fat and determined to keep as much of its wealth for as few as possible.
After a couple of weeks in South Africa I was close to agreeing with the Professor and his daughter – at least in terms of the vigour with which politics is played in Australia compared to South, and the rest of, Africa.
When I arrived in the country in early September it looked like the man who would soon be king, President of the African National Congress and President-nominate of the country after the 2009 election, Jacob “Showerhead”* Zuma, would be dragged into court on charges arising from his alleged involvement in massive and long-running corrupt dealings with the French arms dealer, Thomson-CSF. Schabir Shaik, one of Showerhead’s close offsiders was already serving a 15 year sentence arising from that matter and Showerhead was widely regarded as being well and truly in the frame as well.
Showerhead had tried to stave off those charges by taking the National Prosecuting Authority (the NPA) to court claiming, in part, that the (then) President, Thabo Mbeki, had unlawfully interfered in the (re)laying of the corruption charges by the NPA against him. This was generally viewed as a case with little chance of success, and that would be hard to prove in court.
Feelings immediately before the judgment in Showerhead’s case were running hot, and Showerhead’s proxies, including the young hot-heads in the ANC Youth League and the loonies in the union movement, were full of pre-1994 revolutionary rhetoric and anger and ready for the violent overthrow of the rule of law if the court ruled against him. Throw this inflammatory cartoon from the Sunday Times into the mix and the lid nearly came off the pot there and then…
By this time I was beginning to see what my friend the good Professor and his daughter meant by Australian politics being boring. No Australian cartoonist, or newspaper publisher, that wanted to hang onto their house would publish a cartoon that showed the President of the ruling political party – and the anointed President-to-be of the nation – about to rape a blind justice pinioned by his cronies – Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ANC, Blade Nzimasnde, general secretary of the South African Communist Party (Comrade!!), Zwelinzima Vavi, secretary-general of COSATU (the South African equivalent of the ACTU) and the craziest of the lot, Julius Malema, President of the ANC Youth League. To the barricades! Lethu Mshini Wami!! (Bring me my machine-gun!!).
In Australia, even if it got past the lawyers, which it wouldn’t, Zapiro’s cartoon would have been slapped with an injunction before the ink was dry.
There has been a lot of debate in South Africa about the merits or otherwise of Zapiro’s work, but no-one has challenged his right to publish – he’s been doing it well for a long time now. And you have to admire the crazy-bravery of the cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro and his editor at the Sunday Times, Mondli Makhanya. So far Showerhead has only issued threats to sue for defamation in relation to this cartoon, but he has several actions against Zapiro and others on foot for perceived slights against his reputation, though many of those appear to have stalled in the courts.
But for the incompetence of the NPA’s lawyers, Showerhead would most likely have lost his case, and it was to just about universal surprise Justice Nicholson of the Pretoria High Court ruled in Showerhead’s favour. I struggled to grasp how Nicholson got to make a ruling that so damned Thabo Mbeki without him being joined in the action or given a chance to respond to the claims made against him, and it was only last weekend as I was leaving the country that I read an article by Jeremy Gordin in South Africa’s The Sunday Independent that made sense of it all.
As Gordin tells it:
“(Zuma’s) application, whichever way it went, was essentially minor…But Zumas’s court papers included a litany of how badly he had been treated…by the NPA, by the national director of prosecutions in 2003…by the…minister of justice…and by Mbeki.
“Though they were serious allegations, the NPA could probably have reacted to them by stating that they were incorrect and rejecting them, and then focusing solely on matters of law. But the NPA lawyers overreacted. They lost their cool, especially about Zuma’s allegations about the [NPA] and decided to punish Zuma. They applied for most of Zuma’s allegations to be struck out because they were scandalous, vexatious and irrelevant.”
This was a fatal mistake, not only for their response to Showerhead’s case, but also for Mbeki’s presidency, and perhaps the country as a whole. By drawing such strident attention to Showerhead’s allegations, which were not central to his original application, the NPA forced the judge to comment on them. And, as Godin notes, he didn’t hold back.
“The judge castigated the NPA and its three national directors involved with Zuma over the years for their cooperation witb the executive arm of government. And he backed Zuma’s claims that he had been the target of a political conspiracy. (Nicholson) said that Mbeki and his cabinet had to take responsibility for abusing the prosecuting authority by interfering with it, or using it to try to geld Zuma in the “titanic”struggle for the ANC presidency.”
Mbeki fell on his sword early last week before he could be sacked, South Africa has a new (caretaker) President – the well-regarded moderate Kgalema Motlanthe, but a swathe of senior ministers loyal to Mbeki followed him out the door. Both the NPA and Mbeki are appealing Nicholson’s decision, but for now at least, Showerhead is in the ascendancy and on course to take the Presidency after next year’s elections. What will be left of democracy and the rule of law in South Africa by then remains to be seen.
There is a lot that is wrong in South Africa – the crime rate is through the roof, poverty and death stalk a lot of awfully means streets and HIV/AIDS is in plague proportions – not helped at all by a criminal negligence and culture of denial by the ANC government.
But politics in South Africa boring? Never.
* In 2006 Jacob “Showerhead” Zuma was tried and acquitted for the rape of a HIV-positive friend of his daughter. Zuma admitted to having unprotected sex with the woman but claimed it was consensual. At the time Zuma was head of South Africa’s National AIDS Council. During evidence at his trial Zuma stated that after the event he had a shower to try to reduce the risk of HIV infection. Zapiro has drawn Zuma with a showerhead projecting from his head ever since. For more Zapiro cartoons go to the Mail & Guardian Online here.