A book is just out in South Africa. It is causing as much commotion as it was intended to. Written by a former journalist who was approached by dedicated whistle blowers to spill it all “about the people that Zuma surrounds himself with”, the author names those people and goes on to say that his book is also about “faceless, nameless bunch” he believes are playing vital roles to keep the South African president in power and out of prison. This is not an innocent book. No book is. Every book is an argument. This is a book aiming at maximizing a discursive intervention. It is racy, detailed, kaleidoscopic, revealing and juicy. Above all, it is about power: a narrative of what people do to get power and what they do if and when they get it. This flows on the pages. In some, the reader encounters how many times a minister aspirant visited what in Nigeria would be called a godfather or how many phone calls made to that effect.
If the book is about power, it is specifically about the rise of the intelligence services in the politics of power. What this book hints is how it is not just the CIA and the FBI doing stuff, it is also about national intelligence agencies even in impoverished Africa doing their own thing, oblivious of Africa’s locale in the Human Development Index. Talk about the burden of the state in and on Africa that old man Basil Davidson bellyache about. Imagine how much is spent by intelligence agencies and protocol when malaria is killing people in millions. The CIA can stage power on a global scale because the American ruling class has conquered the world and have reasons to run an empire. What has African power circles got at stake? Let’s say no state can do without intelligence services but since when has intelligence become mere intrigue or a replacement for leadership?
Anyway, the reader would particularly see how intelligence services were deployed in the unmaking and the making of Mbeki and Zuma respectively. How an Mbeki intelligence intrigue to get at Jacob Zuma backfired and positioned Zuma to overrun him, get him out of power into the Cold and bury him, to use the author’s phrase. A quote on that would be in order: Mbeki was forced to tolerate Zuma, who was after all hand-picked by Mandela to be his successor’s right-hand man. But once Mbeki was re-elected in 2004, he wanted to bury Zuma. Both leaders drew their daggers. Mbeki relied on his intelligence network, the Scorpions and the NPA to finish Zuma off.Mbeki underestimated Zuma’s access to an “alternative” intelligence network”.
Talk about the relationality of power and there is a perfect example there. It is in the dialectical nature of things that Zuma has gone ahead to create his own possible disaster out of power. French philosopher Michel Foucault must be right to insist that power is not a possession or an attribute. Every day, that is demonstrated across the world as one disastrous student of power falls after the other.
That is as far as the background to the rise of President Jacob Zuma goes although even after that, there is no leaving the intelligence services dimension in the book because one encounters it again in Jacob Zuma’s reliance on intelligence tricks to survive in power. It would be interesting to read how this is playing out in Rwanda and Russia, two other interesting cases of where ex-spies are in power.
But who is Zuma? The entire Chapter Four is devoted to this. Again, we must follow the author in what has to be a long quote because his choice of words should not be edited: There are two public personae of Jacob Zuma. Think of him standing in Parliament delivering the State of the Nation address or answering questions from the opposition. Or even more daunting: think of him addressing the United Nations in New York. Gauche, bumbling, unworldly, clueless, fibbing, awkward. Long-grump-pauses-grump-between-grump-sentences. Zuma is one of the most lampooned and jeered heads of state in the world and can easily be brushed aside as an uneducated peasant – yet he is in fact a brilliant strategist. But then there is the other Jacob Zuma, entering a township in a cloud of dust and flashing blue lights. There is no more effective politician than Zuma when he knocks on doors, pats babies and holds the hands of the elderly. He listens, he chuckles, he empathises, he connects, he brings hope, he says whatever people want to hear. He is living proof of how the ANC, for 75 years, built a party and a struggle movement from door to door and from comrade to comrade before winning the 1994 election”.
And here he goes again: Zuma is light on his feet. We have all seen him dancing: his fists clenched, his arms arched forward like the tusks of an elephant, and his body hunched while “awuleth’ umshini wami” (bring me my machine gun) stirs from his mouth. In front of him are thousands of ecstatic and swaying followers, tooting on horns,blowing on whistles, and swaying back and forth to old anti-apartheid tunes. If Zuma was a career boxer, he would have tiptoed around the ring, his gloves held high and his chin straight and square. Every time Zuma seems to be out on his feet and with his adversaries pummelling away at his bullet-shaped head, he is at his most dangerous. That is when he answers with nasty uppercuts and smashing right-handers, which have sent the likes of Thabo Mbeki staggering across the ring. He has an incredible ability to cheat political defeat and to emerge with his fists in the air”.
After this point in Chapter Four, the rest of the book is a familiar African story: alleged use of state power to fleece the nation. In this case, it is perhaps the sort of thing that a reviewer of the book in Nigeria might steer away from. It is steamy and must explain why the book is encountering a turbulent flight.
But, let the frightening content not deny us the author’s narrative verve and the bits about other things, other lands and people brought in for effect. The chapter reporting the author’s trip to Moscow to interview an ex-spook as part of the book may constitute a different story for some readers. A sampler:
“Today, communist austerity, ancient history, devout orthodoxy and Russia’s new capitalist indulgence live side by side on Red Square. Under communist rule, there was nothing to buy; now everything is for sale. If there was ever a capitalist finger up Lenin’s waxy ass, it was the opening of the ultra-luxurious GUM store on the eastern border of the square, just a stone’s throw from the mausoleum. It has become a playground for the ultra-rich and hosts brands such as Louis Vuitton, Zara, Calvin Klein and Dior”.
“Around seven million Muscovites use the metro every day – more than London and New York combined”
“When communism died, it was replaced by something far more alluring: money. It is said that never had so much money flowed into a place in so short a time. This gave rise to the so-called oligarchs: businessmen, senior civil servants and army generals of the former Soviet republics who rapidly accumulated wealth during the era of Russian privatisation in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990s. It looked as though it was their offspring that had gathered in the bar”.
What about the line on Nigeria? : I couldn’t help thinking: can you imagine Jacob Zuma also ruling Nigeria, 4,600 kilometres to the north-west? The chaos and madness!”
Those who have the nerve may go for the book. Those who do not may seek more Umqombothi and let life go on. It is Africa!