EXTRACT: A Rumour of Spring by Max du Preez

South Africans are like the old Karoo farmer standing on his stoep watching the abundant rain quenching the earth’s thirst after a long drought. He does this every day for a week as the water comes down, just stands there, pulling on his pipe. On the eighth day the rain suddenly stops and the sun breaks through. The farmer looks up at the heavens with a scowl: ‘Daar begin die volgende donnerse droogte al weer!’ (There the next damn drought starts again.)

Sure, there is a lot more angst now, two decades after the golden era of Nelson Mandela. We have squandered a lot of our opportunities as a nation and we know that crunch-time is fast approaching. The political temperature is rising as the black majority’s resentment at the continued inequality in society is building up. Many of us are frustrated that the ANC couldn’t make the shift from liberation movement to governing party in an open democracy; that it has produced leaders with little vision and leadership; that it has allowed corruption and nepotism to become institutionalised. There is certainly reason to be angry that corporate South Africa hasn’t joined the project of transforming our society with more enthusiasm.

But most of us, even the poor, are better off now than before 1994, materially and in terms of personal freedoms and quality of life.

We have what has become the most valuable commodity in the world today: stability. Stability is more than just the absence of violence and mayhem. Stability means predictability: the knowledge that a state will maintain the rule of law; that the Constitution and the laws of the land will be applied; that the legal system is fair, credible and operational.

Our stability is rooted in our splendid Constitution and the fact that no one has tried to mess with it so far; in our strong institutions; our vibrant civil society; our free and independent media; our basically sound economy; our innovative business community; and our growing black middle class. We may curse and resent one another when we operate in racial or ethnic groups, but most South Africans are actually getting along just fine in our neighbourhoods, boardrooms, offices and churches, and on our factory floors and streets.

We do not have a tradition of military interference in politics such as Egypt, Zimbabwe and other countries have. Thanks to the credibility and efficiency of our Independent Electoral Commission, the legality and credibility of our elections are never in doubt.

We have the most sophisticated road and rail infrastructure in the develop- ing world; the best airports and airlines that run on time; the most advanced banking system; excellent fixed-line and cellular phone connections; and the most print and electronic media outlets.

What about the almost daily service-delivery protests and the often violent strikes by trade unions, I hear you ask. Yes, these are symptoms of serious fault lines in our society and we do seem to be more boisterous in our protests than most other societies. At the same time, these actions also remind us that we do not live in a police state, but in a democracy where dissension and protest are allowed. They do not fundamentally undermine our stability, in the same way recent violent protests in Brazil and Turkey didn’t make those countries unstable states.

When confronted by those who predict an imminent collapse and a Zimbabwe-type situation, I always advise an hour on Google. Go and read what is happening with crime, corruption, nepotism, media and personal freedom, and indeed democracy in the powerful state of Russia, a democracy three years older than ours. Look at the crumbling economies and financial instability of old democracies such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. Read about the coup in Egypt and how recent events have fractured that society, supposed to be the most stable in that region. Investigate the perpetual instability in Pakistan, and the bloody civil war in Syria. Even take note of the divisions, lack of social cohesion and occasional government paralysis in the mighty America. And then appreciate the sunny southern tip of Africa a little more.

Many of us fear the same things and ask the same questions we did when the negotiations between the ANC and the National Party government started in 1990, twenty-three years ago. We should learn to understand what could potentially go wrong in our society and what is highly unlikely to go wrong. We tend to overreact so much to negative indicators that we don’t even notice the positive ones.

When our president uses public money to fund his private villa at Nkandla or allows his Gupta friends to treat South Africa as their own backyard, we should howl and protest, but to start shouting that we are a banana republic is just silly.

If there were one thing I would like us South Africans to learn from other societies it would be that the president and the government of the day do not define who and what we are as a people and a country.

My lefty friends in New York moaned and bitched about George W. Bush when he was president and called him names that I can’t repeat here. But they didn’t say America was rotten and start making plans to emigrate. America is still America, but Barack Obama has brought a whole new vision, style and political culture.

We might have a weak and ineffectual government and a rather embarrassing president right now, but our country and our people are as vibrant and strong as we were when we negotiated that unlikely settlement in 1994, and as magnificent as we saw ourselves to be when we won the Rugby World Cup twice and hosted the most spectacular Soccer World Cup in 2010.

Let me be frank: there is a lot more to South Africa and South Africans than Jacob Zuma and his present crop of ANC leaders. In fact, there is a lot more to the ANC than Zuma and Co.

I attended a breakfast briefing by futurologist and scenario mapper Clem Sunter early in 2013. He gave a lively, engaging and entertaining presentation, and I was most impressed. It all sounded so logical.

But on my way home I felt the irritation grow inside me. Sunter had just told me that there was a 25 per cent probability of South Africa becoming a failed state. In fact, he said the failed-state scenario was no longer a wild-card possibility lurking in the shadows: it was now a genuine threat.

Why, I thought, would he even say the words ‘failed state’ and ‘South Africa’ in one sentence? Why was he devoting his time and energy to measuring whether we are about to become like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Afghanistan? Okay, 25 per cent is a low mark, but as he himself said, would you board a plane if you were told there was a 25 per cent chance that you would die?

I think it is completely inappropriate and sends an alarmist message. It’s doing the same as the predictions that we are facing an imminent Arab Spring, a phenomenon that wreaked havoc in Libya and Egypt and resulted in the Syrian civil war.

If you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find reasons to say states like Brazil, Greece, Argentina, Turkey, Poland, Italy and Spain should also be on a list of countries with some probability of becoming failed states.

rumour-of-sprint-thumb Extracted from A Rumour of Spring by Max du Preez, published by Zebra Press and available from Kalahari.com. Read our review here.

Twenty years later


Max du Preez is a critical thinker in a country where there is too much criticism and too little meaningful thinking. In A Rumour of Spring – his attempt to answer “Where are we now after 20 years of democracy?” – he has embraced the need to have a thorough grounding of history to understand the present. His writing on the exiled ANC is particularly illuminating – and goes a long way to help explain the undemocratic tendencies of some of the party’s contemporary leaders. His attempts to empathise, to understand, and to appreciate multiple points-of-view means he’s capable of capturing complex issues with nuance and maturity. His reflections on race are fascinating and refreshing.

A Rumour of Spring is strongest in its documenting the mixed record of the ANC’s two decades of rule. Du Preez eloquently explores key governance issues, including land reform, policing and the judiciary, education, health. In these sections there is the greatest detail, the greatest time spent formulating diagnoses about what the ruling party has and hasn’t achieved. Here is the data, and the textured arguments he builds from those. He mostly works hard not generalise, though at other times the scale of his assumptions are cringe inducing. A random example is: “SADTU is most ordinary South Africans’ pet hate.” Perhaps the destructive teachers’ union might be, but how would he know? Did he do a survey?

When looking ahead, Du Preez is on wobblier ground. While forecasting the future is often a futile exercise – and he is to be commended for effectively rubbishing the claims South Africa could easily become a failed state – his look to the future at the end of the book is too brief and too superficial. The post-apartheid political opposition (both its past and its future) is a particular blind spot. The DA’s trajectory, from a 1.7% minnow in 1994 to attaining nearly 17% of the vote in 2009 goes unexplored; the chief architect of much of this growth, Tony Leon, gets a single mention. In the final chapter, du Preez tells us the DA wants to expand its support amongst black voters, but no attempt is made to assess how or whether the party can achieve this. No effort is made to unpack its vision of “an open opportunity society for all” – and whether or not this is a vision that a majority of voters can get behind. The party “does still struggle with its white ‘neoliberal’ roots” du Preez tells us. It is hard to discern quite what is meant by this breezy pronouncement, but presumably there is, in there, the implication that the DA should be ashamed of its liberal ideals (the very ideals that saw its predecessor parties fight apartheid).

Du Preez seems to have something of a soft spot for the former struggle activist and businesswoman, Mamphela Ramphele. Writing before the ill-fated – and shortlived – announcement that she was to become the DA’s presidential candidate, du Preez lauds her for not becoming “tainted” by allowing her party to join the “‘white liberal’ DA”. This is ironic for someone who appears to have a very genuine desire to see South Africans’ political identities become less intertwined with their racial ones. Du Preez also tells us that Agang has “a lot of money” – an unsubstantiated and, as it turns out, inaccurate claim.

A Rumour of Spring is an essential albeit uneven book: a compelling, articulate and conversational diagnosis of where we’ve come from, and where we are now. You should read it.

A Rumour of Spring is published by Zebra Press and is available from Kalahari.com.

EXTRACT: SA Politics Unspun

Blue-light brigades

Or: Motorcade madness; VIP security overkill

First erupted: early-2000s

For most people in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal it’s a common sight. A parade of black BMWs, with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, blasting through traffic and often driving illegally in the process. All because one person, considered a VIP (Very Important Politician), is being transported from one place to another. Occupying the various support cars are that person’s security personnel, who have no qualms breaking traffic laws, pushing people around and generally acting like they own the place. Which is possibly because they really believe they do.

While Nelson Mandela’s presidential security team was (famously) racially integrated and polite to everyone, things have changed rather dramatically since the mid-’90s, as VIP culture has emerged in positions of power and status. Thabo Mbeki set a precedent by specifying that his entourage include two separate cars carrying doctors, in case one of them was involved in the same accident he was in. Around the country, increasing numbers of ministers – some senior, others less so – worked out that your status was directly proportional to the number of black motor vehicles with blue lights in your immediate vicinity. Kgalema Motlanthe, in his brief time in charge, couldn’t quite keep up with the trends – he often moved around with just three cars; his in the middle – but under Zuma, matters have escalated somewhat.

It now appears that almost every ANC provincial MEC has a set of guards who believe they are well within their rights to break the law. And speeding, reckless driving and generally offensive road behaviour are only the start of it. On the N12 near Johannesburg a motorist was assaulted for getting “too close” to a convoy. On the N3 near Durban a guard fired his gun out the window, while travelling at high speed, when a car didn’t give way; it led to an accident that injured six people. In Ulundi a pedestrian was killed by a car travelling in Zuma’s cavalcade. In Cape Town, another incident involving Zuma’s team occurred when a student was arrested and held in a cell overnight after gesturing at the presidential motorcade while out jogging; he has brought a R1.45 million case against the state for kidnap and torture.

Many journalists covering ANC events can relate stories of being pushed around and confronted by groups of big angry men just because they took a picture of their nice BMW. It’s hard to really contemplate the idiocy of this. Journalists are invited to watch the president in action; visiting a hospital, say. As he gets out of the car TV people and photographers crowd around as he thoroughly enjoys waving to them. But take a picture of the same car a few minutes later and suddenly you’re committing treason…

In November 2012, a car transporting Gauteng housing MEC Humphrey Mmemezi jumped a red light and drove over Krugersdorp teenager Thomas Ferreira on his buzz bike. Ferreira was seriously injured and will likely never be the same again. Mmemezi had been late for a meeting. After Premier Nomvula Mokonyane visited the family to pay her condolences, she was interviewed on local radio as she drove away. Over the speed limit with her sirens on. Really. As she was quizzed about this amazingly inappropriate behaviour, she explained that for her “an emergency is when I’m late for a meeting”. So that’s official, then. Feel free to try that excuse for speeding for yourself the next time you have a pleasant conversation with a member of your local constabulary.

Journalists with long memories talk about how much less security there was around Parliament during the bad old days of apartheid compared to now. And that’s not even counting the annual State of the Nation address, when all of central Cape Town is placed in lockdown and you’re lucky to get in without having to leave a limb behind as a deposit. The justification for all of this is supposed to be “threat assessments” that are, supposedly, routinely undertaken by “the police”. But it’s hard to think it’s not much more than a bit of VIP bling for those in power who enjoy showing that they’re in power.

Public anger at these blue-light motorcades is growing; it used to be just middle-class whites venting their frustrations on the topic, but now everybody moans about them. The DA-controlled Western Cape has picked up on this and shrewdly banned them from its roads, looking for (and getting) an obvious thumbs-up from voters.

There have already been plenty of relatively minor incidents – though try telling that to Thomas Ferreira’s family – and it’s only a matter of time before one of these power-drunk VIP protection units actually ploughs into a bus, killing many people and causing a major scandal. Perhaps the people in the backseat could tell their drivers to slow down before we
get there?

Stephen Grootes

Extracted from the “Controversies” chapter of SA Politics Unspun, published by Two Dogs and available from Kalahari.com. Read our interview with Grootes about the book.

10 QUESTIONS: Stephen Grootes


Stephen Grootes is one of South Africa’s leading political journalists and commentators. His new book, SA Politics Unspun, is a punchy, easy-to-understand deciphering of the South African political landscape, telling you all about the organisations, factions and personalities that shape it.

How did the book come about?

It came about really because when I first entered the political reporting field, I found it really quite baffling. I simply couldn’t understand why some people were important, and why some were not. And I didn’t get why some comments seemed to be banner headlines, and others were ignored. So the book in a way, is a “how to” guide for anyone in the same position as I was back then.

You’re EWN’s senior political reporter, host Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk’s Midday Report and write for the Daily Maverick. Where did you conjure the time and energy to write a book too?

Firstly, I married incredibly well. My wife took most of the brunt, and disappeared with the kids when necessary. It also helps to actually be interested in what you’re doing. I still find our politics just fascinating. Some people have The Bold and the Beautiful as their daily soap opera, others have the Super 15 or the PSL. Mine is politics, I wake up every morning, hungry to see what’s changed over the last eight hours.

How do you balance your reportage of the sometimes short-lived dramas of SA’s political scene with being able to observe and analyse the broader political patterns that these are often a symptom of?

Great question. It’s important to not label a once-off or a twice-off set of events as a trend. I think writing for the Daily Maverick, and the feedback I get as a result, has really taught me to think about what I write, and to properly interrogate any thoughts I may have. The point is, in political reporting, pretty much everything is opinion, you just have to have confidence in your ability to analyse events properly, to back up your opinion.

How do you avoid becoming jaded about South African politics?

Many people see our politics as monolithic, basically a fight between the ANC and the DA. Once you spend time with the characters behind it, the people who make up the Tripartite Alliance [the ANC, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party], and the people who fight amongst each other within these parties, then you too will get hooked. Essentially, once you know the people involved, you have an interest in what happens, and it suddenly becomes really interesting.

You’ve stuck your neck out by making estimates about how well the different political parties will do at the 2014 general elections. What made you do this and are there any estimates you’d now revise?

I did it because it’s a really good way of starting a conversation about our opinions about politics. To make predictions is always risky, and there is a huge health warning around them, but it makes you think about who is powerful and who is not, and who is growing and who is not. It’s a really good way for a reader to understand what you, as the author, think is going to happen. Is it risky? Of course. Are all of the predictions correct? If they are, I’ll buy everyone reading this a drink! But generally, I’m still pretty happy with them. I think the EFF might do better than my original estimate, but otherwise I still think the ANC will get around 60% and the DA around 22-24%.

As election season heats up, what are the significant changes and developments you’ve observed in the time since the book was published?

The EFF has done better than I expected, so far. The DA has had a few missteps. The ANC has pretty much gone as expected.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Finding the time to do it. It was fun writing it, but simply finding the time to do it was always going to be tricky.

Who’s your favourite and least favourite South African politician?

Wow! What a question. I always enjoy speaking to Gwede Mantashe, the ANC Secretary General. He is quick to rip you off, and quicker to laugh if you respond in kind. As for my least favourite, you should check the book’s glossary, and see who is referred to as “some dude”.

Your most embarrassing encounter in politics?

There was the time my cell phone halted the Supreme Court of Appeal ruling Schabir Shaik’s case… but that’s a story for another time. I once had to ask Thabo Mbeki a really important question (would he resign after the Nicolson judgment? In the end he was recalled), and pretty much forgot my name when speaking to him. I’ve never told anyone that before, now that I think about it…

Any plans at this stage for another book?

SA Politics Unspun by Stephen Grootes

Yes! It involves a time-travelling secret agent with a degree in intra-generational lawfare. (I’m a complete sci-fi freak. People who know me are amazed I wrote about politics rather than little green men…)

SA Politics Unspun is published by Two Dogs and is available from Kalahari.com.