From Zuma to Zille, Chris Roper takes a look at the sad, stunted state of our threatened democracy.
To write about Zuma and Zille, those politicians from the bottom of the alphabetical bucket, you have to start in Syria. There's terrible footage today, on YouTube and its lesser cousin, television, of more than 100 corpses dumped in a concrete watercourse in Aleppo, Syria. Rows and rows of them, mostly young men, their hands tied behind their backs. It appears they've all been shot in the head. There's blood seeping from their wounds, mixing with the water left as the river receded and exposed the horror.
Who killed these people? The Syrian regime blames "terrorist gangs". Rebel groups blame the Syrian government. The dead people have no opinion on the matter. Who is telling the truth? It doesn't really matter. What matters is who Syrians will choose to believe. In South Africa, we have the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the ANC engaged in a spat about sucking at the Guptas' teat. Which little piggie got more milk? It doesn't matter. The only truth is that the teat is always, inevitably, attached to the sow.
So now we have Helen Zille and the New Age bitchslapping one another. Like a teenager whose BFF has dissed him or her by not coming to the birthday party, the New Age is making hysterical accusations about betrayal and hypocrisy. "Helen told me she wasn't coming to my party because I was friends with Telkom, but I caught her kissing Telkom behind the garden shed!" That's essentially what the story of Zille cancelling her New Age breakfast appearance is about. And "Helen made friends with my boyfriend behind my back!" could have been the headline for the New Age's story about the DA getting funding from a Gupta employee.
Who is right here? It doesn't appear to matter. The dead Syrians lying in the river bed don't care who is telling the truth about who killed them. They're dead. In the same way, democracy in South Africa won't care whether it was Zille or Jacob Zuma who killed it. It'll be dead. But this is, of course, the role of politicians in a democracy. They're there to make sure that the people never govern. I was chatting to a seasoned political reporter in our newsroom, and she said: "Politicians are all corrupt, just some are better at it than others."
Thanks to the spindoctoring ("lies", in the old parlance) of some members of our government, our democratic choice will soon be about who we hate less. The more we catch our politicians lying, the bigger their lies will get. The City Press discovers that the New Age is essentially a government propaganda machine paid for by state funds that could be better spent on our citizens. So the New Age tells a bigger lie, which is that the DA also took money from the Guptas. This lie might even be true. Read Zille's rebuttal and decide for yourself. But it's the biggest lie we should be concerned with here, which is that we are now being presented with a different choice.
Before, the choice was whether you believed that the New Age, a newspaper whose business case appears to be an exact model of the internet's (give it away free and then make up some numbers and shit afterwards), was benefitting from government handouts. Now the choice is whether you're on the side of the DA or the ANC. It's classic propaganda.
The danger of this, of course, is that the country might now never know if we should be censuring Eskom and Transnet – all state-owned enterprises – for handing over R36.7-million in exchange for some stale muffins and some free exposure on SABC. Because now we're engaged in attacking the DA instead.
The DA deserves to be attacked, of course, as much as any other political party. In taking money from a company executive working for the Guptas, Zille has done democracy as great a disservice as Zuma, although obviously the big man is way ahead when it comes to volume. I never thought I'd ever see these words penned by Zille: " ... there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Guptas giving money to any political party they choose". Actually, there is. That's like playing mumblety-peg with Schabir Shaik (may he rest in peace).
Zille does provide a caveat: " ... as long as they do not request or receive favours". Sucker! There are different ways of calling in favours. Such as having the ability, in the newspaper you own, to suddenly reveal that the DA also took your money. And thus, in one stroke, both the DA and the ANC are responsible for what Zille describes as a "trail of red herrings" leading us away from the truth and back into crude party allegiance.
There's a bizarre moment in Zille's weekly letter on the DA website. Describing how she didn't get paid BY the Guptas, but AT the Guptas' ("I did not inhale the Guptas' money", if you will), she writes: "I and my colleague Ian Davidson duly went to the Guptas' home, ate some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten, and received the cheque for R200 000 from the individual who had made the pledge."
Really? You're complimenting the Guptas on the gravy in their trough? Perhaps this absurd description is designed to make us believe that this was an ordinary evening, rather than a furtive liaison. Alas, it succeeds. The economy of corruption in South African politics is indeed mundane and ordinary. Inevitably, it will lead to a riverbed with scattered bodies, or the side of a hill in Marikana, and nobody to blame but ourselves.
A previous version of this story incorrectly named Denel as one of the implicated parastatals. We regret the error.
Chris Roper is the editor of the Mail & Guardian Online. Follow him on Twitter @chrisroper