President Jacob Zuma has an infectious laugh. It breaks the ice and defuses the tensest situation. At that moment, no answers are demanded on the arms deal or police corruption, because the nation has the giggles and the president laughs loudest.
The polls reflect a growing unease with a politics that seems to be driven by self-preservation: preservation of power and rich lifestyles, safety from prosecution. How far are the president and his supporters willing to go in pursuit of this goal?
In the shadows, formal and informal security networks are settling scores and doing the dirty work of those in power. Collusion between the people who have the guns and the people who have the money is infecting our politics. The murder of a dozen ANC politicians, including a whistleblower, within the past three years is an indication of this and the ruling party has appointed a task team to look into it.
Why is this left to an ANC task team? It should surely have been a matter for the spies at the State Security Agency. They have unparalleled resources.
One answer is that some politicians no longer trust the spies. Researching the Mdluli saga, I was struck by the fact that some of the country's highest-ranking current and former police chiefs were afraid to speak on their cellphones. They, like Julius Malema, answer their phones with the rhetorical "Hello, Mr Mdluli". Are top cops really that afraid a criminal network controls police intelligence? And this under the noses of the minister of police, minister of state security and the president?
What is certain is that a climate of fear grips politics in South Africa and it is driven by the securocrats. The Protection of State Information Bill (the "secrecy Bill") and its ugly twin, the draft General Intelligence Amendment Bill, will block the free flow of information, protect the corrupt and monitor citizens' email, Mxit, Facebook, Twitter and Skype communication.
Also, the proposed Traditional Courts Bill will ensure greater power for unelected male traditional leaders, potentially drawing together the strings of a patronage network in rural areas that would be largely accountable to the man who dispenses the money in Pretoria. These three pieces of legislation, in tandem, will ensure that a conservatively minded state apparatus works against the values of an open society. It could keep a lid on social dissent while ensuring unchecked accrual of wealth and power to those on top. It is cynical politics. Is this the culmination of 100 years of ANC struggle?
Consider, too, the sinister way the Mail & Guardian's editor and senior members of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism were made to report to the police three weeks ago, in what appears to be a pre-arrest process. This foreplay to possible criminal sanction is all because of an exposé linking presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj – a public servant – to corruption. Did Maharaj consult his boss before pressing charges? Is the intention to charge investigative journalists, or to scare them? This is far too much like the harassment suffered by Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika and others last year.
Other attempts at intimidation happen but nobody can pin the blame on the state.
Earlier this year, Constitutional Court judge Sisi Khampepe and Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane's homes were burgled and their laptops stolen. In the case of Sikhakhane (who also acts for Julius Malema), one of the documents stolen was an affidavit by Tokyo Sexwale requesting a probe into Richard Mdluli's alleged abuse of state resources.
One should be circumspect about such allegations. This is a country with much crime. Yet, in the past 18 months, my own office was broken into twice, late at night, using the same cat-burglar method of entry. The first time, my external hard-drive (containing a manuscript on the arms deal) was stolen. The second time, the visitors took nothing because the hard drive was stored elsewhere (and for the record, I am not sitting on some smoking gun). All other shiny objects were left untouched. It may be ordinary crime; it may be coincidence.
Far more worrying is the alleged suicide of the secretary of the commission of inquiry into the arms deal, advocate Mvuseni Ngubane, in May.
On the same day he met the president, he climbed into his car and shot himself. He had no known financial or personal problems. Whatever the reason for his death, it has delayed the commission. It is unlikely to start its public deliberations before the ANC's Manguang conference and will probably conclude only after the 2014 elections – a happy coincidence for corrupt businesspeople, arms dealers and politicians alike.
Enormous potential lies outside South Africa's elite. To unlock it, we must fear those with power much less. Without that we will never be equal.
Hennie van Vuuren is the former director of the Cape Town office of the Institute for Security Studies