M&G LitFest: 'Where to from here?'

Adam Habib suggested President Jacob Zuma's agenda was two-pronged -- the desire to avoid jail and accumulate wealth.

Adam Habib suggested President Jacob Zuma's agenda was two-pronged -- the desire to avoid jail and accumulate wealth.

Shaun de Waal, the M&G's comment and analysis editor, chaired a session at the M&G Literary Festival entitled "Hopes and Impediments" with panellists Adriaan Basson, author of Zuma Exposed (Jonathan Ball) and Adam Habib, author of Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects for South Africa (Wits Press).

De Waal initiated the discussion by asking the panellists to provide an overview of their books and outline what they consider to be “South Africa's hopes and impediments”.

Habib's book ponders "How the hell did we get in the mess we're in, and how the hell do we get out?" He insisted we cannot only blame the elites, or frame the current impasse in terms of "good guys" versus "bad guys". More pertinent is a consideration of the "constraints of power" and the absence of an "accountability dynamic". He reiterated his conclusions from Friday night's keynote address and emphasised the need for more robust opposition parties.

Anecdotally, Basson had suggested to friends that if Zuma met the deadline for the appointment of a new head of the NPA "it will snow" and this happened in Cape Town.
Zuma is the titular character of Basson's book which looks "forensically at this fraught character", focusing on his "bad leadership decisions". Basson's expertise lies in corruption in criminal justice system and he maintained that with the demise of the Scorpions, though admittedly flawed, we are worse off than before.

Basson said one of the more interesting questions he has been asked is "What does Zuma want?" He admitted that while the details remain unclear, the gist is that Zuma wished to make "a point at Polokwane" and secondly to "enrich himself and those around him".

Similarly, Habib suggested Zuma's agenda was two-pronged—the desire to avoid jail and accumulate wealth.

Zuma, true to his epithet, remained the number one topic of conversation as De Waal suggested that the president himself is the "nexus of the hopes and impediments" facing our country. He recalled the M&G speaking of Zuma as a kind of Trojan horse in 2007, yet questioned the fate of those who supported him at Polokwane, and whose interests he ostensibly smuggled into the gates of power.

Habib bewailed the lack of imagination bedevilling the current political elite. He cited Joe Slovo's "Sunset Clause" document of 1992, which broke the stalemate in negotiations as an example of the kind of visionary intervention lacking today.

Alluding to the work of Francis Fukuyama, De Waal characterised the current power structure as patrimonial, rather than the envisioned liberal democratic meritocracy.

Basson referred to murmurings on Twitter of a "tribal undertone" to Zuma's appointment of Mxolisi Nxasana to head the NPA. However, Habib dismissed that reading, arguing that there is what he termed a "homeboy" rather than tribal agenda, in which ties of loyalty are paramount.

Conversation then turned to the unpredictability of next year's elections. Both panellists agreed that Julius Malema's EFF party could sway a large portion of voters. This was primarily, Basson said, because of the pedigree of those politicians from the North West and the Free State who have joined it as a result of their disillusionment with the corruption in the ANC.

A member of the audience however believed it highly unlikely that the 16.2-million people currently benefiting from social grants would switch their party allegiance on the basis of "hollow rhetoric" rather than concrete and guaranteed material support in the form of grants.

Another audience member objected to the narrow local focus of the discussion in the face of global hopes and impediments, notably the looming over-population crisis and the rising number of unemployed. Habib responded that South Africa faced a developmental dilemma in this context: it needed to become competitive in the global market place and simultaneously "grow jobs" in the local economy. This could only be achieved with improved education, as an investment in future generations, although, as Basson noted, one of the legacies of Zuma's presidency is the "terrible state of education". Habib suggested a creative solution might involve asking SAB's delivery vans (which are never late) to deliver textbooks, and tasking those involved in collusion in the construction industry to build schools in rural areas.

A final question from the audience succinctly asked: "Where to from here?" Habib maintained that an activist and academic response was needed to address the current crises and that all members of society should be encouraged to contribute to this conversation. The question is one which needs to be repeatedly asked, and continuously answered by a plurality of voices.

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