Mzilikazi wa Afrika’s book, Nothing Left to Steal, is exceptional on many counts, but principally because it redefines – in the triumphant figure of the author himself – what one might call an ideal post-apartheid citizen. The fact that Afrika does this without the slightest whiff of modesty, and that his book is somewhat overwritten and lacks careful editing, matters less than the dramatic confrontation he stages between the forces of democratic transparency and those of political skulduggery. It is an epic battle that is often thrillingly narrated.
Afrika emerges as an unambiguous folk hero, rescuing political morality from the morass of venality characteristic of the ANC apparatchiks and ministers he has valiantly exposed since former Sunday Times editor Mike Robertson agreed to set up an investigative reporting unit in 1999.
On a merely factual level, the stories around Afrika’s exposés for the African Eye News Service, the Sunday Times’ investigative unit (and, in some cases, Sunday World) are more than enough to justify interest in this book.
These investigative reports, and the tales behind their generation, are often riveting. Along with co-investigators Rob Rose, Jessica Bezuidenhout and Stephan Hofstatter, among others, Afrika broke some of the most sensational corruption scandals to have crossed the media radar over the past 15 years or so.
The scandals renarrated here include, notably, the Bheki Cele/ Roux Shabangu caper, the exposure of which caused Afrika to be wrongfully arrested; the Tony Yengeni bribery affair; and the public disgracing of any number of lesser aspirants to shadiness, among them people such as Eugene Nyathi, Jonathan Moyo, Dina Pule and a rogues’ gallery of similar types. Mac Maharaj and Jacob Zuma come out looking particularly bad.
Afrika, in addition, exposes slavery rings, a culture of political assassinations in Mpumalanga, and scores of other miscreant schemes as he cuts through the camouflage of political sanctity and roots out the rot.
The book’s exposés, redescribed here as stories within a larger story, are edifying, but the deeper interest in Nothing Left to Steal lies in its construction (or rebuilding) of what one might call the figure of the unblemished freedom fighter, here in the guise of a writer, amid the mess of post-apartheid corruption.
Afrika also implicitly rejoins the debate – pointedly raised in Ivor Chipkin’s book Do South Africans Exist? (2007) – on whether such a thing as a “true South African” is possible to model without excluding various “others”.
Chipkin’s argument is that the definition of an “ideal citizen” is subject to hotly contested differentiation, from many points of view (ethnicity, race, class, language, gender, affiliation), and so an “A1” or model South African can therefore be imagined only differentially, in plural forms and from an ensemble of radically diverse elements. There is no “essential” South African in this view.
Afrika will have none of this. He presents, in himself, a figure of crusading righteousness. He doesn’t smoke or drink, he tells us, and he aligns himself with any number of liberation heroes, such as, not least, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Malcolm X, Steve Bantu Biko and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. In authorial descent, he invokes the names of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Maya Angelou, summoning biblical truth along the way, too.
He claims that, despite seeking to remain private for many years to keep himself and his family safe from retaliation, he was pushed into writing his book.
“For years, many people have been trying to get a glimpse into my life.” Initially, he resists the impulse to write a memoir, having always avoided becoming a “celebrity socialite”, but eventually the pressure becomes too much, so he sets out on his book project.
Despite the appearance of self-aggrandisement, the narrative is cast as a dutiful fulfilment of communal engagement arising from a history of oppression. In keeping with the robust tradition of post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) narratives in which truthful witnessing fosters the reconstruction of communally imagined, redeemed selves, Nothing Left to Steal reorchestrates the tale of a common weal, only now in the guise of the “one good man left standing” hero.
This is a remarkable fusion, blending as it does a struggle memoir with the figure of the detective hero in crime writing. Here, “true crime” blends with a narrative of national heroism, rendering Afrika’s book far more interesting than a mere critique of its apparent grandiosity might lead one to believe.
It has become something of a trend, in the wake of the TRC and the waning of fiction as a force in South African public life, for journalists to enlarge themselves into big-book writers in the “crusading for truth” mode.
Their books, such as Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble, Wiener and Barry Bateman’s Behind the Door and, more recently, Gia Nicolaides’s Reporting from the Frontline, not only sell better than both crime fiction and straight fiction (with literary fiction coming off worst), but they also make bids for a higher quality of verity than the political public sphere – or literary fiction – is able to offer.
And here lies the rub. Even major literary writers such as Antjie Krog and Marlene van Niekerk have recently acknowledged that fiction is no longer capacious enough to deal with the hunger, post-apartheid, for stories that cut through what is perceived to be the endless bullshit emanating from “authorised” sources of information – principally the state and its organs of communication. There is too much “fiction” already.
Meanwhile, the battle for the moral high ground is often projected, in the deliberative public sphere, in fairly crude terms as the ANC being a natural home for the voiceless but coming up against “white-controlled” media with “coconut” black reporters in their employ, not to mention neoliberal know-it-alls in general, all ranting in a hysterical, reactionary and exaggerated campaign against legitimate black political power.
There has even been talk, from the mouth of Zuma himself, of the notion of “corruption” being a “Western paradigm”, an idea given some credibility by eminent scholars Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz in their 2010 book, Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument. The authors see the discourses of corruption as problematic Western imputations amid traditional kin systems of patron-client patrimonialism that are widespread in African politics.
In the midst of such a twist in the more delicate South African debate, enter Mzilikazi wa Afrika and his no-bullshit, take-no-hostages brand of rot reduction. Almost instantly, he becomes a natural hero for any number of readers who might otherwise have seen the author as perhaps a touch bombastic.
What Afrika has pulled off, then, outweighing immodesties of style and self-presentation, is to redefine the locus of legitimate political virtue within a version of a model South African. This is a tale told in a necessarily elevated register. In addition, Afrika is able to do this with the very high legitimacy quotient that arises from his own story as a black South African who overcame the evils of apartheid – and now also of post-apartheid.
And, because his book tells heroic stories of exposing political crooks with an adventurous, lively tone (amid clapping and cheering from most readers), Afrika’s narration is more often than not gratifying to consume. In 1989, he renamed himself “Mzilikazi wa Afrika”, scrawling “Mzilikazi: The warrior was here. A luta continua!” on the wall of a filthy cell after being arrested by police.
This is indeed a fitting hero.
His exposures of graft among the “hyenas around Mpumalanga” for the African Eye News Service in the 1990s show courage and fearless reporting, revealing the shenanigans of people such as Nyathi, a con man posing as a political analyst, wife-beating MECs and dangerous on-the-make crooks in the government who do not hesitate to order hits against people standing in their way.
Afrika has been a marked man throughout his career. He has been wrongfully arrested on the orders of high-ranking politicians and attempts have been made on his life.
It is therefore satisfying in the extreme to witness Afrika’s fearlessness and incorruptibility, a pattern he consolidated as a Sunday Times reporter while the post-apartheid dispensation was sliding ever more precipitously into stealing, killing and covering up for personal gain.
This book, then, makes the grade as a great story, told by a worthy, “true” South African, a noble, moral and political citizen. Regardless of merely “literary” or personal objections to certain aspects of style and presentation, Nothing Left to Steal communally redefines political virtue in a post-apartheid world in which exemplary heroes are extremely rare, as Jacob Dlamini’s Askari also suggests. Afrika’s achievement therefore is by no means inconsiderable.
Leon de Kock is completing a book, Losing the Plot: Postapartheid Writing and the Fiction of Transition, for Wits University Press.