The problem with dishonesty is that, once you are in the grip of it, it is hard to escape. If you do not believe me, just study Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown. She is finding it so hard to keep tabs on what is truth and what is fiction that her rare public defences of her job performance are now sliding swiftly from the un-believable to the tragicomic.
When she is not speaking in the passive voice — an unsubtle, in-elegant and unconvincing attempt to evade agential responsibility for enabling looting — she claims, alternatively, that everyone else is a liar and she is a habitual truth-teller. This despite demonstrable evidence that she has misled Parliament, and a buffet of improbabilities such as knowing nothing about the travel trips of people close to her to places where one might bump into strangers with the surname Gupta or how an alleged partner might have had a luxury car financed.
The minister’s relationship with the concept of truth is about as tight as her boss Jacob Zuma’s relationship with it — in other words, as loose as the screws in Bob Mugabe’s ancient head.
But what truly irked me last week when Brown appeared before Parliament was her employment of two terrible lies to try to cover up her incompetence.
The first tale she kept relying on, as do many other presidential keepers in the state, is the now obligatory reference to the legacy of apartheid. The second tale is a refrain about the importance of black business. Let’s examine each in turn.
Thieves, and their goons, love to remind us of the structural injustices of the past. This, however, is a red herring. It is an attempt to change the subject from accountability for post-apartheid sins to trite history lessons about the violence of apartheid. We should not fall for this trick. It is cheap and disingenuous.
The inherently violent exclusion of the black majority from opportunities for economic flourishing during centuries of anti-black oppression do not excuse the looting that is going on right now.
This means that references to the past that seek to distract us from holding the abusers of power morally, legally and politically accountable should be ignored.
Apartheid isn’t responsible for journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Republic of Gupta. Apartheid isn’t responsible for the current slide towards journalist Jacques Pauw’s mafia state. Brown, like other presidential keepers, hopes that we can accept their sins of incumbency if they appeal, randomly, to the horrors of the past as some kind of complete explanation for the present.
Then there is the irritating pretence to give a damn about fledgling black businesses. Buzz phrases such as “radical economic transformation” and “black economic empowerment” are thrown into the middle of poor answers to fair questions from MPs trying to hold the government accountable for what it has done and what it has failed to do.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic, which is why it is simply tragicomic. It was almost as though, every five minutes during her appearance in Parliament last week, a little alarm sound went off in Brown’s skull and whatever the question put to her when it went off, she had to shout “BLACK ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT!” Or maybe she played games at dinner the night before and lost, the punishment for which was to shout “BLACK ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT!” every five minutes for the next 24 hours. Who knows?
The aim of this was also to distract us. The minister was trying to look like a champion of the poor, a champion of black people and an enemy of “white monopoly capital”. It was an utterly unconvincing game she was playing with us.
All monopoly capital — black or white — is bad for the little person. The truth is that grand-scale corruption involves men and women, of all race groups, in the state and in the private sector, pissing on the little person. Powerful black politicians are as complicit in the story of economic injustices in our land as white monopoly capital bosses are.
The relationship between Eskom, McKinsey and Trillian is an excellent case in point. This involves an American company, a South African company and the South African government. Race analysis has nothing to tell us about the willingness of black politicians featured in this case study to be corrupted by private-sector players.
Brown, like Zuma himself, is not a friend of black business. They are all enemies of black business.
The appeal to the language of economic transformation is simply insincere. It is like politicians declaring themselves to be feminists but not being willing to speak out against powerful men accused of rape.
It is your actions, not your slogans, that determine the content of your politics. Brownose is anti-poor, anti-black, pro-monopoly capital and pro-corruption. Declaring yourself progressive isn’t an achievement. Doing so simply means you are playing a language game.