Publication: Mail and Guardian Issued: Date: 2004-10-29 Reporter: Robert Kirby

How to Stuff an Elephant



Mail and Guardian

Date 2004-10-29


Robert Kirby

Web Link


The most alarming thing about the Schabir Shaik trial in Durban is that the revelations being made by various witnesses seem unsurprising. As each new narration unfolds we learn of chicanery, double-dealing, hustles, swindles, lies. And we do little more than shrug. If these things were even 10% true, we should be outraged. Instead we calmly accept smug homilies from senior politicians about the constitutional right to the assumption of innocence, the pre-eminent need to keep Jacob Zuma's dignity intact, even when accusations against Shaik reflect in the most ominous way on his position as the second-most powerful politician in our government.

As was to be expected, the African National Congress government, in another of its grotesque displays of haughty dismissal, has found nothing very amiss in what's being exposed in Durban about the deputy president. Any mature administration would be shivering in its imported Italian boots at the sight of its second-in-charge, up there being exposed as someone who issues bad cheques, bums money to keep himself out of bankruptcy courts, tells blatant porkies to Parliament, and all the squalid rest of it.

Not so up at Zuma's head office. The moment the ANC heavies saw the accusations mounting against their second-in-charge, they gave everyone the rigid finger and appointed Zuma to lead the national moral regeneration movement. Currently he's off to see the Pope on our spiritual behalf I suppose His Holiness is fair game for a quick loan. Remember when Tony Yengeni was found guilty of fraud? They immediately appointed him to investigate corruption in the Eastern Cape. If Kafka had written farces, he would have thought these moves decidedly over the top.

Are we, like our leaders, seeing this trial as yet another attempt to pour racist scorn on their sterling efforts to anchor the rainbow, or are we just suffering from corruption fatigue? Probably a bit of both, but stringing through the weekend papers, I began to believe that the Zuma way of doing things has some exemplary precedents in government doings.

In the Shaik trial it is being alleged that Zuma has been something of a spendthrift a polite way of saying that anything more than a Shoprite-Checkers R5 discount card puts an unbearable strain on his financial self-control. At one stage Zuma went and signed up for a top-end Mercedes and then failed to make the first payment. A few years ago South African Airways (SAA), under the guidance of its whizz-schlenter, Coleman Andrews, decided it was going to be an all-brand-new-Boeing airline. Out went the few Airbuses SAA had, plus some older Boeings, and in came a whole fleet of brand-new Boeings, all bought on credit. Just like the Mercedes.

No sooner had the bank threatened to repossess Zuma's sparkling new saloon, than Shaik (now amusingly known as the National ANC Rescue Institute) was asked to throw Zuma a line. Thus winched out of the debtors' courts, JZ immediately signed up for a sparkling new Pajero as well. No sooner had Coleman departed our shores with his R120-million ransom than a now thoroughly impecunious SAA decided that all the sparkling new Boeings were to be replaced with sparkling new Airbuses.

To pay for these, SAA set up an absurdist rand hedging exercise which, so far, has cost a cool R9-billion. When in trouble, Zuma phones up Shaik, who phones up Nkobi Holdings, which phones up the bank, which hastily inflates another raft. When in trouble, SAA phones up Transnet, which phones up Trevor Manuel, who has to send out for some extra-strength Prozac.

A bit simplistic I will admit but, nonetheless, the similarities are appealing: Mercedes-Pajero-Nkobi Holdings Boeing-Airbus-Transnet. Both woeful tales of bucket-shop financial mismanagement. Both were at the hands of top government officials.

It's become very obvious that ANC bigwigs have been taking private lessons in the arcane technique that magicians use as rudiment to all of their routines: misdirection. As the late master wizard, Jimmy Ritchie, once said: "If you misdirect properly you can stuff an elephant into a bus and they won't see you do it." Or into an Airbus, for that matter.

The same bigwigs are corroborating Ritchie's entertaining axiom with every occasion where they don't want either to be embarrassed, or simply to own up to things. Last week President Thabo Mbeki lurched right off the tracks and went into one of his bizarre rave modes about racism when asked whether he would state, once and for all, that he had come round to the globally accepted belief that HIV causes Aids. Such misdirection wasn't even subtle.

The Shaik trial is exposing the lamentable arms deal as seething with the shrouded manoeuvre, the false cards, the bottom dealing, the double-lift, the vanishes and acquittals of the conjurer. Which is not to suggest that this sort of flimflammery is peculiar to our government. Take a look at the lies, spin and deception which constitute the administration of the United Kingdom's Tony Blair. Politicians are a generically polluting sub-species and the Durban trial seems now to have been accepted by them as a felicitous diversion behind which, for the meantime anyway, all the other crookery may duck and dive for cover.

With acknowledgements to Robert Kirby and the Mail & Guardian.