Socio-political Watch

From Verwoerd to Zuma the game remains the same


At a fundamental level there are more similarities between the government under the ANC’s President Zuma and that of the NP’s Dr Verwoerd six decades ago than is generally realised.

By the end of this week the final chapter of this year’s political news will be in full swing at the elective conference of the African National Congress. It will probably also deliver the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of the story to be written during 2018.

What happens at the conference will set the tone of what will happen in 2018, when campaigning for the election in the next year, 2019, will go into full swing.

However, the history of mankind and of individual nations and countries do not arrive in neat annual compartments. It rather unfolds in processes and phases, spanning years and decades.

Often individuals, and organisations, dominate a process or a phase, but in the bigger scheme of things they are really only but players. The processes, and how it is managed, is what really matters and determines the quality of life of those who live during a particular era in a particular location – as in country and/or region.

It is also important to remember that although the details differ from time to time and from locality to locality, the fundamental factors mostly remain the same.

In this regard one could entertain long and sophisticated philosophical or even theological arguments and debates. But for the sake of brevity we are here going to stick to a few cliché-like statements and one or two comparisons between contemporary South Africa and events and situations from years gone by.

First the clichés:

  • Human nature remains human nature, irrespective of time and place;
  • Life is a game of the survival of the fittest; and
  • Opportunity is the mightiest temptation of them all.

Secondly, for a comparison, we have chosen the last decade under the rule of President Jacob Zuma and six decades ago under the rule of then Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, and picked out some elements from the two periods.

Both leaders dominated the political scene during their time in power and both are controversial figures – be it for different seasons. But, is it at its core really all that different?

While Zuma under the parlance of his time became known - infamously if you want - for a patronage network under the slogan ‘state capture.’ Verwoerd was the man under whom Afrikaner nationalism was consolidated and so-called grand apartheid implemented.

 The time of Verwoerd was way before the internet and social media networks, which constantly bombard people with information and opinions. The result is that people are today more acutely aware of how those plugged into a leader’s patronage network score from it.   

Recent mirror of the past

And we have most recently learned much about the modus operandi of business enterprises that influence policy- and even industry-wide development decisions.

A particularly interesting one in the context of our comparison between two eras six decades apart, and one which proved that not only the Gupta family and their associates are active on this terrain, exploded on the news scene in the last two weeks.

It came to light how MultiChoice, a full subsidiary of Naspers, Africa’s biggest public company, the foundation of which was laid during the hay-days of Afrikaner nationalism, has essentially “bought” government policy regarding digital encryption in the broadcasting industry. In the process it has entrenched its effective monopoly in the subscription television sector.

If we now turn the mirror around on six decades ago, those of us old enough to have been in the media industry then, remember the time when some papers proudly called themselves “mouth pieces” of Verwoerd’s National Party (NP). One of those media houses of old, in the north of the country, donated a private small holiday farm on the banks of the Vaal River to Prime Minister Verwoerd.

It just so happens that the particular company, that was crushed by the competition from the south and did not survive to see the arrival of the “New South Africa,” did not make most of its money through its newspapers. It was the government run Post Office contract to print telephone directories that turned its printing presses into money-spinners. Publishing handbooks for government schools also made a handsome contribution to the revenue stream.

Then and now

Like we write this week in our column Let’s Think about the present epoch, there were then also very few angels around.

The biggest difference about then, and now, is that members of parliament were more dependent on their voters in constituencies than their party to retain their seats. This made for a more vigilant environment of checks and balances.

The one other thing that the NP got right is that it retained the professional public services that served under the old United Party, when it came to power in 1948.

By the 1960s it would be fair to say that most senior positions in the civil service were filled by NP loyalists. The transition, however, was over a long enough period that there was no institutional disruption.

And, the true professionals were retained. The late Dr Brand Fourie, who was once General Jan Smuts’ private secretary, later served as Director-general of Foreign Affairs well into the term of President P.W. Botha in the 1980s.

With their policy of cadre deployment, the ANC, however, has not only facilitated the Zuma-type state capture, but has destroyed large chunks of the institutional memory and expertise of state institutions.

Elsewhere we report on how this phenomenon has effectively destroyed some of the basic function of the country’s state security apparatus.

Also read: South Africa’s not so secure state security service

There are also some scary implications in Democratic Alliance MP, Alf Lees’ calculations that the South African Revenue Service (SARS) has lost a combined 7 500 years of experience this year alone.

If the ANC loses power in 2019, as is increasingly looking likely, this factor, destroying the ability to deliver proper services to the population, will be the most important, if subliminal, reason.

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by Piet Coetzer

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