A judge once directed the jury as follows:
“Gentlemen of the jury, you’ve heard the evidence of the witnesses for the Crown and that of the accused. If you believe the evidence of the Crown witnesses you will convict the accused. If you believe the accused you will believe anything.”
The jury promptly acquitted the accused.
If current popular narrative sweeping urban South Africa is any indication, South Africans generally do not seem to be made of the stuff of which that jury was made. We seem generally to have abdicated our thinking and reasoning capacity to newspaper editors, reporters and self-styled analysts who all seem to agree on almost everything.
Witness how our analysts – at least those to whom media houses elect constantly to expose us on television and mainstream broadsheets – seem all to agree that President Jacob Zuma is “guilty” of “State Capture”, apparently a most serious criminal offence the elements of which, at least as far as I can gather in my 26 years of practicing law, are yet to be defined in any judgment or Criminal Law textbook.
Witness, too, how that same cohort of analysts seem all agreed that President Zuma is needlessly “playing victim” or mounting a “conspiracy theory” steed when reporting to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into “State Capture” the death threats allegedly received by his personal assistant not only to himself but also to his lawyers, or of being mendacious when constantly clearing his throat during his testimony at the Zondo Commission – an irritating habit of his that we have had to bear, by the way, since we had the misfortune of being subjected to his 8 State of the Nation Addresses over a period of 9 years.
One journalist even made much of a photo image of President Zuma’s Senior Counsel’s hand resting on the shoulder of the ruling party’s Secretary-General during a short adjournment at the Zondo Commission, suggesting, by innuendo, a closer relationship than there may have been.
It is because of this thoroughly compromised landscape of our journalism that Gayton McKenzie’s book, “Kill Zuma: By Any Means Necessary” should be celebrated. But, alas, it is a cathartic book that is unlikely to earn him the Alan Paton Award nomination because eNCA newscasters and viewers, Radio702 talk show hosts and listeners, and BusinessDay writers an readers have directed urban South Africa in terms not dissimilar to those of our rather presumptuous Judge to the jury – and found fertile ground.
This is rather ironic, given that the Alan Paton Award is conferred for books that present
“the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power”.
But it is precisely these qualities that have seemingly earned the book urban South Africa’s obloquy from people some of whom have not even read it.
Power – in Neo-Capitalist South Africa as in others – lies not in governments but in multinational corporations that brook no national boundaries. Governments in such societies tend, by and large, to do the bidding of multinational corporations, and the History books are littered with nationalistic leaders (mostly in developing economies) who have fallen, one way or another, for daring to stand in the way.
The book has been dismissed by the self-appointed police of our national narrative as “pure fiction”, and so urban South Africa, without even having read it, appears to have taken a cue from that. This is demonstrative of the creeping intolerance of those wedded to one world outlook toward another.
As our courts are now increasingly being turned into blunt instruments for quashing any world view that departs from the common narrative, I took the view when the book came out in December 2017 that litigation attempts might spring from its publication if sales should reach “unacceptable” levels thus posing a danger of its contents gaining some traction. That this has not happened is testimony, more likely than not, to the book not exactly flying off the shelves.
It does not take much in mainstream urban South Africa these days to be “outed” as “a bot” or “captured” or “Guptarised”. All you need do is train your searchlight on the suspicious dealings of those revered by mainstream media in urban South Africa. And if you can toss in a bit of common sense amid the mob-like opprobrium for one Indian family, pointing out the obvious that the “capture” of South African institutions did not begin with that family, well, then, you’ll be well and truly scarlet-lettered.
To this, McKenzie seems to have said to himself, “Sod it. Let’s do it!” And do it he did – and in fine fashion, too, on balance.
Fairly early on in the book he makes plain not only what the book is about and aims to achieve, but also what it is not about. The book, says McKenzie, is
“about why and how various agencies and the interests they represent have identified Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma as their enemy”.
He then boldly asserts that the book
“will open your eyes to some of the deepest truths about South Africa that you have probably never thought about”.
He characterizes these “deepest truths” as
“jarring and capable of overturning all the casual, everyday assumptions that we as South Africans have come to take for granted”.
He does not muck around either. In the very first page of the first chapter, McKenzie tells us of a cabinet minister being
“summoned to talk to a member of a family that has often found itself in the headlines for various reasons, including allegedly wielding an inordinate amount of influence over the state and the business sector as a whole”.
Three pages later you get a sense of exactly what he means by the “inordinate amount of influence” that he says this family wields, and the “jarring” truths he is talking about:
“I want you to go and tell your president that I looked after Mandela. But if he fires Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas, I will destroy this economy. My friends and I will make it look worse than Zimbabwe”.
No. McKenzie is not quoting a member of the much-maligned Indian family. He is quoting a white man addressing a cabinet minister he had allegedly summoned to his lair during the first quarter of 2017.
This allegation has now been officially placed in the public domain, under oath, before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry by President Zuma. It remains to be seen whether anything will come of it and whether those implicated will be invited by the Commission to give their side of the story thus far ignored in mainstream media.
This narrative is delivered in a suspenseful motif which would, at least by South Africa’s cinematic standards, come pretty close to making Alfred Hitchcock nod a hesitant approval. From there, I was hooked, and read on.
The book is not a scorecard on the Zuma presidency or his numerous brushes with the law – real and imagined. Numerous other books, comparatively more warmly received (by all accounts), have cornered that market. It does not even pretend to rescue President Zuma’s image, or whatever is left of it. On the contrary, the book is rather critical of President Zuma for, among other things, doing very little to disturb the prevailing economic landscape in South Africa. McKenzie – in an understatement of which Oscar Wilde would have been proud – even expresses “doubt” that “all his actions as the president are above reproach”.
But concerning that about which you are unlikely to read or hear in privately owned mainstream media, the book is a fast-paced roller-coaster ride.
By the end of 73 pages, we have learned of “Comrade Fear” and the existential panic he allegedly wrought upon the ruling party in exile.
By page 100 we have learned how the negotiating team that was to represent the ANC at the CODESA talks had been gerrymandered while Zuma, Mbeki, and the then ANC President Mandela were out of the country.
By page 128 we have been reminded of 12 compromises the ANC needlessly made at CODESA, each of which appears to be a capitulation rather than a compromise, and the deleterious effects of which are still plaguing the South African economy today.
The eponymous chapter of the book comes 129 pages into the book. In it, we learn of the numerous attempts on President Zuma’s life. One such attempt, McKenzie tells us in remarkable detail, involved tampering with the official presidential jet. That jogged my memory.
I remembered jumping on the opposition DA and privately owned mainstream media bandwagon in criticizing the wastage of the President chartering a plane while his presidential jet was perfectly fine. As it now turns out, it was not perfectly fine. Two South American Presidents had in 1981 died within two months of each other in plane crashes that were supposed “perfectly fine” for apparently bucking the trend of the hegemonic overreach of Western powers and the multinational corporations that feed them.
The BRICS economic union, McKenzie tells us by page 180, is another inconvenience to the insatiable hegemonic pursuits of the West. It appears that the potential that BRICS holds in promise for the economic independence of emerging economies from the World Bank, IMF, EU and US stranglehold (detailed elsewhere in the book) is considered a threat to that hegemony. So, media reports have from inception of the union in 2006 pushed the line that BRICS is a fool’s folly.
The nuclear build program that President Zuma’s government is rumoured to have negotiated with Russia’s state-owned nuclear agency, McKenzie tells us, plays directly into that space. The affordability of the building program for South Africa appears to be an Aunt Sally argument. The real purpose seems to be to scupper any Russian involvement in the deal. If it were done with the US or UK that would have been more “acceptable”.
I pause here to mention that I have read many books and international journals about East-West relations covering the period 1947 to 1991. I am fortunate to have attended a well-resourced high school and university. Although the school did not exactly encourage independent thought in History class (I once had a mildly cantankerous exchange with my History teacher about the Yom Kippur War) there was enough information in the library to help one form an independent view instead of one aimed at passing an exam.
And Professor Robert Schrire was nothing if not engaging in his small International Politics classes at UCT during my academic struggles there.
So, thus privileged, I can pronounce that we have been lied to. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not mark the end of the Cold War; the Cold War simply morphed from being a race predominantly about arms and ideological propaganda into a race predominantly about the economy. Understood from that perspective, McKenzie’s ruminations regarding the West’s unease about BRICS and the nuclear build make a whole lot of sense.
Privately owned mainstream media in South Africa is not spared in the book. An entire chapter is devoted to its predilection for scandal, provided it engulfs the usual suspects (namely, President Zuma and the Indian family) and does not touch its own revered champions.
This is not surprising. To make his point, McKenzie anchors this chapter of the book in a poignant quote from a celebrated journalist at a press banquet held in his honour in 1880 America:
“We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes”.
McKenzie gives relatively recent examples of this journalistic “intellectual prostitution”. By now, the reader has learned of the “jarring” and “deepest truths about South Africa” to which the author had promised to open our eyes in his foreword to the book. The intimate detail with which they are told makes nonsense of the naysayers’ dismissal of the book as “pure fiction”.
His criticism of South African media is fair. He does single out a few instances of journalistic intrepidity in the late Barry Sergeant whom he describes as
“a pre-eminent example of a journalist who went against the flow and wrote about the state capture attempts of the kind of big firms that few in our media have had the courage to write about”.
He then proceeds to share some of the stories Barry Sergeant pursued and reported on. It’s jaw-dropping stuff for those accustomed to tales of corporate probity in South Africa.
Now, what are the negatives?
In the final chapter, written in the style of a letter, McKenzie addresses black people in a language that rather clumsily conjures up the spectre of Biko’s I Write What I Like, Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Chika Onyeani’s Capitalist Nigger all rolled up into one. The man seemed unsure whose character among these three he should adopt. So he went with all three.
The chapter reads more like a whistle-stop political speech on a campaign trail in Alexandra than a heartfelt call to economic arms by the oppressed masses across the country.
But the trouble with the book does not end there. I have noted at least 28 instances of rudimentary literary faux pas, ranging from simple spelling mistakes to incomplete and incoherent sentences. One wonders whether his proof-readers were on Regmakers or on a placebo.
These embarrassing mistakes are in addition to at least two factual inaccuracies that I picked up. Maria Ramos was never Governor of the Reserve Bank, and Paul Hoffman SC was never evidence leader in the Arms Deal Commission. Nevertheless, neither of these detract from the force of the book’s content. Perhaps McKenzie will do a Bonang Matheba and publish a more refined second or revised edition of the book.
Judging by the reluctance of some of the major book outlets to stock the book (one white man at a major outlet with national footprint told me they don’t stock it because they “don’t like its cover”) and the general dismissal of it by many who have not even read it, the very idea of the book seems to have touched a raw nerve as people appear to have conceived of it as providing a counter to that other book by a retired journalist-turned-cook-and-now-back again seemingly to push a narrative on the “Rogue Unit”. So, any attempt – real or imagined – at salvaging President Zuma’s image appears to be considered an act of sacrilege by mainstream urban South Africa.
That, if nothing else, is enough for the curious and independent-minded to read the book and judge it on its own merits, not by the identity of its author – an unfortunate favourite South African pastime.
McKenzie, as he himself admits in the book, is a convicted bank robber. But then so, too, were three white South African men, Andre Stander, Patrick McCall and Allan Heyl, now immortalised in a big screen movie production. Does that fact alone render McKenzie incapable of research and writing a book? Of course not. Read the book, not the man’s past.
The book is not a work of art. Very few non-fiction books are. It simply gives you the information you would not otherwise obtain from mainstream publications. If you like, it is almost like a book version of Noseweek, giving you “the news you’re not supposed to know” in less than 250 pages. Like Noseweek, it is an easy read. I am a slow and deliberate reader when I read to comprehend rather than to impress. Reading to comprehend, I consumed the book in about five hours, including time spent rechecking some of the facts and highlighting excerpts to which I knew I would want to return – and did.
So, you have a choice: either find out for yourself what lies beneath the cover that a national book outlet finds so offensive, or allow privately owned mainstream media, and others who haven’t read the book, decide for you that the book is “pure fiction”. For me, the book is a breath of fresh air from the staleness of our Guptified existence. I wish more such books become available.