The Political Pied Pipers on the Road to Mangaung: A Different Kind of Tale

By Dale T. McKinley · 5 Dec 2012

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Picture: Jacob Zuma courtesy World Economic Forum
Picture: Jacob Zuma courtesy World Economic Forum

He advanced to the council-table:
and, "Please your honours," said he,
"I'm able, by means of a secret charm,
to draw all creatures living beneath the sun,
that creep, or swim, or fly, or run,
after me so as you never saw!
and I chiefly use my charm
on creatures that do people harm,

~ Robert Browning - ‘The Pied Piper: A Child’s Story’ (1842)

South Africa’s modern-day political pied pipers are, like the fairy tale character’s clothing, a patch-work collection. But we should not be deceived by appearances alone, for the securocrat-inspired tune of intolerance and political similitude they are playing with increasing enthusiasm and volume on the road to Mangaung is as deadly to all South Africans as the ‘original’ piper’s tune was to the rats of Hamelin.

While front man, President Jacob Zuma, definitely isn’t tall and thin (as in Browning’s rendition), a large part of his public and political repertoire is most certainly built on his declared charm. It is a charm so secret and powerful that it puts teflon to shame, making even the most damning of charges disperse into thin air and bad decisions and legislation appear as benevolent gifts to the people.

Then there’s back-up number one, Siyabonga -the enforcer-Cwele, the Minister of State Secrecy (more formally known as, the Minister of State Security). This piper, despite the fact that he failed to keep his ex-wife’s criminal activities a secret, clearly thinks that those who would dare possess or reveal whatever the team does not want people to know should be seen and dealt with just like Hamelin’s rats.

Bringing up the rear but playing the crucially important and mutually reinforcing roles of front-man imbongi and tune-defender-in-chief, is SACP General Secretary, Blade Nzimande. This piper, who cleverly clothes himself in communist drag to hide his real Bonaparte complex identity, is always ready and willing to emit the shrillest of notes designed to blast away any real or imagined threat.

In the finest non-lyrical tradition of the many political pied pipers that have come before, the central chorus of this high-powered but ultimately insecure team’s tune (as aped by their ANC mother-body’s regular supportive pronouncements) goes something like this:

We’ve got to protect state information
It’s essential for our liberation
Trust us with national security
We know what’s best for every community
Don’t mess with our secrecy
Otherwise we’ll donner you with great frequency

(Repeat ad nauseum)
[With apologies to real poets and musicians]

But how did this come about? When (in the aftermath of Polokwane) the pied pipers began their public performances they soon realised however, like many of their brethren both past and present that an irritatingly large number of people were simply not listening. What they soon decided that they really needed was a law; a law that would make it a serious crime – in some cases punishable by up to 25 years in the pipers’ jails - for people not to sing along and follow blindly in their footsteps.

And, thus was borne the Secrecy Bill; or what they unimaginatively named, the Protection of State Information Bill. Now the tune had a politico-legal gravitas, a backing orchestra of institutional power.

But instead of what was clearly expected to be an appreciative and compliant audience, there arose a great cacophony that would not die down.  Workers, poor communities, ordinary middle-class folk, priests, writers and poets, media practitioners, known rabble-rousers and even some competing political pipers refused to join-in.  What kind of ‘democratic’ law is it that will make common criminals out of us for wanting to know what you and the state you run are up to in our name, they declared.  How can we trust you when we already can see that secrecy is the main currency of your security not ours, they asked?

Clearly perturbed but not undeterred, the pied pipers along with a dedicated band of self-declared ‘patriots’ and defenders of ‘the people’ belted out the chorus again and again, sometimes swathed in sweeter overtones but most often in cynically righteous anger. Siyabonga-the enforcer-Cwele got so hot under all that protective, you-can’t-touch-this, piper clothing that he labelled all those not marching along in-step with the team’s tune and with the temerity to publicly oppose their beloved Secrecy Bill, proxies of foreign-funded spies.

Not to be outdone, imbongi Nzimande and his SACP cohort of Stalin wannabe’s charged the ever more agitated and uncooperative multitudes with being a bunch of racist, imperialist and counter-revolutionary stooges, even proposing a new law that would make it a crime to insult their increasingly under-fire front man. For his part, Zuma simply kept up the ‘trust me’ charm offensive; smiling and dancing to the repetitive tune whilst reassuring his audience that everything was just the way it should be.

Back and forth the pipers and their supportive band went, across the width and breadth of the country, sticking doggedly to their signature tune but occasionally finding it necessary to tweak aspects of their proposed law as the outcry grew louder, even finding its way across the borders and seas. However, with their increasingly stage-managed performances failing to attract much of a following beyond those that were already in their pay and with the grand concert of Mangaung just around the corner, the pipers had to make a move.

Alas, within the blink of an eye the Secrecy Bill was quickly finalised and pushed through by the team’s hacks (otherwise known as ANC parliamentary representatives), with only the front-man’s signature now awaiting its final passage into law.

As the pied pipers and the increasingly tone-deaf, navel-gazing collection of forces that they have managed to assemble travel the last stretch of the road to Mangaung, they might think that they are on the verge of a political ‘victory’ but it will be pyrrhic.  Amidst the din of their tune, they will probably not even notice that the majority of people have chosen to travel in the opposite direction. The lesson of this tale? Listen to the people.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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