The Godfather Trilogy’s lessons for South Africa: patronage, power, and politics

The legacy of The Godfather trilogy in the context of American audiences being informed about the political protection of the mob in Las Vegas is particularly relevant to South Africa today. The movies made audiences confront how individuals, families and societies grapple with economic progress alongside ideas about justice, laws and love, as well as choosing a life of crime. As a state of disaster and a minister of electricity depict political theatre, the ANC’s patronage problem has become overwhelming. Now is the time to digest what made the first two Godfather movies among the most acclaimed of all time. For more, read below.

Las Vegas solutions for SA

By Shawn Hagedorn

The Godfather trilogy spotlighted issues and answers we should freshly consider. How it informed American audiences about political protection of the mob in Las Vegas is particularly relevant.

Domination by gangsters didn’t make Las Vegas of the 1940s, 50s and 60s comparable to South Africa of the last three decades. Those mobsters included builders with vision. 

As I haven’t rewatched them, my recollection of the three movies’ details is fuzzy. Rather, having seen the first two as a teenager, I am among the many who bear witness to their lasting impact.

They made audiences confront how individuals, families and societies grapple with economic progress alongside ideas about justice, laws and love. There is also the bit about choosing a life of crime. 

The original movie tracks Mario Puzo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Upon immigrating to America in the early 20th century, its lead character, Vito Corleone, chooses crime among few attractive options. Conversely, when his second son returned from the Second World War as a decorated soldier, his options were many. The plot advances around his choosing to develop the ruthlessness to run the family business when his older brother is gunned down by a rival mob family. Viewers must confront the Corleones’ intense family loyalty and the vengeance it fuelled.

As the fictional Corleones prioritised family loyalty above all else, ANC leaders put loyalty to the party ahead of national interests. The ANC’s deep embrace of patronage also resembles that of a criminal syndicate, as does the not infrequent use of violence to amend local hierarchy structures.

The Corleone tale is also about ethnic integration amid expanding opportunities. Gang members would typically start out ‘running numbers’, a euphemism for illegal lotteries. Advancement followed from developing criminal and business capabilities. Meanwhile, prejudices against Italian and other immigrant groups were waning as progress and patriotism were central to defining post-war America.

Read more: Part II: RW Johnson – Adrift in the world. Strange evolution of SA’s foreign policy.

Business know-how

The progression from running numbers to running casinos required the accumulation of much business know-how. Understanding that people would flock to an isolated desert destination to gamble and be entertained by ethnically diverse performers required vision steeped in business acumen attuned to changing times.

Entrenching political power through creating a massive patronage network is an old trick that doesn’t reconcile with creating broad prosperity. Instead, for such patronage to be sustainable today requires much commodity exporting and tolerance for rampant poverty. Countries that still fit this description have few workers that add value in global supply chains. They have remained isolated amid an intensely integrated global economy.

Las Vegas and South Africa are both geographically isolated from major production centres. Significant deposits of gold, silver, copper and lead near Las Vegas offered mining-town boom-bust economics. By serving affluent customers who could be enticed to visit, the desert community expanded massively while becoming highly prosperous. Being within a five hour drive of Los Angeles was a plus but it ensured nothing.

Mob Museum

The story of the mob building Las Vegas into a top gambling and entertainment destination has been told many times. The Godfather trilogy also portrayed political connections being purchased. This helped spur public support for major corporations taking over the management of Las Vegas’ top hotel and gambling operations. By the time Godfather III was released in 1990, the mob had been run out of town. The city now boasts of its three-storey ‘Mob Museum’.

The ANC isn’t close to fixing Eskom and it won’t privatise it. The most formidable blockage is the patronage network that supplies Eskom. This situation is so out of control that it is in everyone’s interests that these operations be sold to publicly held companies with high compliance capabilities. 

It is not surprising that a former liberation movement which has enjoyed three decades of political dominance over a richly resource-endowed, highly unequal and racially challenged nation should have a patronage problem. However, the size of the problem and its threats to South Africa and the ANC have become overwhelming. As a state of disaster and a minister of electricity depict political theatre, now would be a good time to digest what made the first two Godfather movies among the most acclaimed of all time. 

As America was withdrawing from its internally highly divisive and dreadfully unsuccessful effort to block the spread of communism in Vietnam, the country’s strong sense of patriotism was harshly challenged. America’s economic progress was not preordained, easy or evenly distributed. Nonetheless, it was very real and very broad based. 

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Salute to political bravery

Chief among the reasons why John Kennedy’s becoming president of the US was a monumental achievement was that he was a Catholic in a protestant country very much prone to anti-Catholic discrimination. His election signalled change and his assassination seemed to seal it. Italian-Americans benefited greatly, along with Irish-Americans and Catholics generally. Kennedy’s path to broad respect had mixed wartime heroics with a Pulitzer Prize for ‘Profiles in Courage’, his solemn salute to political bravery. 

The original Godfather movie came out within a decade of Kennedy’s assassination and by the time Godfather II was released two years later, a subsequent US president had resigned in disgrace. It was with such turmoil as background that the trilogy depicted the mob’s inappropriate ties with elected officials. All the while, a mobster’s vision had literally set the stage for increasingly ethnically diverse performers to achieve fame through connecting with live audiences.   

Patronage is too central to the ANC’s organisational structure for its unexceptional leaders to purge it. Rather they must focus on how satisfying their obligations to their patrons through favouring designated suppliers has been recklessly abused resulting in cascading political dangers. Their declaring a national disaster should be seen in this context.

The minister of electricity should reduce load-shedding by following the Las Vegas model. Force the owners of the supplier companies to sell to reputable companies that can be held accountable. 

Read more: South Africa’s crime epidemic: A nation in crisis

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