🔒 PREMIUM – R.W. Johnson: A bend in our river

By R.W. Johnson*

In V.S. Naipaul’s magisterial novel, A Bend in the River, Salim, a Muslim Indian merchant is domiciled in an unnamed African state and we see its political development through his eyes. He watches the ascent to power of the President, or the Big Man. At first he is treated like a god. Women wear his face on their skirts, his rather paltry “thoughts” are set out in a little red book and academics pore over them, hoping to glean major philosophical insights. (This may seem fantastical now but the amateur philosophizing of the first generation of African leaders really was treated with such exaggerated respect.)

However, problems arise, factionalism grows, as does corruption and extortion and it is clear that the state is on a downward trajectory for all the usual reasons. The last time Salim sees the President he is hurtling through town and he looks anything but happy. Salim, whose shop has now been seized as part of the programme of “radicalisation”, realises that the President has lost control and, indeed, that the whole country is out of control.


Salim is jailed but luckily his old friend, Ferdinand, has risen in the bureaucracy high enough to be able to get him out. Ferdinand tells him that there is no safety, no hope and that everyone is in fear of his life. “We’re all going to hell and every man knows this in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning.”  For the country has become a failed state and unlimited chaos lies ahead.

A Bend in the River has been selected as one of the top hundred novels of the 20th century and it helped Naipaul win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is a memorable study of the descent into chaos that so many African states have suffered but that, of course, has guaranteed a great deal of angry criticism from predictable quarters. No matter. Anyone living in today’s South Africa will find many echoes of life here now in Naipaul’s novel. 

Read more: Experts warn of decade-long loadshedding crisis in South Africa

Talk decisive, do nothing

One can start with the present situation which is, in many ways, surreal. Ramaphosa has declared a state of disaster, taking adva1ntage of the fact that the DA had campaigned for such a thing for the previous year. The DA, as if horrified at being taken seriously, immediately denounced this move.   For Ramaphosa the main thing was to give the impression of decisiveness  and bold action to show he was responding to the crisis. For the same reason he announced that there would be a Minister of Electricity.

This image of decisive action was, however, marred by the fact that Ramaphosa then took several weeks to name the new minister, even though it turned out to be one of his own aides who could have been named on the spot. Moreover, there is still no mention of a new CEO for Eskom, though Andre De Ruyter had announced his resignation back in December.

De Ruyter, it should be noted, ran into the fact that criminal syndicates had infiltrated every part of Eskom and were sucking R1 billion a month out of Eskom. He concluded that Eskom couldn’t be turned around until these syndicates had been confronted and defeated. This nearly cost him his life. But now the job description of the new Minister of Electricity makes no mention at all of the need to face up to these criminal elements. It’s as if they suddenly don’t exist.

The same attitude is present in the government’s reaction to De Ruyter’s final interview. Having failed to speak up when De Ruyter was ludicrously accused of treason and then nearly assassinated, Ramaphosa and Fikile Mbalula have both attacked De Ruyter, demanding that he take his accusations of criminality to the police. The problem is that he already did: he twice saw Sydney Mufamadi, the President’s National Security Adviser, and laid his concerns before him. He also did the same with the national police commissioner, Fannie Masemola, and also with Pravin Gordhan, the responsible minister. 

None of them wanted to know anything about it, which meant De Ruyter was completely on his own facing legions of criminals. His indignation that other people wouldn’t do their jobs is understandable. The fact is that leading ANC people all knew how dependent the party is for contributions from the coal mafia and how there is a whole array of untouchable, though criminal, interests in the electric power industry. 

These interests are too powerful to be apprehended (or even named), let alone put in jail, so there is an elaborate pretence that they don’t exist or, at least, that ANC leaders know nothing about them. This is, of course, preposterous and De Ruyter blew the whistle on this when he talked of how ANC notables all told him that “the comrades must be allowed to eat a bit”, i.e. that corruption must be tolerated and a blind eye turned to it.

Read more: South Africa’s second State of Disaster: Legal challenges ahead

The pretence goes on

Now we have the even more surreal situation in which De Ruyter’s intelligence report on the criminal syndicates is in the hands of various newspaper newsrooms, replete with the names of the corrupt ANC ministers involved with these syndicates. That is, lots of people know these names and it is quite certain that Ramaphosa and Mbalula knew them some time ago: they have an intelligence service reporting to them, after all. But meanwhile they angrily demand that De Ruyter provide these names, as if they didn’t already know them. Inevitably, word of those names will spread and sooner or later this will all break surface. When, of course, Ramaphosa and Mbalula will feign shock and horror. You can’t really believe a word they say. 

Ramaphosa, one realises, is like the President in A Bend in the River. He has completely lost control of events and is making it up as he goes along. He has many times promised that power cuts would soon be a thing of the past but actually he hasn’t got a clue about how Eskom works  or what the problems are. Nor have his ministers, They all confidently say that they are sure Eskom can soon be “fixed” in, say, 12 or 18 months. But none of them knows what they’re talking about.

The fact is that things began to go badly wrong in 1998 when the cabinet ignored Eskom’s request to build extra capacity. In the intervening quarter century the ANC government has made every conceivable blunder in its management of Eskom. The idea that all that damage can now be “fixed” quickly is pure fantasy. The most remarkable thing is the government’s sheer slothfulness. The problem has been growing larger for 25 years now, gradually getting worse and worse. The ANC has just let that happen and has only woken up now that the situation is so dire that it could cost them their majority.

The new Minister for Electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, has started off in typical vein, saying he is “very confident” that load-shedding can soon be ended. There is all the usual talk of action plans, timelines and invoking the Disaster Management Act. That is, he is aping the usual Ramaphosa rhetoric of “dynamic bureaucratese”. Oh yes, and he promises lots of consultation. 

What it actually means is that he hasn’t yet got his feet under the desk, has no real clue of what he talking about, but has been instructed by Ramaphosa to be upbeat. No mention, of course, of criminal syndicates. We’re back in Neverland where they don’t really exist.

In fact the only sensible prognostication is De Ruyter’s. ANC ministers all want to believe that magically, power cuts will cease before the run-up to the 2024 election, but De Ruyter said that power cuts would continue for at least the next two years. In addition, when consulted by Alan Winde, the Western Cape premier, De Ruyter advised that the Cape’s energy independence was an urgent necessity because “big trouble” was coming. This has been widely read by business (and by the US Embassy) as meaning that the whole Eskom grid could collapse. 

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa emits the same bland bless-the-people rhetoric which he fondly imagines to be an echo of Mandela, but his presidency is in tatters. The notion that he is a reformer cannot really survive the horrible realities revealed by De Ruyter: the state is clearly still thoroughly captured. Moreover, Ramaphosa’s central aim of increasing foreign investment has failed because he has not carried out the structural reforms necessary to make South Africa an inviting prospect. Which means the only real point of the Ramaphosa presidency is that he occupies the space which someone even worse might take if he vacated it.

Shafts of light

Amidst this gloom there are several shafts of illumination. It emerges that of the 169,000 jobs created in the last quarter of 2022 no less than 167,000 were in the Western Cape. That is, all the other eight other provinces were stagnant at best while the Western Cape was powering ahead. The extreme lopsidedness of the data shows that, whatever the politics might be, two different economies are emerging in South Africa. Every indication is that the flood of people and businesses to the Western Cape has only just begun and that as this process continues the province will leave all the rest of South Africa far behind. 

A second point of some significance lies in the international reaction to the De Ruyter saga. In South Africa De Ruyter was treated as brave but foolhardy (the headline “What was he thinking of ?” summed up the notion that his behaviour was peculiar) and at least equal space was devoted to the angry ANC reaction. But the coverage in the international press was quite different. De Ruyter was seen as telling the truth and the ANC reaction was ignored. In effect the ANC was regarded as corrupt, incompetent and the core of the problem. 

Gone completely was any special sympathy for the ANC as Mandela’s heirs, the representatives of the oppressed etc. That is now decisively relegated to the day before yesterday. The shock of South Africa’s siding with Russia, let alone carrying out naval exercises with Russia and China, has sharpened the optics and clarified many minds. 

The reaction to this in the US Congress has already seen the ANC complaining about American “bullying”. This is a mistake: America has done South Africa many favours such as AGOA, its easy access to the dollar-based international system, its remarkably generous assistance against the Aids epidemic and so on. These are not rights but favours and South Africa has just convinced many of its partners that it deserves no favours.

Where to turn?

Songezo Zibi, a man of shrewd intelligence, bewails the fact that South Africa faces this gathering crisis with a wholly deficient leadership group.  Ramaphosa’s cabinet reshuffle, he says, merely illustrates “how much depth and skill the party has lost”. Now, faced with an existential crisis, “it simply has nothing and no one to call up”. But where to turn  ? – for Zibi also refers to “the parlous state of the opposition’s leading personalities”.

And so we drift, leaderless, towards the 2024 election. Currently there is a frantic attempt to blame De Ruyter for the entire Eskom crisis. The ANC wants to sue him for defaming its good name. What good name, one might ask ? Even Ramaphosa said the party was “Accused No.1” when it came to corruption, a view fully supported by the Zondo Report. The ANC in Parliament also wants to grill De Ruyter. This ignores the fact that De Ruyter and his family quietly slipped out of the country some time ago. It is difficult to see how anyone is going to serve a summons on him or even contact him with a request to appear before Parliament. It’s all hot air.

Meanwhile the power cuts will continue. The ANC and the Minister for Electricity will get the blame and ANC Ministers and backbenchers will become increasingly nervous as the election nears. Without much doubt this will end up with a deal with Karpowership. Already their ships are hanging around the South African coast and talking of mooring themselves in Coega, Saldanha and Richards Bay. This wouldn’t be happening unless they had a fairly firm assurance (presumably from Gwede Mantashe) that their services would soon be required. 

When the Karpowership deal is finally announced there will be a feeling of blessed relief but this is likely to be quickly overtaken by suspicions amounting to near certainty that the deal is corrupt and that ANC ministers are feeding prodigiously at the trough.  

As the election nears the ANC will pull out all the stops – a furious campaign of blanke gevaar, the announcement of an (unaffordable) basic income grant, perhaps even a cancellation of Eskom maintenance to help the lights stay on, at dreadful future cost. At the end of which lies a probable ANC-EFF coalition, opening the way to a paradise of race-baiting and looting. 

Read more: South Africa’s local government coalitions: A dry run for national politics?

A problem for the grown-ups

Is that the end ? No, there is no end. But such a scenario need not reduce one to despair. Songezo Zibi is probably right to imagine that in such a scenario Ramaphosa would be forced out by a duo of Paul Mashatile and Julius Malema. But such a government would be merely the final paroxysm of African nationalism. Business would not co-operate with a government whose members talk of nationalising everything. Solidarity would not accept a government which likes to sing “Kill the farmer, kill the Boer”. There would be a strong impulse for provinces to secede rather than stay under a government which includes Malema. There would be a major market panic.

Such a government would have no legitimacy or authority. Mashatile is a slippery Gauteng politician with no national following and Malema is disliked and distrusted by the vast majority. In all probability, it would quickly collapse. In effect it would be a repetition of what happened when President Zuma sacked Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December 2015 and replaced him with his crony, Des Van Rooyen. Markets panicked and the entire financial establishment rose up against this alarming appointment. Within three days Van Rooyen was gone, replaced by Pravin Gordhan. Zuma was left somewhat bruised, complaining bitterly of these unforeseen limits to presidential power.

This scenario is pretty obvious so the real question is whether there are enough grown-ups left in the ANC who understand that an ANC-EFF coalition is not a viable alternative. At present there seems to be few, if any, such grown-ups left, for ANC-EFF municipal deals are being done all over the country in clear anticipation of a national coalition deal in 2024. 

These are, however, still early days. ANC ministers are not much gifted with foresight and are certainly not used to acting on it. A crisis has actually to unfold before they will act. The business community, for its part, has not yet begun to exert the sort of overwhelming pressure seen in 2015. That too will only come when the crisis actually unfolds. The problem with all that is that as more and more ANC-EFF deals are done at local level, progressively more politicians will get bound into such arrangements, the EFF will be cut in on local patronage and it will get harder and harder to imagine unravelling these new coalitions. The clock is ticking.

*RW Johnson, former Oxford Don, is South Africa’s leading political analyst.