John Mulcahy: Thanks Rev Storey, now I’m praying for CR’s safe passage

A shining light of my generation of financial journalists, John Mulcahy moved from being the inaugural deputy editor of SA’s Business Day to financial editor of Asia’s South China Morning Post before co-founding what became one of Hong Kong’s top investment houses. He travels primarily between a home in Ireland and his old Asian stamping ground. Mulcahy is also chairman of a Cape Town-headquartered multinational, so also visits his homeland regularly. And as you’ll read from this contribution sparked after listening to last week’s riveting interview with Rev Peter Storey, despite having long ago swapped the newsroom for the boardroom, Mulcahy has certainly retained his cultured pen. – Alec Hogg       

By John Mulcahy*

Alec Hogg’s recent interview with Peter Storey touched me deeply. My relationship with the country of my birth is complicated, filled with pride, shame and regret, as well as fear for its future.

I no longer live in SA, and have not lived there for over 30 years, but I’m a very frequent visitor and delightfully conflicted when the Springboks take on Ireland, where I now live. As the years have gone by I have become ever more appreciative of the enormous struggle in which people like Peter Storey engaged to overturn a manifestly evil system. The stories of the struggle icons are legion, as indeed are the revelations around the true depth of moral depravity required to design a system such as apartheid. The implementation of that system required the support and active participation of the vast majority of white people – that is the truth.

Whether by membership of the Afrikaanse Weerstandbewging (AWB) or the passive (and mostly ineffectual) “loyal opposition” to the National Party, we collectively aided and abetted in the oppression.

There were exceptions, quite significant in number, of white South Africans who recognised Edmund Burke’s thesis: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I believe Peter Storey and others refused to “do nothing”.

That said, I am saddened to hear Rev Storey articulate what has been grieving me over the Zuma years (and to an alarming degree beyond…) This is the abandonment of the values and principles which characterised the anti-apartheid struggle generally, epitomised by the extraordinary sacrifices men and women were willing to undergo in pursuit of their inalienable rights.

The wisdom of Robert Sobukwe gently rebuking an earnest young pastor for understandably confusing external circumstances for heartfelt belief is a measure of the leadership we have lost. For a man isolated from his fellows in conditions demonstrably inhumane to observe wisely that he was free and that his captors were imprisoned is a measure of the plane on which Sobukwe and those of his ilk operated…

…and how far from that plane have sunk Zuma, his cronies and those in power who have sought to profit from the freedom so valiantly achieved.

Yes, I do see myself among those who stood by – I didn’t like it, and I certainly would not have voted for the Nats (I even knocked on doors in Welkom for the no-hoper Prog candidate – one man; one QUALIFIED vote!) I readily acknowledge the grain of truth in the wry observation of the politics of middle-class English-speaking South Africans during the apartheid years: “They talk Progressive, vote United Party and hope like hell that the Nats stay in power.”

So I concede that as an expatriate ageing white South African baby boomer I had my chance and really don’t have agency in the 2020 reality that is South Africa today. Indeed, I exercised my democratic right last week and 3/4 of my preferences were duly elected (two Sinn Fein + one environmental ally).

BUT, I am a sentient being, and I can see and feel what has happened in SA, as parastatals have been systematically looted to line the pockets of a few. These are not victimless crimes, to which even a drive-by observation of Langa or Diepsloot would attest, and aside from the economic consequences of the Zuma-inspired criminalisation of government has been a diminution of the dignity and the fierce pride of the people. I believe not only that Peter Storey speaks the truth, but that his truth should be the ANC’s truth.

I recognise the fundamental crimes against humanity perpetrated during the apartheid years, and the probability that shady deals were done in the final days of the previous regime. I believe all apartheid-era crimes should be thoroughly investigated and the surviving perpetrators punished under the law. The families and friends of Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol, Neil Aggett and others deserve this, and society demands appropriate justice. The trial of former SS guard Bruno Dey currently in progress in Hamburg, Germany, is a case in point. Bruno Dey is 93, and the crimes of which is charged took place more than 75 years ago, but are deemed necessary to Germany under the principle of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, or “coping with the past”.

South Africa MUST also cope with its past, and if there is evidence of looting or illicit transfers of capital in the period prior to 1994 these should be fully investigated and the perpetrators, individual or institutional, brought to book.

But, and this is a key point I picked up from the Peter Storey interview, the culture of “whataboutism” should be exposed for what it is – a rationalisation for exploiting the State and its assets, perpetuating and compounding the unacceptable deprivation suffered by a high proportion of the population.

The cushy jobs and “black Mercs”, the “tenderpreneurs” and the egregious looting of parastatals are indeed a resonance of the Nationalist government of old, but the new South Africa was meant to be different, and indeed must aspire to a better order.

I briefly engaged with President Cyril Ramaphosa during my time as Mining Editor of the Rand Daily Mail, and I’ve been a fan ever since. An extremely adept union organiser, he was no hothead, and as leader of the NUM he successfully kept his powder dry until the Chamber of Mines had no option but to make previously improbable concessions.

I am a man of belief, though my channel is unconventional (a God of my understanding) and I respect spirituality above all, organised religion less so. Mandela, Sobukwe, Biko, Hani all personified to me a fundamental path to a re-calibration of our society. South Africa could be so much better; SHOULD be so much better.

How then did these icons come to be usurped by villains, and where are the legitimate heirs to the great legacy of those who overturned apartheid? I feel and hope that President Ramaphosa is one such heir, and I pray for his safe passage through these turbulent waters.

  • John Mulcahy, a former financial editor, investment research analyst and CEO, is an international business executive who operates between Ireland, Hong Kong and South Africa.