Rule by Nyala: How the security cluster hopes to control South Africa

By IAfrica
In South Africa
Aug 26th, 2014
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Let me tell you what occurs to me when I watch the army roll into a civilian community that has risen up against government: I feel like I’m dreaming. I’m transported back to my first reading of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and the scene describing horrible nightmare that Raskolnikov experiences in the depths of his mania. Days before he commits an act of great violence, literature’s reigning anti-hero dreams an act of great violence: his unconscious coughs up a tableau that lays bare the depravities of the society in which he lives. In the dream (or is it a memory?), Raskolnikov is a small boy, and watches in horror as a crowd of drunks beat a horse to death:

Several young men, also flushed with drink, seized anything they could come across—whips, sticks, poles, and ran to the dying mare. Mikolka stood on one side and began dealing random blows with the crowbar. The mare stretched out her head, drew a long breath and died.

This scene remains one of the more vivid in literature because it reminds us that violent, brutal societies produce violent, brutal people; when violence attains the status of official language, it becomes the only language worth uttering. Violence, as we all know, has long been lingua franca in South Africa. The army shows up, the circle of violence closes, but there is no circumference to this circle—it is all centre. It is comprised of blood and bodies and what remains of the rule of law. This circle without a centre is no place to live.

And yet we live there: it turns out that the current South African government, much the like the regime that preceded it, has the army on speed dial. We all assumed that there would be consequences for the EFF’s recent histrionics in Parliament—the ANC hasn’t survived for over a century just to take slights from young upstarts in the very house they fought so long and so hard to inhabit. But the manner in which they have dealt with this new threat harkens back to images that are more suited to the Apartheid Museum archives: Nyalas, big men with big guns, tear gas canisters, scenes that look like a blooper reel from Black Hawk Down.

From somewhere within the ANC, it was decided that Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula would be the best person to address the events of last week. Which means we now live in a country in which the minister commandeering fighter jets deals with points of order in Parliament. This is sort of like herding sheep with an AK47. It’s like using a cricket bat to crochet a doily.

It’s like warming a TV dinner with rocket launcher.

The [justice, crime prevention and security] cluster wants to make it clear that the authority of the state shall not be undermined, neither will the authority of Parliament be undermined,” Mapisa-Nqakula told reporters on Tuesday. “Certain measures by the security cluster have been put in place with immediate effect to ensure that never occurs again.”

What “certain measures” would those be? Is the JCPS preparing to dust off South Africa’s mothballed nuclear arsenal and flatten Seshego—Malema’s home turf—with a mushroom cloud?

I do not want to get into the specifics,” spat Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, Mapisa-Nqakula’s security cluster henchperson. “One of the measures we are putting in place is an overall contingency kind of plan. We’ll also want to look at the whole aspect of co-ordination [with Parliamentary structures].”

The ANC, of course, never wants to get into specifics, which is what has gotten us into this mess in the first place. (Apart from the Speaker Mbete moving from Defcon 5 to Defcon 1 in just under 30 seconds – Ed) That said, Mapisa-Nqakula did allow South Africans a pinhole into her mind, and you’ll be unsurprised to learn that her brain is bristling with large-calibre weaponry. “[Last week] the Speaker [Baleka Mbete] decided that the sergeant-at-arms should come in and escort the members out of the House, and when there was resistance to that, immediately all of us should have known that by the Speaker saying ‘sergeant-at-arms remove’… what it means is that your protection security services can come in and assist with the escorting of people out.”

In other words, Parliament is now a militarised institution in which dissent is met with force. If that doesn’t sound democratic, that’s because it’s not. If it sounds flatly illegal, that’s because it is: despite the security cluster ministers’ citing Section 59 of the Constitution, which among other things regulates the removal of shit-disturbers from the Big House, in no democracy in history, ever, has it been acceptable to call in the troops when things get a little heated in the National Assembly.

Yup, what Julius Malema and his merry overalled underlings did was crude and unruly, but one does have to wonder: when the Speaker of the House blocks every relevant question posed to the ruling party, and the president is allowed to sit and marinate in his own smugness without any meaningful challenge to his unending authority, perhaps a bit of crudeness is called for. The president could have forestalled all of this Wagnerian hoopla by actually dealing with the Nkandla situation instead of trying to erase it into oblivion. But the ANC is very, very serious about ruling with impunity. And if that means subverting every last tenet of democratic governance, well, it’s a small price to pay for owning the bottom of Africa until you-know-who comes.

Is it an over-reaction to consider the Defence Minister’s coded threats as a mini-coup? I’d say it’s a slight misrepresentation. The army will not take over the governance of South Africa, at least not any time soon. But the civilians in charge of the military and the police are clearly prepared to lock and load in order to protect their own. They are willing to summon from our collective unconscious the phantasmagoria of men in tanks rumbling through our streets, our homes, our democratic institutions. They are willing to break everything we’ve built in order to own everything we’ve built.

Does this mean that we will all dream the nightmare of the army governing our waking hours? Not necessarily. In this, the second Jacob Zuma administration, the security cluster—staffed with the president’s automaton attack dogs—have emerged as the biggest threat to South African democracy since the advent of South African democracy. This is not their first salvo, but it emits the loudest kaboom. Their greatest enemy is dissent. They treat cheap theatrics like a Cuban invasion circa 1986. But while Raskolnikov’s horse killers would come to represent his own murderous behaviour, we must not allow the JCPS to define ours. The circle with no centre widens. It is our job as citizens to seek its further edges. DM

* Richard Poplak is the author of When Julius Comes. You can find out more here.

Photo: Police Nyalas in Marikana, 15 September 2012. (Greg Marinovich)


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