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Pauw’s revelations and democracy

One might wonder – as many South Africans probably do – why there have been, and probably will be, no consequences for those implicated by the revelations in Jacques Pauw’s recent book, The President’s Keepers (NB Publishers, 2017). And I don’t mean only in the light of his revelations (it’s still a bit early); I mean before he even wrote the book, because a lot of the events he refers to occurred some time ago, and many of them were reported at the time. It is impossible to predict whether there will be consequences in the shape of ‘justice’ of some kind, but if one considers that all of this has happened in the context of a ‘constitutional democracy’, ideally there ‘should’ be.

Ideally, perhaps, but in fact, not necessarily. Why? Some time ago the Slovenian thinker, Slavoj Žižek – once described as the ‘most dangerous philosopher in the West’ – wrote an illuminating piece, titled ‘Berlusconi in Tehran’, in the London Review of Books (31 [14], 23/7/2009, pp. 3-7), which sheds valuable light on what is happening in South Africa. He was offering readers a way of comprehending protests in Iran at the time, and comparing those vying for power, including Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, whom he described as: “a corrupt Islamofascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi”, who is recognisable by a “mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics”. You would be forgiven if this sounds familiar. But let me quote Žižek more at length, to drive the point home (remember that this was in 2009, when Berlusconi was still in power in Italy):

“Berlusconi acts more and more shamelessly: not only ignoring or neutralising legal investigations into his private business interests, but behaving in such a way as to undermine his dignity as head of state. The dignity of classical politics stems from its elevation above the play of particular interests in civil society: politics is ‘alienated’ from civil society, it presents itself as the ideal sphere of the ‘citoyen’ in contrast to the conflict of selfish interests that characterise the bourgeois. Berlusconi has effectively abolished this alienation: in today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the bourgeois, who openly exploits it as a means to protect his own economic interest…”

It does not require a genius to connect the dots here, and what they reveal is an uncanny similarity between the modus operandi of the Italian and someone closer to home, ‘known’ to all South Africans, and ruthlessly exposed in several books recently, including R.W. Johnson’s How Long Will South Africa Survive? and Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers. Much has already been written on the latter book in the media recently, so I won’t repeat it here, except to state that it reads like a Mafia thriller – probably because, as Johnson also showed in his book – we live in a ‘Mafia state’ of sorts. What does emerge, stated summarily, is that Jacob Zuma is the kingpin who, through many intermediaries who are beholden to him for various reasons, controls key state institutions like the SSA (previously the NIA), NPA and SARS for his own benefit, and at the (huge) cost of South African taxpayers – to the tune of billions of Rands.

But it is not my primary purpose to discuss Pauw’s book here; rather, I want to provide an interpretive grid for the events in South Africa, so that readers can grasp the connections between these and events elsewhere. This has already partly been constructed above; take these words, for instance: “Berlusconi acts more and more shamelessly:…ignoring or neutralising legal investigations into his private business interests…” Mutatis mutandis, as Pauw’s exposé shows, they apply to El Presidente’s actions, too. Žižek observes that: “With Ronald Reagan (and Carlos Menem in Argentina), a different figure entered the stage, a ‘Teflon’ president no longer expected to stick to his electoral programme, and therefore impervious to factual criticism.” The term has been applied to Zuma several times, so he obviously continues the tradition inaugurated by Reagan.

But let me add another excerpt from Žižek’s analysis, which will drive the comparative point home even more forcefully: “The wager behind Berlusconi’s vulgarities is that the people will identify with him as embodying the mythic image of the average Italian: I am one of you, a little bit corrupt, in trouble with the law, in trouble with my wife because I’m attracted to other women. Even his grandiose enactment of the role of the noble politician, ‘il cavaliere,’ is more like an operatic poor man’s dream of greatness. Yet we shouldn’t be fooled: behind the clownish mask there is a state power that functions with ruthless efficiency. Perhaps by laughing at Berlusconi we are already playing his game. A technocratic economic administration combined with a clownish façade does not suffice, however: something more is needed. That something is fear…”

Again there is the uncomfortable awareness of bells ringing, particularly regarding the references to a “clownish mask”, “[ruthless] state power” and the “something more”, “fear”. Many South Africans laugh at our ‘president’ when he behaves clownishly, for instance in Parliament, when he utters his familiar little ‘heh-heh-heh’ laugh, or when he stumbles over numerically reading incomprehensibly large numbers. But are we not, as Žižek suggests, complicit when we do so, “playing his game” and subliminally glossing over the utter seriousness of his actions? By laughing at him, we are in fact ‘laughing off’ his ruthless manipulation of state organs and his misuse of power, at our endless cost.

But how should we understand this behaviour on the part of a politician? Are the similarities between Berlusconi, Ahmadinejad and Zuma a matter of pure coincidence? Not so. Žižek explains: “Is there a link between Ahmadinejad and Berlusconi? Isn’t it preposterous even to compare Ahmadinejad with a democratically elected Western leader? Unfortunately, it isn’t: the two are part of the same global process. If there is one person to whom monuments will be built a hundred years from now, Peter Sloterdijk once remarked, it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who thought up and put into practice a ‘capitalism with Asian values’. The virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe. Deng Xiaoping praised Singapore as the model that all of China should follow. Until now, capitalism has always seemed to be inextricably linked with democracy; it’s true there were, from time to time, episodes of direct dictatorship, but, after a decade or two, democracy again imposed itself (in South Korea, for example, or Chile). Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken.”

What Žižek draws attention to here is a global phenomenon, which we witness right here in South Africa. As he observes, however, “This doesn’t mean, needless to say, that we should renounce democracy in favour of capitalist progress, but that we should confront the limitations of parliamentary representative democracy.” Nothing is more urgent than this last injunction – our so-called ‘parliamentary representative democracy’ in South Africa is virtually non-existent; witness ANC members of parliament voting to safeguard themselves personally, rather than expose the president’s culpability, in the process violating their duty, to uphold the constitution. Recall the “fear” that Žižek writes about? But there is more that rings bells in what he writes:

“It is democracy’s authentic potential that is losing ground with the rise of authoritarian capitalism, whose tentacles are coming closer and closer to the West. The change always takes place in accordance with a country’s values: Putin’s capitalism with ‘Russian values’ (the brutal display of power), Berlusconi’s capitalism with ‘Italian values’ (comical posturing). Both Putin and Berlusconi rule in democracies which are gradually being reduced to an empty shell, and, in spite of the rapidly worsening economic situation, they both enjoy popular support (more than two-thirds of the electorate).”

What shall we call Zuma’s capitalism, that unavoidably comes with local values? Capitalism with ‘South African values’ (authoritarian nepotism/cronyism)? But whatever we might call it, there is no doubt that Žižek’s diagnosis of the global state of democracy (losing ground to capitalism), via his comparative analysis of Ahmadinejad’s Iran and Berlusconi’s Italy, is uncannily applicable to South Africa – particularly in the light of Jacques Pauw’s courageous uncovering of the skeletons in Jacob Zuma’s closet. Perhaps we should take heart from the fact that Berlusconi did not last in Italy.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.