May 16, 2018

On the face of it, Crispian “Chippy” Olver’s book How To Steal A City is both interesting and timely. Interesting in that it gives one insight into why and how the ANC managed to lose the Port Elizabeth metro in 2016, and timely in that it gives one insight into why and how the ANC is losing support across the whole country — not always, let it be said, insight which Olver either intends to give, or indeed displays himself.

On the other hand, it’s a scary representation of how little comprehension there is in the current ANC of the problems faced by the country.

In February 2015 Olver was tasked by President Zuma and Gwede Mantashe — an odd combination, isn’t it? — to be the front-man for a Regional Transition Team which would turn around the Nelson Mandela Metro and prevent it from being lost to the Democratic Alliance in the August 2016 elections. The RTT was going to be run by Charles Ngqakula, an Mbekiite Communist of doubtful enthusiasm or indeed competence. Since it was a municipal issue, the overall handler was Pravin Gordhan, the Communist ex-Finance Minister shifted to run the local government ministry in part because Zuma no longer trusted him (and how right Zuma was).

The prevalence of SACP members is obviously no accident, and indeed Olver, reading between the lines, is almost certainly a Commie himself, though significantly not bragging about it. Well, one would understand that in such an important issue, the SACP would seek to take control of it so that they could brag about its success afterwards, and also not make it too obvious that they were in control of it, so that they could avoid responsibility for its failure afterwards.

Also, it’s obvious that outsiders have advantages in sorting out a situation — especially in the business world, where the phenomenon of the “turnaround CEO” (who is parachuted in to slaughter the leadership of a company, crush its workers, destroy all expensive projects and lie about his success so that the stock price goes up and he can claim success before moving on to wreck something else) is well known. But this is not necessarily a productive business model — most turnaround CEOs are serial corporate killers — and one would expect the ANC to have a more nuanced understanding of how to resolve such problems, which are not exactly new in its administration.

The trouble with an outsider is that he doesn’t know very much about the situation — Olver grew up in Cape Town and worked in Johannesburg, and his experience of the Eastern Cape didn’t include much time in Port Elizabeth — and also doesn’t have a lot of local allies, so in a situation in which you don’t have the kind of absolute power that exists in the corporate world, it becomes tricky. Also, of course, in a situation where networks of corruption have been established, it is most likely that everyone will be against you. Plus, of course, when you have a black/coloured political organisation rooted in ethnic nationalism with a strong culture of macho intolerance, deference to established authority and a huge pretense of working-class solidarity (rather like the Scottish Labour Party), bringing in an abrasive white middle-class Anglo who is also gay might have its own set of problems.

What actually happened seems to have been interesting. All the time that Olver was there he was closely monitored from a local perspective by the SACP in the form of the “Stalini” faction — Olver says that it was named after a hall where the SACP gangsters met, but it’s hard to believe that the spirit of Joseph Dzhugashvilli did not hover approvingly over their heads throughout — and from a national perspective by Olver’s actual master Gwede Mantashe, the SACP Secretary-General, ANC Secretary-General and all-around He Who Must Be Obeyed by anyone who wants to get anywhere in the SACP or in any organisation, like the ANC, SANCO or COSATU, dominated by SACP fixers.

So, all in all, Olver was set up to fail, and must have known that he would fail. It does seem, however, that he was genuinely surprised at how bad things were — or he claims to be; he did have friends in the metro who must have known how bad things were, and he was capable of reading. In which case, perhaps he is simply saying that things were very, very bad in order to show how impossible it was to set things right. It didn’t help that he was given Danny Jordaan to work with — a celebrity in his own right who refused to work closely with Olver, manifestly trying to keep his options open in case he needed the Stalini gang on his side. In any case Jordaan was dependent on africans who were simply exploiting him as a tame coloured, while virtually all the coloureds of Port Elizabeth were going over to the DA in a body.

Then there is Olver’s curious alliance with AfriForum. Obviously AfriForum would be aware of corruption within the city management, since they had been the ones, in the days of apartheid, who constructed that management and knew where the butter-dishes and the bread-knives and the gravy-boats were. Equally obviously, AfriForum would have no interest in enhancing the competence of ANC government in Port Elizabeth. They might be interested in promoting conflict within the ANC, but fundamentally their goal would be to see the DA take power — or, yet better, almost take power, so that AfriForum, or its friends in the Freedom Front Plus, might be the kingmakers. So why did Olver trust them?

Perhaps the simple answer is that Olver didn’t know whether he could trust anybody. He didn’t even know whether he could trust himself — what were his real motives, and what was he going to get out of enabling the ANC to somehow cling to power in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro? In the end, did he even desire that? Should he have been surprised, as a man embedded at the heart of the corruption of the ANC, that the ANC had a corrupt heart? Obviously not, if he employed a bodyguard; and, yes, people were killed, even in Port Elizabeth, in order to conceal or facilitate the theft of state monies.

But it wasn’t even that simple. The unions were staunchly behind the Stalini faction because they were offering perquisites to NEHAWU and SAMWU. It was, in the end, the unions which drove Olver out of town, mobilising their goon squads to form a rowdy mob breaking up all attempts to hold a serious discussion of what had gone wrong at the ANC’s ramshackle offices at the unfashionable end of Govan Mbeki Boulevard. But from their perspective, Olver was just a white consultant who had come in ostensibly to straighten things out but actually, surely, to work for the benefit of the bosses, as opposed to “our people” who could be trusted.

Trusted to do what? Olver was startled when he realised that factions in the ANC in the city were prepared not to campaign for the election. But from their perspective again, what Olver had done was to promote certain individuals — many of them very seedy and with doubtful credentials as ANC supporters — and offer them jobs in exchange for success in the election. If the election were won, it would be Olver and his appointees who would be winning it, even if Jordaan as nominal Mayor were ostensibly the front-man. Of course, they did not want to lose their places by losing the election; rather, they needed to ensure that Olver and his allies lost, and if they lost the election in the course of that — well, you can’t make lamb’s knuckle stew without killing a lamb.

But also there were other opportunities opening up which Olver himself was a little late to recognise. Technically he was acting under the auspices of Zuma, but even as he was acting, the fight between Zuma and the white monopoly capital forces which had decided to back Ramaphosa against Zuma was gaining momentum. Olver was well aware that within the political system he embraced he needed a powerful patron; once Gordhan had come out as an enemy of Zuma and a support of Ramaphosa, and been sidelined from Finance, it was only a matter of time until he was shoved out of Cabinet altogether in which case Olver would have no defender against Mantashe. In turn, this meant that if he took decisions which alienated powerful people, he would have no defenders elsewhere.

What the Stalini people appear to have recognised in the situation was this. The municipal election was less than a year away, and only their complete surrender to Olver and his agents could save the ANC from defeat in it (but the Stalini faction would be the losers, since Olver and his agents wanted them out, and Jordaan had his own people who needed preferment). However, the provincial elective congress of the ANC was only two years away, and after that came the national elective congress.

What they resolved to do was to sabotage Olver, Jordaan and company in the run-up to the municipal election, and thus hand power over to the white ruling class in the city — but, in return for that service, they would expect some support in their attempt to seize control of the provincial ANC, through which, if they played their cards right and aligned themselves with Ramaphosa, they could gain provincial patronage. Thus, in abandoning the sinking ship of Port Elizabeth, they could instead piratically board the relatively sound ship of the Eastern Cape. All that was required was an absolute contempt for the interests and traditional values of the ANC, and the Stalini faction, as well as the Zuma gang and the Ramaphosa mob, all had that in spadefulls.

The ANC would quite possibly have lost the election in any case, but it’s quite possible that the sabotage of organisation and mobilisation which Olver chronicles played an important role in the defeat. Ironically, this deliberate undermining of the party would almost certainly not have happened had Olver and Jordaan not been deployed to Nelson Mandela Bay — in which case the ANC might possibly have won the election! (Admittedly the circumstances of the 2016 election were crucial; Ramaphosa’s supporters wanted the ANC to lose some metropolitan councils so that this could be used as a stick with which to beat Zuma.)

In any case, after the defeat, scapegoats had to be found, and Olver was the most obvious scapegoat. (Jordaan’s subsequent pillorying seemed to be related to this, but it now appears that — ironically again — this related not to Nelson Mandela Bay, but to corrupt power-plays within the South African Soccer Federation.) Once he had been driven out, he obviously needed something fresh to do. The book’s narrative stops there — but we know what subsequently happened; the Stalini faction seized control of the Eastern Cape ANC by violence, while Olver became a staunch supporter and ally of Cyril Ramaphosa, because it was obvious that Ramaphosa was going to be made President. Hence Olver aligned himself with the people who sabotaged his cause, humiliated him and hounded him out of Port Elizabeth.

But such is politics. If you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t devote your life to burning down the kitchen.