CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Book launches in South Africa tend to run along predictable lines, beginning with free wine and ending with a question from an audience member that is really more of a comment.
They do not usually begin with the head of a publishing house reciting Yeats’s apocalyptic “The Second Coming” to an audience of hundreds or end abruptly because the power has been cut and the generators mysteriously fail to kick in.
They do not usually contain a moment where the introductory speaker repeatedly thanks an author on behalf of the nation, or compares him to a martyred hero of the anti-apartheid struggle.
In a country where books bemoaning the state of politics are depressingly common, the attention surrounding Jacques Pauw’s “The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and Out of Prison,” has been markedly different. The book has zeroed in on the details of alleged state corruption and reanimated the debate about how to keep South Africa from plunging into the abyss.
The end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994 threw the country into an extended state of hopeful elation. Concerted efforts toward reconciliation and the creation of one of the most progressive constitutions in the world meant many South Africans hoped the terrible injustices of apartheid would be redressed. More than two decades later, that optimism has soured.
Today, South Africa is measured as the most unequal society in the world, and “economic apartheid” persists for millions of black South Africans. Critics say the two-term presidency of Jacob Zuma has been rife with the abuse of state-owned enterprises for personal gain and a failure to deliver services.
Pauw, a revered investigative journalist, describes what he calls a “cancerous cabal” that has kept Zuma and his family rich and out of prison. The book alleges the president, his allies and his benefactors have gutted law enforcement agencies and abused intelligence networks.
The constitution grants the president the power to appoint the most senior civil servants, and the book alleges Zuma’s appointments have irreparably damaged the capacities of law enforcement. Much of Pauw’s investigative efforts concern what he says is the president’s failure to submit tax returns, his failure to declare all sources of income, and his attempts to avoid a $4.5 million tax bill. Pauw looks closely at the role of Tom Moyane, a close Zuma ally and the commissioner of the South African Revenue Service (SARS). The book is unambiguous in its assertion that South Africa is dangerously close to becoming a bankrupt, failed democracy.
Three days after the its release, the State Security Agency sent a cease and desist letter to its publishers, demanding it be immediately withdrawn and parts of it retracted. The letter claimed allegations made in the book were inaccurate, but also that it contained highly classified information prejudicial to the safety of the state.
Meanwhile the presidency released a statement strenuously denying Pauw's allegations and claiming they were part of an orchestrated smear campaign. The statement insisted Zuma's tax affairs were in order and he had declared all his income.
The tax agency, which is projected to have a loss of about $3.5 billion at the end of this tax year, announced it was seeking legal advice on how to proceed against Pauw. The leadership of the security agency and the revenue service are widely understood to form part of the “cancerous cabal” the author described in the book.
Sales of the book immediately soared and the attempts to quash it have been compared to apartheid-era censorship. In the three weeks since it was released, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies (combined print and e-book sales), with a total print run well in excess of 100,000, breaking records locally and internationally for South African nonfiction.
In a 1965 essay titled “Apartheid: A daily exercise in the absurd,” Lewis Nkosi wrote: “I have been considering the millions of words that have been written on South Africa. You would think that the South African government would have been written to death by now.”
Just over 50 years later, some South African writers persist in trying to write the government to death — and they too have yet to succeed. For the past five years, South Africans have been reading they are at a tipping point, and the most recent of the revelations about endemic state corruption will herald the country’s collapse. One brazen abuse of power follows the next as the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress, unravels. Assurances that it cannot possibly get worse are inevitably proved incorrect, and there is an atmosphere of perpetual crisis.
Yet public response to these allegations is by no means united. The reason has a lot to do with South Africa’s central conflict: race. Efforts to unseat the president are met with the equally adamant insistence that anti-corruption crusades have a strong racial component, and that some white South Africans use them simply as justification for their belief that a black-led government is incapable of competent rule.
Pleas that the issue “not be made about race” are met with the observation that in South Africa, a country living daily with the catastrophic consequences of apartheid and centuries of racial oppression, everything is about race.
The writer Sisonke Msimang argued in a recent article that some white South Africans “see Zuma's scandals and the allegations of corruption that trail him as a function of his race: Jacob Zuma is corrupt because he is black.”
While many South Africans, including people within the ANC itself, are appalled by the information in Pauw’s book, the racism displayed in certain public campaigns against Zuma means debates around state corruption have become increasingly polarized, and cracks in an already divided society continue to widen.
“The President’s Keepers” will not change any of the above on its own. “It’s not going to be a book that ousts Zuma. Only the National Executive Committee [of the ANC] can do that,” Pauw pointed out at the Cape Town launch.
The ANC is the majority party in parliament, but it is deeply divided, particularly ahead of its national conference in December, when the country’s next leader will be decided. Pauw said a top ANC official had contacted him to say everyone in the party was reading the book, whether they admitted to it.
South Africans have been told for years they are teetering on the brink of disaster, and the phrase “corruption fatigue” has entered the national lexicon. Pauw’s book has erased that fatigue in some quarters, prompting urgent and panicked debate about how much longer a country can remain on the edge of a knife.