Wednesday 10 March 2010

What have the Romans ever done for us?

A few weeks ago I saw Mrs Mandela, a TV biopic about the wife of the former president of South Africa, an altogether impressive performance by Sophie Okonedo in the title role.

In some ways Winnie Mandela was the greater victim of the old apartheid state than Nelson, her husband. Although she was only imprisoned for a relatively brief period, she was subject to systematic persecution by the authorities, even being dumped in an area where local people were warned to boycott her, and under constant police surveillance. She had to rise above this, to fight off her persecutors, who did not stop short of attempted murder. She did, but not in the same way as her husband; he might be said to have been ennobled by his experience; she was brutalised and corrupted by hers.

There is one tremendously effective scene in the movie where she is shown interrogating Stompie Moeketsi, the boy who was eventually murdered by her thuggish bodyguard, intercut with scenes of her own earlier brutal interrogation by Major Theunis Swanepoel, played by David Morrissey. We look from one angry face to the other and all difference disappears; sex, race, circumstances; only hatred and anger remain, only venality.

Winnie Mandela is still a major figure in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and I rather think more typical of the political class of the ‘rainbow nation’ than her husband, the closest thing South Africa comes to possessing a secular saint. But the new South Africa is not a country of saints; it’s a country of sinners; the country of people like Winnie Mandela, and the country of people like President Jacob Zuma, who came to England on a state visit last week. The new South Africa is a country where, as Archbishop Tutu once said, the gravy train only stopped long enough for the ANC to get on.

Mr Zuma, the face of the new nation, came to town, not at all flattered by the depiction of him in the British press; not at all flattered by references to his polygamy, his adultery and his talent for fathering children, lots of children. Our attitude, he retorted, is born of cultural imperialism and our colonial past. I do begin to detect slight traces here of a condition that might be termed Mugabeitis. Is South Africa itself, I have to ask, in danger of infection, in danger of the condition spreading south from Harare? Well, let’s have a look.

There is the ANC, to begin with, now far more Winnie than Nelson, and beginning, ever so slightly, to take on the appearance of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. The youth wing is headed by Julius Malema, a firebrand impatient with Zuma’s pragmatic capitalism, urging a more inclusive ‘African socialist model’. One only has to look to the north to see how that pans out.

Socialism or capitalism, it really makes no difference, because the principal beneficiaries will always be the ANC nomenklatura. Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, has accused Zuma and the ANC of corruption and the abuse of power. It’s easy to see why when some seventy million rand has been spent on perks; on grace-and-favour homes for cabinet ministers wives and families, and of course cars and more cars, the kind of gas-guzzling toys African leaders love.

Zille, the conscience of the nation, has faced death threats, been called a “filthy whore” and “an exponent of a new apartheid” for here outspokenness. But look beyond the villas of the ANC cadres, look beyond the houses and the cars, and one might easily conclude that there is no need for a new apartheid, for the simple reason that the old apartheid is still very much in place; that the new bosses look very much like the old bosses, except for the colour of their skin; that oppression and poverty feel like oppression and poverty no matter if the ruler is white or black. In many places people still live in squalid townships where the government fails to deliver on the most basic services, including clean water, sanitation and power. Protesters have been dispersed by riot squads using rubber bullets.

Symptoms of Mugabeitis can also be seen in the countryside. According to official estimates some 2000 white farmers have been murdered in the more remote parts of the country, though unofficially the figure has been estimated as high as 3000. People are talking about a white exodus, easy to see why when some 750,000 out of a total population of four million have left since 1994 and settled abroad. With them have gone many skills essential to a developing country, and here is now a shortage of engineers and medical practitioners.

In his report in The Telegraph commenting on Zuma’s visit, Graham Boynton says that he met one African aid official who told him that “We could well look back on British colonialism as the golden age of Africa.” This reminded him, on hearing Zuma’s complaints, of the Monty Python sketch that begins with “What have the Romans ever done for us?” I had a look on You Tube and it seems to be the most apt – and comic- observation ever on the benefits of imperialism. Yes, the Africans may have cause to regret the passing of the Pax Britannica as Mugabeitis enters into the terminal stage.


  1. "According to official estimates some 2000 white farmers have been murdered in the more remote parts of the country"

    Malema is the ANC's youth leader. The future looks good for SA? click

  2. With him, Jimmy, no, it does not.

    OC, what we might be seeing is the descent not the ascent of democracy. I certainly hope not.

  3. Sammy and me, or whoever you are, I'm not going to publish your comment. It's only fair, though, to give you an explanation why.

    First, I do not mind disagreement if it's balanced and mature. But your submission was petulant and puerile, childish in the extreme.

    Second, and more fundamentally, I do not wish to embarrass you. To be blunt your English grammar, syntax and spelling is awful, amongst the worst that I have seen. You really should seek some tuition before commenting further on English-language blogs.

    Finally, I don't care for soccer; I never have. So, insofar as it engages your passions, I do wish your particular team the very best of luck. :-))

  4. Sorry Ana, this must be a female thing, but soccer is fairly important for all English males :( - though it has to be said that Sky Sports has ruined football in England by turning the whole context of following the sport in to a fucking Jack the lad, FHM magazine, everything is so full of passion my head might explode narrative designed for people who don't go to games, or even so people don't have to go to games. On the other hand, rugby is getting to that stage if not for dire English performances, and it's oh so horrible these days :(. But the womens rugby is fantastic so you should give that a try, and also boxing.

    Anyways, the Romans built roads, they built baths, they fucked off - there's only so many ways they can reiterate this for us plebians. Any idea why British tv documentaries are so heavily focused on Romans, Tudors and WW1 & 2... why not the English Civil War? Stuarts? Plantagenets? The Napoleon War? The early days of the Union with the Hanoverians, Wellington, Gladstone - seriously, English history for us state schoolers amounts to baths, roads, killing women and ditches - we are fucked! Never learnt nothing other than dull textbook wank. History is made dull by bad teachers, and we had them in spades.

  5. My boyfriend likes soccer, Jimmy, though not as much as rugger and cricket.

    Yes, I would like to see these topics covered also, especially the Civil War.