Tale of Elephants, Big Roosters and Swatted Flies – Tony Leon

Tony LeonWHY do animals inspire so much symbolism and allegorical reflection in the world of the political economy — from the bulls and bears of the bourse to the dead snake description by President Jacob Zuma of his predecessor? Perhaps, in modern times, it can be dated to about 1945, when George Orwell’s Animal Farm, arguably the greatest political allegory ever written, was first published.

Some political parties, such as the US Republicans and Democrats, with an elephant and donkey respectively, even adopt animals as their mascots. The local Inkatha Freedom Party’s rebranding exercise some time ago, with a trio of elephants, met with less electoral success than the US adoption of the pachyderm. Across the border, the ageing rooster symbol of Zanu (PF), will undoubtedly, along with its superannuated sole owner, Robert Mugabe, be returned to its ruling coop in a few weeks’ time.

However, hereby hangs a cautionary tale dating back more than 30 years, when Jimmy Carter was still in the White House and Mugabe was still welcome in it. In 1980, Mugabe, then in his first year in office, demonstrated the risk of choosing an animal as a political symbol. In his memoir on diplomatic service, Over Here, ambassador Ray Seitz, who was present at the meeting, recounts: “I recall standing in the East Room of the White House during President Carter’s administration when President Robert Mugabe explained the significance of the rooster as Zanu’s emblem. ‘All my success’, he announced, ‘is because of my big cock.’ The room was quiet.”

A panel debate in Sandton last week, in which I participated, dubbed “The Insiders”, was convened to share some thoughts on the perennial question of South Africa’s future. One of the hot topics was the issue of “what happens when (Nelson) Mandela goes?” Given the severity of the former president’s health and his imminent 95th birthday, it is a delicate but understandable question. I reminded the audience that Mandela has enjoyed a 13-year, mostly golden “twilight of greatness” since he left elected office in 1999. Our future trajectory since then has been propelled by forces and people outside of his control, and so we would continue.

But I knew there was a subtext to the question. In this regard, I was assisted in answering it, by one attribute I found to be essential in my political years, a so-called elephantine memory. Thus, I dredged from the recesses of dimly remembered battles past an incident that occurred in November 1997. Recounting it at least provided the audience with the reassurance that this was hardly a new issue, even if the facts around it were far from reassuring. It related to an African National Congress Cape Town metropolitan councillor who was caught driving dangerously, and severely inebriated by two city traffic policemen. Using an analogy from lower down the food chain than the mighty elephant or even the more humble rooster, he belligerently told his interdictors that “when Mandela dies we will kill you whites like flies”. I did suggest to the audience that this sentiment was probably on the extreme fringe of political opinion and action, but it was the sort of subconscious fear that animated a lot of the saloon and dining-room chatter on the topic.

However, I was irritated that I could not remember the miscreant councillor’s name, and therefore had no idea whether his utterance had elevated his career or consigned him to the political oblivion where such 21-carat racist fermenters of violent hate speech should be consigned. Happily, in the intervening 13 years since the incident, Google has entered our lives and a quick search revealed the name of Mzukizi Gaba as the drunken councillor, who was subsequently convicted for drunken driving and sentenced to a hefty fine and a suspended jail sentence. The same search also saw his name and his fly-swatting quote pop up in justification for the headline of a “South Africa Project”, safely based in Louisiana, US, which urges its readers to “Wake Up or Die White Man”.

My internet-surfing skills were not, however, equal to the task of determining with definitive precision what precisely had happened to Gaba. Thus, I consulted Gareth van Onselen, whose epic forensic skills enlighten readers of this newspaper. He responded that Gaba is employed as “director of social crime prevention” in the Western Cape government. Leaving aside the irony of the position he now holds, I rather gasped at the thought. The drunken councillor of 15 years ago is now presumably a sober public servant reconciled to an administration headed by a white woman.

It seems Mandela’s message of reconciliation was more enduring than the bloodcurdling threats of its naysayers, including this one. Or a case, from the allegorical kingdom, of lions lying down with lambs.

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