Africa’s black emperors

This is the government that downgrades it’s embassy in disgust for Israel.

Steve Apfel

OpEds Farmer inspects maize field in Hoopstad, South Africa
Farmer inspects maize field in Hoopstad, South Africa

Long after Africa salvaged independence and respect from the horrors of European colonialism, every so often black rulers appear who want to emulate Europeans.  Wherever it comes from – perhaps a deep desire to resemble their former colonisers, a way to cease to consider themselves different from them – the urge can be suicidal. “Free but everywhere in chains” seems to be more potent the more democratic freedom that Africans enjoy. 

Can Evelyn Waugh’s fictional emperor be set down in South Africa? If life imitates art he can.
In 1932 a satiric masterpiece by Evelyn Waugh was published. In “Black Mischief” the Emperor of Azania, identified with Zanzibar on the east coast, is an overdone caricature, but a warning and a syndrome written in a way you can’t but marvel at and adore.  

“Another thing.  I have been reading in my papers about something very modern called Birth Control. What is it?” 

Basil explained. 

“I must have a lot of that. You will see to it.”

So what if the emperor enforced a dress code of tail coat and top hat for tribal elders who went barefoot and ate human flesh? Such playful elements may not be South Africa today; but can they impart a lesson about South Africa? 

What is happening in the old economic powerhouse of Africa, reduced to a feeble expiring patient on life support? “Black emperors” ruling South Africa have succumbed to the allure of modern ideas. European ideas! They bought into round pegs for square holes. They read about “something very modern called” national health. And they won’t settle for anything less than best practice; Scandinavia will be the model. A flawless European health system will be transplanted into the heart of corrupt, corroded Africa. 

Reality is not even a consideration.  The economy may be on the road to Venezuela – a total wreck. 

  • No growth
  • Mass unemployment  
  • Unserviceable debt
  • Empty fiscus
  • Corruption rot from the head down
  • Utilities and state run by clueless comrades
  • Borrowed money to pay government workers who don’t work
  • Resources that could uplift armies of poor blacks go into a few fat cat pockets for luxury living
  • Departments of state sold to an Indian family and a white family, both known for despising black people. 
  • An exodus of “white” capital (assets and human);.
  • Hardly one cogent plan to completion in twenty five years
  • Courts and policing more conceptual than real
  • A societal ethos that dirty money buys a ticket to heavenly living, not a quick ticket to the jailhouse. 

In wanting something very modern called a national health system, what makes today’s black emperors different from a fictional Emperor of Azania? In essence nothing. They are cut from one cloth. You proclaim Progress and Modernity and there they are. Ripe and ready for picking off the tree. 

South Africa’s black emperors earned the right to lead and to thieve. Democracy gave it to them. Their dream, a modern national health system, like the defence contract for submarines idling in Simonstown dock because no one knows how they work, will be a new project for the emperors to feather regal nests.  

And like the modernity-mad Emperor of Azania, they are revered by the people they robbed of living a decent life. The robbed people are poor blacks, but so are the robbers, so neither side feels the hurt. The Indian Gupta brothers also feel nothing. Having bankrolled the black emperors, the brothers are free to show contempt for poor black people. Only look at the family wedding the Gupta family staged. It cost $17million, but they didn’t lay out a dime.  The black emperors helped the Gupta family steal the money from a farm project meant to give poor black farmers a start in life. 

And what a showpiece wedding they put on. The Gupta family insisted on white only waiters.  It did allow black workers to set the tables, though not before they took a shower before touching anything Indian. And the black emperors made whoopee at this wedding. But then they are not the first, nor will they be the last, to display the ugly syndrome of former colonial masters. 

Can Evelyn Waugh’s fictional emperor be set down in South Africa? If life imitates art he can. When we say that a character in a novel “is so life like” we mean that each part of him coincides with a bit of life; that he parallels the emperors who made South Africa’s condition terminal. Of course we can tear a fictional Emperor out of a book and put him in a rundown country besotted with modern ideas. The real emperors mimic the character. 

“The Lord Chamberlain came to consult the Emperor about the banquet. He had forbidden raw beef. What was he to give the guests?”

 “Raw beef, said Basil. Call it steak tartare.”
“That is in accordance with modern thought?”