The Big Read: The public, enemy number 1
Imagine a small group of South Africans sitting around a fire-pit at a swanky game lodge.
They're all vastly wealthy but gloomy as hell. Earlier in the evening there was laughter and silliness but now the expensive whisky has invited grim ruminations on the state of things and on the dissatisfaction and anxiety they all share.
"This country, man," sighs the richest of them. "It's not like it was in the good old days."
"It's the masses," murmurs another millionaire, poking at a melting ice cube. "They just don't know how to vote properly."
There are approving hums and sighs from the others. Silence falls. The fire gleams in puffy, watery eyes.
So whom did you picture? White captains of industry? Fair enough. They're easy to see.
These days, though, the scene would work equally well with the senior leadership of the ANC.
Seriously. Run it again with some Zuptas in the starring roles and nothing would be out of place.
It's not explicit yet: the ANC's deep and growing distrust of voters, bizarrely similar to the contemptuous despair of white racists over the years. But it's there. And it's becoming more visible.
Last week Andile Lungisa, the Deputy Grand Panjandrum in the Eastern Cape Chapter of the ANC Youth League of Eternal Helplessness, delivered a fiery lecture at Zwide.
His speech was remarkable for a few reasons, not least because it provided the most perfect illustration of the ANC's approach to governing that I have ever encountered.
According to The Herald, Lungisa revealed that state-owned enterprises were not, in fact, badly run piggy banks for connected gangsters but were instead models of good governance.
His example: Transnet and SAA both preside over many ships and aircraft, but, he said, "we have never heard of any ship that sank at our ports" or "any SAA aircraft missing".
It's genius, right? South Africa isn't a smouldering ruin, therefore it is being well run. Jacob Zuma hasn't released anthrax into the water supply, therefore he is a splendid leader.
It was an illuminating moment, but no less revealing was what he said next. The likes of Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas needed to be guarded against, he warned, because "when the ANC decides to redeploy . or remove them, they go around mobilising the society against our movement".
"Society against our movement." Hold that thought for a moment.
Two weeks ago the ANC made a few fretful noises about investigating state capture. Relieved, I tweeted that a corrupt party had called on a corrupt government to investigate allegations of corruption against itself, so everything was now hunky dory.
Moments later, a cross reply from one Sindy Mabe, a sock-puppet at Gupta TV, ANN7: "Your comments fit well with the incessant desire & public lexicon to dislodge @MYANC we see you."
The "we see you" was a faintly nostalgic touch, the adult version of a beefy snot-nose passing a note to a child in Grade 3 that reads "WE KNOW WERE YUR LOKKER IS AND AFTER SKOOL WE R GOING 2 MESS YOU UP". (Although it did make me wonder who the "we" was. A gaggle of ANN7 interns who always show up on the wrong day for gang meetings because they're illiterate and can't read their WhatsApp reminders? A senior editorial séance, where they hold hands and murmur: "Can you hear us, Atul? Show us the people we need to be watching."?)
But again, that wasn't the telling part. No, the really revealing part was that dog's breakfast of a phrase, "incessant desire & public lexicon".
I don't watch ANN7 (because I'm a multicellular life form) so I don't know if Ms Mabe's grasp of words is very different to mine; but to this writer, "the incessant desire & public lexicon to dislodge" the ANC means that the public has an incessant desire to remove the ANC, and talks about it, publicly, often.
Of course, one swallow doesn't make a summer any more than two sound-bytes signify a growing distrust of and antagonism towards voters. But it did strike me as peculiar that, within a fortnight, I'd heard a senior ANCYL person create a juxtaposition between the party and society as two separate - and opposing - things, and an ANC propagandist tell me that what a large number of people were talking about and feeling was just plain wrong.
It's understandable. In January last year, while campaigning in Tlokwe, Cyril Ramaphosa told young voters that "the enemy wants to collapse the power of the ANC". When the deputy president of a constitutional democracy publicly announces that opposition voters are "the enemy" is it any wonder that apparatchiks further down the food chain think in these crude binaries?
But still, I can't help feeling that something has shifted. The chest-thumping, warlike rhetoric has become infected with real fear and littered with unconscious admissions that there are two separate camps within this country: the fracturing, shrinking ANC, and everybody else.
So what happens when the fear takes hold and ever larger sections of the public are cast as the enemy? We're about to find out.