ASSUMING Luthuli House has its own library — a party that professes to prioritise improving the education system must surely have its own library — which book would you suppose is taken out most frequently? The Ministerial Handbook must be a contender. How else is a deployed cadre worth his salt going to keep one step ahead of Parliament’s ethics committee? And I suspect The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s classic treatise on the political manipulation of the masses, is well-thumbed too, although perhaps less so than during the previous administration but one.
But my money is on The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise attributed to a high-ranking military general and tactical genius by the name of Sun Tzu, who is believed to have lived during China’s Spring and Autumn Period, in about 500BCE. Whether or not Sun Tzu existed as an individual or is a conflation of several military strategists from that period (Tzu means "master" rather than being a family name), The Art of War has exerted considerable influence over the way warfare has been conducted across a range of cultures for several millennia.
The reason I suspect there would be a waiting list for it at the Luthuli House library is that Sun Tzu was big on the pre-emptive strike as a means of destabilising the enemy and seizing the initiative, particularly when the striker is starting out on the back foot. Sound familiar?
If so, that would be because the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) leaders have themselves become masters at executing the pre-emptive strike, a tactic with which, it must be said, we in the media are all too often willing accomplices. The Spear, First National Bank and Democratic Alliance (DA) funding controversies are good examples, artfully used over the years to distract public attention from actual scandals. The Department of Public Works’s recent decision to fund the creation of a Republic of Nkandla in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal, for instance.
Another excellent recent example, closely tied to the storm in a teacup over whether the DA accepted party funding from the Gupta family some years back — as if that should preclude it from criticising the newspaper they have since founded — was ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman’s allegation that the Guptas secretly gave the DA R4m to renovate its Cape Town offices. No sooner had the DA’s shrill denials faded away than it emerged that the ANC has been occupying a Cape Town building owned by the Guptas since 2008 and has not paid a cent in rent "because we haven’t been invoiced".
Consider yourself pre-emptively struck, DA.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa has surely read The Art of War — in fact, I suspect he may have memorised some passages, so true was he to the tactic in seeking an interdict preventing the O’Regan/Pikoli Commission of Inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha from going ahead. When that application was turned down by the Western Cape High Court, he revealed that the matter would be taken on appeal to the Constitutional Court. In the meantime, the plight of the people of that crime-and corruption-ravaged township goes unaddressed and the police remain unembarrassed. Sun Tzu would be proud.
Fellow Business Day columnist John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute of Race Relations made the point on these pages on Monday that we shouldn’t be too quick to write off the ANC’s recent moves to hobble nonprofit organisations (NPOs) as due to benign incompetence. That is because NPOs are turning into a real threat to the ruling party’s hegemony, perhaps even more so than formal opposition parties such as the DA.
Is it coincidental that the driving force behind the establishment of the O’Regan/Pikoli inquiry that has so animated Mthethwa was not the DA — as people tend to assume, given it was set up by Western Cape Premier and DA leader Helen Zille — but a number of NPOs led by the Social Justice Coalition?
NPOs are starting to play a leading role in civil society’s efforts to hold the government to account in SA; my bet is if Sun Tzu was alive today, his advice to the ANC would be: "Take them out before they bring you down."
• Marrs is Cape editor.