The mirth in the suffering

By Evelyn Groenink

25 August 2016 – It is a nippy spring day when a small crowd gathers outside the Hawks’ General Piet Joubert building in Visagie Street in Pretoria. Ivan and his suspended friends are here, together with a group of good governance activists and NGOs, plus two supportive celebrities: legendary struggle advocate George Bizos and Judge Johann Kriegler, who presided over the Independent Electoral Commission in 1994. Ivan and Johann have been summoned here to answer to a warning statement issued by the Hawks on ‘rogue unit’ charges. The interrogator of the two is Nyameka Xaba, Berning Ntlemeza’s sidekick.

It takes long. At one point I go in to ask, and a nervous receptionist tries hard to get a message ‘from above’ about proceedings. Eventually I am told we don’t have to worry because ‘there is no torture’.

TV crews have also come: ENCA, SABC and even ANN 7 want to interview me, Ivan Pillay’s wife. They all ask how I am feeling. How has this been for the family? How much are we suffering under all this? I feel irritated. Is this all it is then, a suffering family? Yes sure, Ivan has suffered, and is undoubtedly presently suffering under what must be the excruciatingly uninformed and probably crude interrogation by Ntlemeza’s adjutants. Former SARS investigators and officials, especially those who are now unemployed and have small children, suffer a lot. But their questions are about me. They want something personal from me, about our pain as a family, and I don’t know what to say.

Our daughters may be affected a bit, I guess, though they seem the same as usual. Devi is here at the little gathering with some fellow student friends, good governance activists all of them. Vani, back in Holland, just gets cross when she reads something in the papers we have not told her about first.

As for me, I don’t suffer much at all, actually. As annoying and stressing as it is for Ivan, we generally still have good times together. As a journalist I find all this frightfully interesting; my only regret is that I can’t practice any journalism about it, being an interested party.

But, surely our feelings are not the point of all this? Isn’t it about what is happening to SARS? The destruction in the country? With ancient Communist Youth workshop instructions still somewhere in my mind (‘Always give information. Focus on the social justice issue and on the people. It’s not about you.’) I rattle on about how dealing with nasty cops has always been part of social struggles and we are not fazed at all, since we are here for that struggle, for a developmental state that can provide services to the dispossessed majority, and against looters and liars.

There are many post-revolutionary stories in this vein.

Our recent African Investigative Publishing Collective story on good civil servants showed that ethical officials have been victimised in other countries too. A Ghanaian High Court employee was beaten in the streets and fired on trumped-up allegations for refusing bribes; a Nigerian elections supervisor who had counted votes properly against her bosses’ wishes was demoted to a faraway province, then shot at in her car. Compared to many others we are very fine indeed.

But that is surely not all there is to it, my friend Bart says when I tell him about the interviews. ‘You can’t get away with some bland gloss-over about how we must be strong revolutionaries. You must have wondered if what happened to Mark-Anthony (1) could not happen to Ivan, too. How did you deal with that?’

I frown, still thinking that we hadn’t really been much affected. Ivan and I have been better off than those whose houses and cars were broken into, or homes raided by police; certainly better off than those now unemployed with small children, or than Robert McBride and the others at IPID, who face corrupt men with weapons, even if it means speaking in code over the phone and always changing venues and meeting places, like in the days of the underground. Come to think of it, Ivan did that too, for a while.

Maybe I am just thick, maybe it hasn’t sunk in, have I been in denial? ‘I know you always laugh a lot when telling me what is happening,’ says Bart. ‘I guess that’s a coping strategy too.’

Well, yes. Of course there is that.

It had been one for my Oma Lenie, back in Amsterdam in the 1930’s, who would laugh at the ranting drunkards and the woman who introduced herself as ‘your husband’s fiancée’, in her neighbourhood. She would merrily chuckle, head thrown back, even if she didn’t have a ‘dime to scratch herself with’, as she would have said. Humour had helped my mum and aunties, who had dealt with life’s mishaps – problematic husbands, low-paying jobs, bad influences on wayward children – in much the same way. In South Africa, my Sowetan friend Maisy would see the fun side even of ingrained servitude and lack of privilege; her laughter had resonated from Soweto via Hillbrow to Yeoville, where Archie told his tales of philandering ANC bigwigs and mishaps in the underground.

So many things in what happened recently have in fact been hilarious, too. Like Yolisa and Adrian gravely performing mock political discussions on Radical Economic Transformation in flowery ANC jargon at our dining room table. Or Sri the Indian consultant – back for a holiday after relocating to India – asking, genuinely puzzled, if Moyane and his trusted little group of new executives ‘now thought it was their job’ to still fight the ‘rogue unit’ even if Ivan and the others had left SARS over a year ago. Or former colleagues at SARS telling us about the little concrete bunker Moyane had ordered to be built for himself inside the SARS garage, just for his own car, an action thought to have sprung from fear of witchcraft.

Hearing this story, Ivan had mischievously suggested that someone should sprinkle some baby powder around the mini-garage. Of course, we hadn’t done that but we had laughed about the idea of it for days.

SARS’s newsletters have become an endless source of mirth, too. The weekly missives, which had previously contained practical information interspersed with references to ‘higher purpose’, now carried large portraits of Tom Moyane himself in every issue and detailed reports of his valiant fights against the rogue unit. One newsletter announced that SARS was now embarking on a ‘SARS Trek’ under Captain Tom, and featured a drawing of Tom Moyane in a little space ship.

There were also the acts that were devoid of any sense of reality, like Moyane’s insistence that Ivan should personally pay back over a hundred million rand that had been spent on SARS’s investigative unit. Moyane had obviously not realised that this logically meant that Ivan, as the owner of the unit, would then need to be paid out the many billions from tax dodgers that the unit had brought into SARS. The performance by the two ministers and their grabber on national TV was also a sight to behold, as was the drama surrounding Weekend Special at the finance ministry. ‘They are so bad at being bad,’ Devi said.

.This is a slightly edited extract from The Unlikely Mr. Rogue, a newly published book by Evelyn Groenink, now available at good bookstores throughout the country.

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