Evelyn Groenink, The Unlikely Mr Rogue: A Life with Ivan Pillay (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2020)

TITLE and sub-title are well chosen: this is both biography and autobiography. Evelyn Groenink is an accomplished journalist and writer who came to South Africa via the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement in the late 1980s: she revisits the democratic transition and subsequent years with the acute eye and pen of an engaged and informed outsider privy to a great deal of inside information. By the end of her extended account, and dealing with our present realities, she is describing South Africa as Alice in Wonderland, a Fellini film: some of those in power are certifiable; doing your job well leads to big trouble; and whistleblowing can be fatal. State jobs have been transformed into family businesses and opportunists and confidence tricksters run the show.

Ivan PIllay, Groenink’s husband, was a Merebank activist caught up in the heady days of Durban anti-apartheid politics of the 1970s, which owed much to the social cohesion and capital of the Indian community and the example of determined struggle families. His exile years ended in the late 1980s with a role in Operation Vula, which infiltrated ANC leaders into the country to bring order and coherence to the underground and channel popular anger. Based on Swaziland, it was a parallel operation, authorised by Oliver Tambo, aimed at political reconstruction. It did not feature Jacob Zuma and his intelligence outfit, a factor that still resonates today.  Pillay emerges from these pages as highly self-controlled and organised, quiet and virtuous; with a belief that the humblest job is worth doing well and in the advantages of working with good people.

The supposed rogue reputation derives from high office at the South African Revenue Service. In its glory days it was a post-liberation success envied by other countries, staffed by struggle stalwarts intent on good governance and doing the right thing: the Robin Hood syndrome in Groenink’s words. Not only did SARS collect revenue efficiently, it reached out to business to improve systems. It also made significant inroads into criminal outfits evading tax and pushed for improvements to government procurement systems. This touched an extremely raw nerve: the nexus between ANC politicians and organised crime. A coalition of the crooked developed – the illicit tobacco industry, evaders of border controls, gangsters, corrupt politicians together with unscrupulous careerists and self-promoters within SARS – to spread lies about a purported illegal, rogue investigative unit.

In the vanguard was the shameful Sunday Times and pseudo-journalists such as Piet Rampedi, Stephan Hofstatter and Mzilikazi wa Africa. (Groenink tellingly likens this assumed name to a French journalist calling himself the Napoleon of Europe). Information peddlers like Bheki Jacobs with their contrived dossiers added to the brew, but the cherry on the cake was Jacob Zuma’s appointee as commissioner, Tom Moyane, who proceeded to destroy SARS’ legendary capacity and the careers of many worthy, skilled people in the interests of state capture by the Zupta faction. Branches of SARS literally provided a red carpet for Moyane when he visited, a concrete bunker was built for his car, and sycophants referred to him, apparently without irony, as a blesser. A succession of laughably incompetent investigations featuring lawyers, a judge and KPMG reinforced the rogue unit myth (one of its operations was said to be a brothel for which no evidence was ever found) until the Nugent Commission totally demolished the lies and restored sanity. The cost to the nation was colossal.

A constant theme of this book is conflict within the ANC between an old struggle tradition of decency and humanity and populist politicians and crooks. Groenink casts a jaundiced eye over two presidencies: those of Thabo Mbeki and Zuma. Mbeki she describes as paranoid and a fantasist. She argues, reasonably enough, that the deficiencies of the Mbeki administration were obscured by the gross events that followed under Zuma’s. The Hefer Commission was not all it seemed; the Scorpions often played a devious hand.

 Zuma, though, she concludes was totally unfit for the presidency. Consumed by an attitude of entitlement he continues to deploy conspiracy theory and victimhood and shows not the slightest understanding of constitutional democracy or the rule of law. By design he surrounded himself with the incompetent and the delusional as the sorry procession through the Zondo Commission has shown. Groenink notes that Zuma has complained bitterly that Vladimir Putin is not constrained in the fashion of South African presidents, present or past. South Africa, she decides, was run by a rent-seeking mafia under Zuma whose personal behaviour goes way beyond the normal bounds of patriarchy.

When the ANC was unbanned, Pillay pointed out that South Africa was a country of scarred adults, a damaged society lacking systems fit for purpose in need of therapy. Instead, we were given the rainbow nation narrative. What Groenink aptly describes as the ‘lively universe’ of the United Democratic Front was summarily snuffed out. Some believe it effectively committed suicide.

Groenink usefully argues that the history of the ANC explains a great deal about where we find ourselves today. In 1976 it was joined by hundreds of traumatised schoolchildren who were not robust enough to join a liberation army. Then in 1990 hundreds of thousands of politically naïve people joined the ANC drawn by little more than myth. Among the new members were significant numbers of opportunists and crooks. There was no government-in-waiting and the movement’s own culture made it unsuited to run a country. In exile it had persistently grafted new procedures onto the dysfunctional. Policy became an objective in itself with no intention or ability to implement it.

The casualties were many of Groenink’s friends and associates from what was fondly regarded as the non-racial ANC. The victors were either racial nationalists or crooks, and sometimes both. The reasons for this, aside from Africanism, have been distrust of the Left, the schism created by Vula, and opportunistic claims about a cabal eerily predictive of the supposed rogue unit. From the malign propaganda of Peter Mokaba to that of Julius Malema, the narrative has been much the same: a conspiracy of Indians and whites. The cabal accusations emerged in the late 1980s around the UDF and the Durban Housing Action Committee. Re-racialisation has suited many in the ANC well.

Commendably, Groenink treads heavily where many would fear to tiptoe. Her cosmopolitan background is a great asset in assessing the last thirty years of South Africa’s history and her account is peppered with acute observations derived from personal experience that make this a highly absorbing read.