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SA, we are told, is not yet a mafia state. But as taxi owners in Cape Town remind us who really runs this country, and we try not ask who owns the taxi owners, it might be worth thinking for a moment about mafias in general, and about what happens once the semi-sentient digestive tract that is the ANC finally loses the will to continue peristalsis.

A mafia state is the nightmare; a ruin where politicians run barely disguised criminal enterprises and criminals openly run for office in obviously rigged elections. Some readers of this column might point to the assassinations of councillors and whistle-blowers and insist that we’re already there, though others might argue that until the Electoral Commission of SA is run by known gangsters there is a glimmer of hope.

The odd thing about a mafia state, though, is that before state and mafia merge they tend to be ideological enemies. In Italy and the US, for example, the mafia has always kept itself apart from the state, privileging minutely local relationships, traditions, languages, ethnicities and faiths while rejecting all of those being presented for inclusion by the state.

In the 19th and 20th centuries those insular beliefs of the old world found new, more virulent fuels in the form of xenophobia and racism as the Italian and then American establishments denounced Sicilians as an inferior race, to be ghettoed in the US alongside African-Americans and Irish and Jewish immigrants. 

No wonder, then, that so many mobsters looked at the state and saw a distant regime, owned by pasty foreigners who disdained Catholicism, policed by officials they knew to be corrupt. How easy it would have been to start believing taxation was theft, that laws were oppression, and that crimes against the interests of the state were heroic. 

In that worldview, assimilation into the society proposed by the state — a society that sings the national anthem and obeys the laws without being forced to — would have felt like a kind of death. No, where a mafia exists in a country it exists in an exile it has chosen, entirely apart from the broader society it preys on. After all, Cosa Nostra means “our thing”. Ours. Not theirs.

It’s not entirely surprising, therefore, that the largest and most successful purges of the mafia have been led by states riding a surge of nationalistic zeal, or at least given a sweeping mandate by a population that believes it is part of a coherent, directed whole, a “we” rather than an us or a them.

I don’t think it was a coincidence, for example, that the first successful assault on the US mafia started in the late 1950s as a supremely confident country, eager to conform to a clearly prescribed American ideal, employed tactics against the mob that modern conservatives would decry as Big Brother overreach. Likewise, it was in the booming 1980s, as Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise won wars by themselves and American patriotism surged, that mafia dons again were indicted en masse. 

But it is another far more successful purge that should give South Africans pause; because the state that must be credited with landing the biggest and most telling blow against the Italian mafia, even causing large numbers of Sicilian gangsters to flee to the US, was overseen by one Benito Mussolini, trying out a new and hugely popular system called fascism. 

This is not to say that states can’t behave like mafias. The fascist apartheid regime was steeped in nationalist mythologies, but still put its own language, race, culture and religion above the needs of the majority from which it extracted its wealth. 

But, in general, it does seem fair to suggest that there might be a correlation between the power of local mafias and a state’s confidence in its own purpose and path. And if that is the case I would also argue that the ANC was never going to be able to tackle any mafia, since that would have required it to become and fully embody the thing it fought against for three-quarters of its existence: the nation state known as SA.

Volumes have been written about the ANC’s collapse in the past 15 years, but I can’t help thinking about 1994 and wondering what it feels like to stand over the corpse of the thing that caused you to be born (the nation state of SA was created in 1910; the African Native National Congress in 1912); the thing that took away your personhood, and that you armed yourself to overthrow in 1961; how it feels, then, to have to bend down and breathe your spirit into that ghastly corpse.

Was that the moment the ANC started to die, too? When it became the state and merged with the thing it was created to end? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s part of the reason the ANC has failed so completely to create a clear sense of what this country is and where it might go.

The question is how quickly we can create one after the ANC dies, and what it will look like. I know what the mafias want. I also know a lot of South Africans are increasingly drawn towards Mussolini’s way of doing things. The middle way grows narrow, but more crucial than ever. 

• Eaton is an Arena Holdings columnist.

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