Friday, September 03, 2004

Unfit to Rule

The ongoing revelations about the alleged coup plot in which Mark Thatcher has supposedly been implicated do not cast a favorable light on the British upper classes. If anything, they make it seem as if P.J. Wodehouse wasn't so much writing satire as factually setting out a description of a particular milieu.

JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 2 - They say the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Alas, the same appears not to be true of coups in Equatorial Guinea.

A week ago, South African prosecutors tied the patrician son of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, to an improbable, botched coup in Equatorial Guinea, a minuscule, humid, African dictatorship. Now others in England's political and boarding-school elite are being dragged, over furious denials, into what is becoming a black eye for the British, whose colonialist image in Africa has been waning.

The would-be coup's ever more byzantine story, redolent of greed, stupidity, code names like Smelly and Scratcher, and "a large splodge of wonga" - apparently an Etonism for money - is providing a field day for South Africa's splashy press and its British mentors.

"It's an incredible tale of intrigue and scandal and embarrassment," Patrick Smith, the editor of the London newsletter Africa Confidential and the affair's reigning authority, said in a telephone interview. "It's kind of our silly season here and, in the absence of real events, it's captured the public imagination."

Recent revelations center on Sir Mark Thatcher, 51, Lady Thatcher's son and a graduate of Eton's 432-year-old archrival, Harrow. South Africa's anticorruption police unit, known as the Scorpions, arrested him last week on a charge of illegally helping to finance the Guinea coup. He faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted. In an interview, Peter Hodes, one of his lawyers, called the charges "rubbish."

Two Etonians have also been linked to the plot. One is Simon Mann, military adventurer and scion of the Watley Ale brewing fortune, who now sits in a prison in Zimbabwe, one of 70 men arrested as mercenaries in March when their northbound jet landed in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, to pick up weapons. The other is David Hart, millionaire and onetime adviser to Lady Thatcher, who turned up in a note Mr. Mann wrote from jail seeking help.
And what is one to make of the following, other than to interpret it as a mark of the terminal childishness and blundering of upper-class twits?
Locked in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, facing years there or extradition to a potential death sentence in Malabo, Mr. Mann smuggled a plea to his wife. "Our situation is not good and very URGENT," it stated. "We need heavy influence of the sort that ... Smelly, Scratcher ... David Hart, and it needs to be used heavily and now.

"It may be that getting us out comes down to a large splodge of wonga! Of course, investors did not think this would happen. Did I?"

The note, with its tantalizing reference to "investors," reached the Scorpions, who concluded that "Smelly" was Mr. Calil and that "Scratcher" was Sir Mark, a neighbor of Mr. Mann in Cape Town. Yet, for all its innuendo, the note could be read as a cry by Mr. Mann for rich friends to rescue him.
I say this is childish not just because of the use of silly code names like "Smelly" and "Scratcher", but because Mr. Mann, despite supposedly having headed Executive Outcomes for however many years, seems to have been so unaware of the importance of maintaining secrecy that he didn't even bother to encrypt his message; couldn't he have used a Vigenere cipher, even if something more difficult to crack were beyond his reach in prison? The military playing field must have been childishly low in Central and Southern Africa for a firm run by such an incompetent to have thrived for so long in the region.