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Fear and Fightback ‘frame’ Zondo’s State Capture Inquiry

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Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

Fear and fightback are two potent elephants in the room of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. The fear is for personal security and for political sensitivities of those who remain masked, and fightback is the rambling rearguard action to fight the efforts to clean up the state.

Evidence at the Zondo Commission has been red-carding the era of rampant capture and private acquisition of public assets and resources. These misdeeds might have been halted, slowed down, but latent and vested interests, topped with protection of those complicit in capture, remain part of the daily political diet. Unless they are lethally subdued or eliminated, the Zondo Commission might still come to a virtual naught.

The complicit and compliant ones have everything to lose if the Zondo Commission cuts to the bone. Many have been changing their masks, and are now answering to the calls of the “converted” and “part of the New Dawn clean-up squad”. But, besides the kingpins that are being named, there are hordes of silent beneficiaries of past deals, of those who are protecting associates and political bosses who remain powerful. These politically important persons control others’ political lives and careers, be it in the African National Congress, the Economic Freedom Fighters, or as state employees.

Evidence and remarks from most of the witnesses so far has included some reference to fear. Themba Maseko’s and Pravin Gordhan’s inputs were revealing. Gordhan described Mcebisi Jonas as having been “extremely brave” in his revelations. Why brave? These are public officials who are supposed to owe their loyalties to the citizens of South Africa, not to the political royalty of the time… The political reality, however, speaks to a different world.

Maseko pointed out that government officials privy to much information fear coming forward (in this nominally post-Zuma era), because they fear being targeted. Gordhan alluded to intelligence reports that may be targeting certain individuals. This was besides ANC leaders in 2016 hardly coming forward to support the ANC’s own capture inquiry – only eight volunteered information, only one gave a written statement. Maseko at the Zondo Commission was referring the officials’ fear that evidence they give would implicate their bosses, and he mentioned specifically ministers, premiers and provincial members of executive committees. Add to this one of the Brothers Gupta threatening to “sort out” those who would cross the laws of Zuptaland.

Gordhan illuminated the fear factor this week, saying potential witnesses fear for their lives, their families, their jobs. He himself, however, has “nothing to fear”. The tit-for-tat Brooklyn police station legal charges, pitting Gordhan against the Fighters’ Julius Malema, open a parallel war front to the Zondo Commission. Could this be where truth will triumph?

Beyond truth or not, and using evidence at the Zondo Commission, the EFF is on a drive to score more ministerial “fallist” points. Brilliant election campaign material beyond Nhlanhla Nene, they appear to argue, could let the ANC crumble to below an outright majority in 2019, force a national-level alliance, and hold the ANC to ransom once in government. (Could this prospective coalition friendship be Cyril Ramaphosa’s reason for going softly on the EFF?)

The EFF is in self-defence mode too, and converge in their actions with the ANC’s Zuma faction. Gordhan has had a tangible part in drying out the EFF’s Limpopo-public-funds drinking through; the South African Revenue Service and Daily Maverick’s Pauli van Wyk have shone the spotlight on VBS money grabs; and more action and information are likely to follow. The whole troupe of top-level investigative and analytically shrewd journalists is in the EFF’s aim. Through both physical and cyber mob intimidation, largely by brigades of Twitter aggressors, the EFF and the Zuma faction are trying to stop further revelations.

Much protection needs to be forthcoming for more witnesses to brave the Zondo Commission (besides those who will be hauled in). President Cyril Ramaphosa’s brief statement on Sunday, to “support and defend” Gordhan (plus saying that those attacking Gordhan were “deeply embedded in what was going wrong in our country”), are minor steps. The contingent of fightback-cum-discredit-witnesses is close to running amok. They latch onto any single (only occasionally multiple) confusions, contradictions (Nene paid with his job by being specific and confessing to meetings with the Brothers Gupta) and lapses of memory and name confusion (Vytjie Mentor is the eminent case). This is besides Mentor suffering the intimidation of having had her hotel door latch tampered with, and receiving cellphone memo notes from Mzwanele Manyi in the course of her witness-bearing. The contingent accuses witnesses generally of failing to offer concrete evidence of capture, and of hiding behind the instruction to “join the dots”.

The discredited evidence is then projected into the public domain as the total characterisation of the testimony. The fightback propagandists (Guptaists of the past, Zuma’s now disowned Brains Trust reigns supreme in these ranks) hyper-conveniently go into silence on the rest of the Zondo witness content. They push aside the thwarting of the nuclear deal, the Petronas deal, the take-over of National Treasury, resistance against Gupta appointments to the state-owned enterprises, and try to let public vilification rule.

Thus, the list of manifestations of fear tells an unnerving story of life as a Zondo witness: discreditation of witness content, public ridicule for lapses, threats to jobs (a series of witnesses have had first-hand experience), threats to personal security, intimidation, including of journalists. Julius Malema added a quaint variation on Tuesday, referring to criticism of politicians that should not be construed as “intimidation”.

These permutations attest to discouraging conditions in which witnesses are asked to step forward – even more so if one considers that much of the capture holdings and practices are still in place, as we write and speak.

The inventory of fears of being a Zondo witness demonstrates the massive stakes at the current, attempted moment of truth. We are watching the space: who will be brave enough to step forward and be added as witnesses? Who will be afraid of the biggest unspoken fear to date, that of embarrassing the ANC itself? The ANC contingent at the Zondo forum on Monday was speaking to minutiae; the big capture issues remain. We have had assurances that Ramaphosa – reportedly towards the end of proceedings – will be entering the witness fray.

Will that be the moment when we shall finally understand why leaders could have been silent in the shadow of the corruption tree, why so many senior government appointees and executive members (mentioned so far by title and position, only occasionally by name) are not queueing up to come clean, to help South Africa understand how loyalty to political gods reigns over accountability to people?

The entries on the Zondo Commission fear inventory add up to a dense and daunting context for the truth to emerge. Judge Raymond Zondo has his job cut out for him. We remain to see how his words – that harassment and intimidation of any witness appearing before the commission will not be acceptable – may translate into commission convention, and into ANC inner-chamber praxis. DM

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