It is difficult to describe the anxiety of being a young journalist in the age of State Capture in South Africa. Not only is one thrust into a political arena without institutional knowledge or historical context to be able to fully grasp the complexities of political situations but also whatever story one plans to pursue, there already has been a litany of articles written by award-winning journalists.
“You must move the conversation forward” is a constant piece of advice that my editor at Daily Maverick, Jillian Green, always urges us budding journalists whenever we pitch stories to work on. This then involves doing in-depth research about the issue – looking at who has written about it before, what have they said and where the conversation currently stands.
While I was a student and during #FeesMustFall, the debates on campus about politics were limited to what happened in 1994, Nelson Mandela’s actions, apartheid and decolonisation. Not much was said regarding contemporary politics.
My first article as an intern at the Daily Maverick inevitably involved the EFF Student Command winning their first SRC elections at Wits University in 2017. It was a topic I was familiar with and adept at talking about. Then the world outside what students call the “ivory towers” of institutions of higher learning was as vague to me as it was uninteresting.
A year into my internship, I had covered council meetings at the City of Johannesburg, the ANC’s Nasrec conference, public dialogues and protests, political party rallies and ConCourt hearings. I had gained perspective of the real world – it was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” which opened my eyes to the systemic challenges of our country.
Yet there is still more to learn
During one of Daily Maverick’s editorial meetings Jessica “Jesse” Bezuidenhout, an investigative reporter for Scorpio, told us that it had been 100 days of Zondo. It’s been that long! I thought to myself, since the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo started looking into corruption in the country.
Not only was the commission interested in Jacob Zuma’s dealings with the Guptas during his time as president, but is casting its net wider by considering State Capture in its entirety. At that meeting, Jesse explained to us her thoughts around writing up an analysis article that would capture the mood inside the commission, the processes it employs and the strategy of the Deputy Chief Justice, Raymond Zondo in his pursuit to unravel the deep mechanisms of State Capture.
I am intrigued by how Zondo plans to deal with all the witness testimony that has come out so far, from Angelo Agrizzi to Mcebisi Jonas, to Johan Booysen, to Fikile Mbalula, Vytjie Mentor and that of countless others who are yet to testify. The enormity of his task in the face of blaring opposition by those implicated cannot be underestimated, yet it is hard not to be disheartened by the lengthy process.
Considering how difficult it has been for me to keep up with the details coming from inside the commission, I looked forward to reading her article, as Jesse has been covering the Zondo Commission with expert analysis of the process since day one.
According to Jesse, in her analysis article, the Zondo commission, which has so far heard more than 50 witness testimonies in the past 100 days, is presided over by “a patient judge who listens and considers possible alternative versions” of all the evidence presented in front of him, “even when the evidence seems damning”.
And that although “there are moments when it feels as if the culprits of State Capture are not going to see the inside of a jail cell”, she describes Zondo as “firm, but intensely polite” with one singular focus of “keeping the process credible”.
I wanted to see this for myself and experience how it feels to witness something that actually works with efficiency and expert diligence in this country. And so a week later, I attended the commission at Hill on Empire, in Parktown, Johannesburg.
On the fourth floor of Hillside House, Zondo sat at his table on a stage, while that day’s witness, Mathane Makgatho, former Group Treasurer at Transnet, seated at her own table to his far right. TV gives the impression that the two are level with each other but in reality, Zondo sits above, much as he would in a court of law. Often during that day’s testimony he would rest his head on his hand as he leaned forward slightly, to listen attentively to the witness below.
Makgatho, Transnet’s former Group Finance Treasurer spoke about National Treasury’s accounting rules and the systems that were in place that should have ensured accountability at the parastatal.
I was vaguely aware of the woes that beset Transnet and knew that is was one of the many State enterprises that fell victim to State Capture much like SAA, Eskom, and others. But Makgatho details were so dense that I lost track of her testimony. According to Jesse, when she later wrote about that day’s proceedings, “Transnet has been billed State Capture Central”, “where billions of rand in deals went down under the stewardship of former group chief executive Brian Molefe and finance head Anoj Singh”.
Makgatho testified about how she was “sidestepped and bypassed” by the two senior Transnet officials during meetings to consider lucrative tender deals involving a R5-billion loan and 1,064 locomotives, and who would prefer younger accountants who had little “experience” or were “too afraid to speak out”.
As she spoke, Makgatho seemed to exude immense pride regarding her work. She displayed the self-assurance that accounting students have when they wear their suits on a university campus, confident in the idea that in a world of falsehoods and tall tales, the numbers do not lie.
During her testimony, Zondo would often politely interject in what seemed like a complicated and meandering speech to get clarity on details I had missed and to ask follow up questions at points where I had lost track of her testimony.
He was remarkably alert to the witness and followed every detail she provided, every digression she made to expound a point and all the emotions that accompanied it. Zondo did not miss a beat.
Zondo has done this before of course when he served in the Goldstone Commission that looked into the prevention of public violence and intimidation between 1991 and 1992 and when he was appointed the first Chairperson of the Commission for the Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).
I have witnessed this level of professionalism and integrity in my own reporting too.
Earlier this year, I was assigned to cover the Mokgoro Inquiry into the fitness of Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi to hold office at the National Prosecuting Authority presided by Justice Yvonne Mokgoro. Daily news and political reporting had awakened me to the reality of what happens behind the scenes of our political arena. It has offered and imposed an informed view of why South Africa is what it has become.
At the Mokgoro Inquiry, I learned about how things worked at the NPA, about the political significance of the Spy Tapes and also heard for the first time about the Cato Manor Death Squad and the Browse Mole Report. South Africa seemed like a whole new country all of a sudden, a home I could no longer recognise.
Faced with a mountain of evidence, Justice Mokgoro wove through the numerous witnesses’ testimony, court documents and affidavits presented to her painstakingly for two months while listening to multiple versions of the same story by different people with their own motives.
Ultimately she wrote a damning report and made indefensible findings on which President Cyril Ramaphosa was able to base his decision to fire the two high ranking officials from the NPA.
With these two stellar examples front of mind, it seems to me that the third arm of government produces a different breed of public servants than those in the Executive and Legislature who we have witnessed being involved in corruption and looting from state coffers.
I finally understand why people always insist that an independent judiciary is a necessary aspect of a healthy democracy. When all else has failed, it is this group of people who will gate-keep our freedoms, driven by a commitment to justice under the law.
Much can be learned from the meticulous and Zen-like focus of Justice Zondo in the State Capture Commission and Justice Mokgoro in the NPA inquiry.
Indeed it will take time for all that was hidden to come to light, but in order to do something right and to fix the country, it will concurrently demand from us our patience, complete attention and cognisance that if we do not reach the root cause and heart of the matter, by exploring every dark corner, it will be in vain.
There is still so much I don’t understand about the commission, State Capture, the ongoing political battles of our public representative that play out in the media and the history of this country that informs our contemporary politics, but what I have seen is that in a political arena of cynicism and corruption, there are those who have dedicated their lives to integrity.
They are journalists, and activists, some lawyers and advocates, judges and justices. And if there is one thing I have learnt as a young journalist in the age of State Capture, is that this country is always wrestling to become the best of itself. DM
In other news...
The South African economy is choking harder than the Proteas. Although to be choking you have to actually be eating and the Proteas seem to be on some sort of juice cleanse-like fast…*
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*Proteas, you know we love you. We’d just love you more if you won occasionally...
Ring of Fire as performed by Johnny Cash was actually written by June Carter.