Defend Truth


The messy business of rebuilding South Africa after a decade of State Capture


Judith February is a lawyer and author of ‘Turning and Turning: Exploring the Complexities of South Africa’s Democracy’ (PanMacmillan)

The State Capture project lasted for a decade. It will take as long – probably longer – to fix the state. But that may not be entirely possible. Sometimes institutions cannot be repurposed after being captured.

It’s been a rather depressing week.

Boris Johnson, a man obviously unfit to be the British prime minister, is on the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street; a daughter is found clinging to her father as they both drown in the Rio Grande trying to make their way to a better life in the US; and Zimbabwe reintroduces the Zim dollar, to name but three instances which show that the world truly feels like a spinning top every day.

Here in South Africa, we have our own daily dose of political mayhem, yet the most depressing story must have been that government needed a loan to pay Denel staff. Those are the direct consequences of State Capture. So, Jacob Zuma should be held to account for that (as should all others who looted unashamedly) and appear before the Zondo Commission without whingeing about being persecuted. What was allowed to persist has been criminal.

It’s been a week since the State of the Nation Address. That has left us time to dissect the speech and also take a step back and see where we find ourselves. It is, as always, despite the talk of a “New Dawn” and “Thuma mina” a grim point in post-apartheid history. The economy is in crisis with near-daily retrenchment announcements, public trust in institutions is low and cynicism prevails.

Daily headlines of doom and gloom do not help.

A Sunday newspaper led with a story about the Public Protector investigating President Cyril Ramaphosa for “money laundering”. This is apparently in respect of a campaign donation when Ramaphosa was running for ANC president in 2017. She has reportedly widened the scope of her investigation of the original R500,000 Bosasa donation which the DA laid a complaint about. She appears, yet again, to be acting beyond the scope of her powers if she is investigating money laundering.

It all seems a “hot mess” and the lead story detailed the ambit of the Public Protector’s investigation without knowing what response Ramaphosa is yet to give. It had the feel of a cliffhanger, but no doubt the Public Protector would have been pleased with the publicity. After all, she seems to relish inserting herself into political matters. The story also reported that Ramaphosa could face “impeachment” if found guilty of “money laundering”.

There are two ways one can remove a president in terms of the Constitution. In terms of s89 (1), the president can be removed for the following reasons by a resolution supported by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly:

  • A serious violation of the Constitution or the law;
  • Serious misconduct; or
  • Inability to perform the functions of office.

In terms of s102 (2), a president can be removed if there is a motion of no confidence in him or her voted upon by a majority of the National Assembly. This means the president and his entire Cabinet of ministers and deputy ministers “must resign”.

Sometimes the tug to reality and the Constitution serve our public discourse better than loosely throwing words like “impeachment” around.

As it is, we are in a daily breathless mode about which faction is “winning” – Ace or Cyril? This, again, is unhelpful and speculative. The fact is – and it remains the case – that Ramaphosa won a narrow victory at Nasrec. That is no secret. He is constrained by a party that is deeply corrupt, and Secretary-General Ace Magashule is doubtless trying to undermine the reformist agenda. That has consequences.

We should take the step back and try to understand that whatever happens – SONA, the Budget, action on SOEs – will be complex. There is no silver bullet for the state we are in. Ramaphosa was clear about this in his reply to the SONA debate when he said:

There are no shortcuts… if ever there was a notion that… we would have a magic wand and change the trajectory of our economy overnight, I should disappoint you.”

South Africans love heroes and saviours. Ramaphosa is neither.

What Ramaphosa did not say was that the “turnaround” will depend on which fights he takes on and which ones he pragmatically leaves. So, is it worth going to fisticuffs about Faith Muthambi’s chairing the Cogta portfolio committee? Probably not if one is in Ramaphosa’s shoes.

Of course, it’s deeply unsatisfactory, but politics is always about the pragmatic and the possible – ask anyone in power.

That Denel was unable to pay employees is chilling. It is relying on a lender to pay staff this month. Who is this lender and on what terms is he/she/it lending us money? What happens next? This is a fundamental breach of trust between citizen-employees and the state. Ramaphosa has all this on his plate, and Eskom, and a myriad other issues which have no easy solutions.

It is all rather depressing, but can we be surprised? There is daily outrage about the dirty scandals aired at the Zondo Commission and other commissions of inquiry. Again, that’s the deal. Once the inquiry starts, the dirt becomes public. We are able to hear and know what happened and then look to the president, his Cabinet and democratic institutions to stop the looting and, at the very least, the most egregious acts of corruption.

Despite the continued flow of bad news, the crude State Capture project has not been able to gain momentum. A considerable spoke has been put into the wheel at SARS and the National Prosecuting Authority. That does not mean corruption has ended, as the sorry state of municipal finances again indicates, to provide but one example.

What it does mean is that we are in a messy, mistake-riddled phase of rebuilding and making attempts to ensure accountability in public life. These efforts will not be a straight line and there will be losses as well as gains. We are waiting for prosecutions and for institutions like SARS to start exercising their mandates with integrity. The cleanup at SOEs will require bold decisions.

This week in Parliament, minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan said Eskom would be unbundled and that progress towards a split was “going well”. It will, however, mean job losses – how could it not? That will be tricky to navigate, given the dire state of the economy. Yet, for how much longer can the public be asked to bail out Eskom (and other SOEs)? SAA is in an equally dismal state and we need to ask whether we need a national carrier. On the SABC, the less said the better.

The State Capture project was a decade long. It will take as long – probably longer – to try and fix the state. But that may not be entirely possible. Sometimes institutions cannot be repurposed after being captured.

That is the grim reality as we count the cost and repercussions of the rot within the ANC.

This is the narrative in which we find ourselves. All that will be different will be the day of the week and the particular actors in the daily drama.

Cool heads will be required in the days ahead to bring about some steadying of the ship and to stave off further decline. DM