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Historical odds: If you’re expecting JZ to don orange overalls, don’t hold your breath


Nick Dall has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. As a journalist covering everything from cricket to chameleons, his favourite stories are always those about people — dead or alive, virtuous or villainous. He is the co-author with Matthew Blackman of Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa and Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped South Africa (both Penguin Random House). Matthew Blackman has written as a journalist on corruption in South Africa, as well as on art, literature and history. He recently completed a PhD at the University of East Anglia. He lives in Cape Town with a dog of nameless breed.

Many are claiming that if Jacob Zuma had lived in any previous era, he would already have gone to jail many times over. But the facts tell a different story — as Nick Dall and Matthew Blackman found out while researching Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa, from the VOC to the ANC (Penguin Random House).

With the Constitutional Court currently considering whether JZ should go to jail for failing to appear at the Zondo Commission, and the prospect of a much longer jail term at the former president’s corruption trial in May, South Africans are excited at the prospect of Zuma being moved from one form of state-sponsored accommodation to another, less glamorous, one.

On the prima facie evidence, which seems to run the length of a Russian novel, Zuma should have been in orange overalls some years ago. But as the authors of a book that details 350 years of fiendish South African corruption, we can say with authority that if it ever happens, it would be an unprecedented event in our history. Of the 15 major skelms covered in Rogues’ Gallery, only one saw the inside of a prison cell. And George Matanzima was only the prime minister of the “independent” Transkei, not the head honcho in the land. (And he didn’t spend very long in jail.)

Strictly speaking, Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel was an employee of a private company – the Dutch East India Company, or the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC). But in every other regard, the crimes he committed at Vergelegen between 1700 and 1706 were the very definition of State Capture. As the brave whistle-blowers who risked torture and death wrote in a document they smuggled aboard a ship bound for the Netherlands, “the Governor may justly be considered as a scourge unto the people of the land”. Incredibly, the whistle-blowers did manage to get Willem Adriaan fired and booted back to Europe. But there was never even a question of him facing jail time. Instead, the buildings on Vergelegen (but not the land) were sold for his benefit and he died a wealthy man in Lisse.

The decision to fire Sir George Yonge, a woefully corrupt and incompetent British Governor, was made less than a year after he arrived at the Cape in 1800. After receiving his pink slip, Yonge was denied official passage home and forced instead to hitch a lift home on a private ship. But that was where the embarrassment ended.

Lord Charles Somerset, who was in charge from 1814 to 1825, not only used state funds to build himself private houses, but allowed a coterie of individuals to live off the state and turned a blind eye to their corrupt acts. When the British could no longer take his corruption, they ordered him back to London to explain himself. However, when the matter of impeachment was raised, Lord Bathurst, secretary of state for the colonies and fellow member of the Tory Party, wrote to Somerset saying: “As you will be attacked upon party principles … you are entitled to party support.” Even this was unnecessary, as the one MP who had demanded that Somerset be impeached mysteriously failed to pitch up to the debate. The “noble” Lord Charles was offered an unqualified acquittal. Somerset retired to Brighton, where he died peacefully in his sleep.

The second half of the 19th century was dominated by two of the most towering (and toweringly corrupt) figures in our history: Cecil John Rhodes and Oom Paul Kruger. Rhodes was even almost found guilty of bribery after the 1898 election. However, the same judge who stated that Rhodes “had come perilously close” to bribery, was also a man who had pocketed a “gift” from Rhodes of 750 shares some years before. But there was never even a question of him going to jail. The most that could have come from the trial was for Rhodes to lose his seat in Parliament – which he didn’t. Instead, scholarships, memorials and even entire nations were named after him.

Paul Kruger, who presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in the history of our land, is remembered by a statue funded by one of his favourite tenderpreneurs, a national park whose establishment he tried to prevent and, perhaps most pertinently of all, a solid gold coin.

Nico Diederichs, chairman of the Broederbond, finance minister and state president, was lucky not to be imprisoned during World War 2 for treason. But Jan Smuts thought it might cause too much trouble. Instead, the future prime minister BJ Vorster (who was not particularly influential at the time) was sent to the internment camp at Koffiefontein for two years for being a general of the fascist Ossewabrandwag – and little good that seemed to do him.

Later, Diederichs, nicknamed “Dr Gold”, was caught up in myriad corrupt acts, not one of which was considered by the apartheid state to be prosecutable. And then there was the mind-boggling corruption that surrounded the Information Scandal of the 1970s, all of which was signed off by Diederichs, Vorster and Connie Mulder. After two commissions of inquiry, Eschel Rhoodie, who was admittedly the mastermind behind it all, was dragged back from the French Riviera to face trial. He was initially found guilty, but the judgment was overturned on appeal. He died while attending a court in Atlanta, Georgia – it was, however, a court of the tennis variety. Rhoodie died living his best life.

The only top-tier leader (the term is used very loosely) in South African history to go to jail for corruption was George Matanzima, who served as prime minister of the Transkei for little over a year. After Matanzima had been swept aside, in a bloodless coup, by the new broom that was Bantu Holomisa, he was “charged with nine counts of corruption, and alternative charges of bribery involving thousands of rands in the awards of building contracts for housing schemes in Butterworth and Umtata between 1985 and 1987”. He was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to nine years in prison. He served almost three years before receiving a pardon. It should be noted that Holomisa was later expelled from the ANC for calling out corruption within party ranks.

Another apartheid-era skelm was able to escape jail time, despite being tried after democracy belatedly washed up on our shores in 1994. In 1998, Lucas Mangope (who served as president of Bophuthatswana for all 27 years of that “country’s” existence) was found guilty on 102 counts of theft and fraud totalling R3,543,685. Despite the severity of the crimes, he received a two-year suspended sentence and was ordered to repay his victims to avoid going to jail.

So, do we think JZ is off to tjoekie in the near future? South Africa’s history in the accountability department is not a good one, but the Constitutional Court has proven that it can make tough decisions in the face of political pressures. Let’s just hope that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng (or whoever replaces him) has some muscle memory left in that arm that once wielded the “mighty sword that stands ready to chop the ugly head of impunity off its stiffened neck”. DM


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All Comments 3

  • A very enjoyable article and I learnt a few things as well !
    I am old enough to remember Nico Diedericks – chief skelm of the apartheid era !

  • A noted historian has said that it is an unfortunate fact that, throughout history, all societies can be persuaded to accept bribery and corruption as a system of government provided that the circle of beneficiaries is wide enough – this was developed as an art in Europe and England centuries ago.

  • For many years I’ve wondered whether anyone knows how much Nico Diedericks and his chums were paid for redirecting the sale of SA gold from the London to the Zurich gold market. That must have been a whack to have offshore in those days.

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