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Plunder of biblical proportions: The Ten Commandments of Corruption


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 ‘Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better’ (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.

While unearthing the skeletons of 350 years of corruption in South Africa, we noticed that the tricks corruptors use have barely changed a jot. In fact, our dear, dastardly leaders have adhered to 10 crooked commandments with an almost evangelical fervour.

Our book Rogues’ Gallery shows that corruption in South Africa has existed for at least as long as our history has been recorded. By focusing on a dozen skelms – starting with Willem Adriaan van der Stel in 1700 and ending with Jacob Zuma – we discovered that corruption is part of our national DNA. (On the positive side, so is whistle-blowing.)

Given that the plunder has, at times, been of biblical proportions, we thought it might be useful to come up with 10 Commandments of Corruption.

  1. Thou shalt gift thyself land and a house at the government’s expense 

With Nkandla and its firepool so fresh in our minds, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that JZ’s KwaZulu-Natal bolthole was somehow unique. Sadly, all 13 chapters of our book feature at least one government-funded personal pleasure dome.

In 1700, Van der Stel didn’t just get the land Vergelegen was built on for free, he also used company labour, materials, seed and livestock to build a moerse manor, plant magnificent gardens and set up by far the largest agricultural operation at the Cape. If this wasn’t enough, he sold the fruits of all this labour back to the Company at prices he determined! And then there was Lord Charles Somerset whose mansion in Newlands was a perfect foreshadowing of the events at Nkandla. He too was told he had to pay back the money. 

More recently, the Matanzima brothers in the Transkei and Lucas Mangope in Bophuthatswana both pulled off the age-old trick of farming state land for personal gain. Mangope was also found guilty of spending almost R20-million (in today’s money) of taxpayer funds on improvements to his personal residence. 

  1. Thou shalt sing thy own praises and slander thy foes 

If you thought JZ had a high opinion of himself, you obviously haven’t read the document in which Van der Stel described himself as: 

“A person of all honour and virtue in his whole conduct, government, intercourse, and treatment. That he always set, and always has set, a splendid example of modesty, of zeal for the public welfare, of religion in the Christian form; further, that he is affable towards everyone, in listening and in granting audience, and finally, that he is of a very kind and gentle nature.” 

On the flipside, he described Adam Tas (the guy who bravely blew the whistle on his corrupt dealings, despite the very real threat of imprisonment, torture and even death) as “a canting rogue” who indulged in “many years of idle living”. The worst part? The three centuries since then have also been filled with pathological vanity… 

  1. Thou shalt view every tender as an opportunity for graft

If you reckon kickbacks are unique to our current government, it’s probably time to revise this view. In 1801, Sir George Yonge was paid around R40-million in today’s money to turn a blind eye to the illegal importation of slaves into the Cape Colony. And in the 1890s, 21 (out of a total of 25) members of Paul Kruger’s Volksraad accepted improper gifts including gold watches and carriages from a railway tenderpreneur with plenty to gain from them. Shameless graft is as old as South Africa itself. 

  1. Thou shalt try thy damnedest to procure thyself a newspaper or broadcaster

If you thought the Zuptas’ shenanigans with ANN7 and The New Age were a low ebb for the free press in South Africa, you’ve got another thing coming. #FakeNews is as old as Mzansi. Since the establishment of South Africa’s first newspaper under the autocratic rule of Lord Somerset, our leaders have cajoled, coerced and downright controlled editors and journalists. 

Not content with their vice-like grip on the Afrikaans press, the apartheid government, with the sleazy assistance of Eschel Rhoodie and Louis Luyt, clandestinely launched The Citizen, which peddled apartheid lies in soutie taal. At the height of their Machiavellian propaganda mission, they even tried to buy the Washington Star in the US.

  1. Thou shalt make the judiciary thy sworn enemy

If you thought Jacob Zuma’s attack on the Zondo Commission was unprecedented, you would be horribly mistaken. At the tribunal into his conduct, Van der Stel kept track of proceedings from behind a thin door through which “it was possible to hear every word”. 

Kruger barged into his prosecutor’s bedroom to shower him with legal opinions and desires (not to mention sputum) when he wanted to get his way in the courts. The apartheid government went further and stacked the courts with their own judges to a degree that makes Zuma look like a novice. And when PW Botha found out that Judge Anton Mostert’s commission looking into the Information Scandal was acting independently, he dropped it like a hot braaibroodjie

  1. Thou shalt invoke the Lord’s name for thy purposes

Zuma may have said that the ANC would stay in power until the return of Jesus, but he was certainly not the only of our leaders to tell the population that God was on his side. 

Oom Paul Kruger’s Dopper Church was fundamentally opposed to music, dancing and the scandalous suggestion that the Earth might not be flat. Despite thinking booze was the work of the devil, Oom Paul believed that he and his Volksraads had heavenly permission to receive kickbacks from the owners of the ZAR’s biggest liquor distillery! 

Fast forward half a century, and the NG Kerk-backed Broederbond presided over a systematic programme of state capture which, in many ways, provided the blueprint for JZ. And in the 1980s, after the Methodist Church of South Africa stopped sending him Christmas cards, Chief KD Matanzima did a modern-day impression of Henry VIII, creating a church of his own. 

  1. Honour thy friends only until they get in thy way

The factionalism of the ANC is hardly new. One of the main issues our corrupt leaders have encountered is dealing with the flak when their friends grow a backbone and question their behaviour. Many of our leaders have befriended liberal, law-abiding men and women, often because they want to use them in some manner. But again and again they have found it necessary to throw these people under the gravy train when the time is right. 

From Willem Adriaan van der Stel to Cecil John Rhodes to Lucas Mangope, there always comes a time in any corrupt man’s life (and they are almost always men) when it is easier to rid oneself of meddlesome or inconvenient friends. 

  1. Thou shalt change thy political ideology on a tickey

Granted, Zuma is a little erratic when it comes to his ideological standpoints. But his swings from benevolent socialist to greedy materialist are certainly not unusual in South African history. 

In the first half of the 20th century, arch Broederbonder Nico Diederichs went from Nazi sympathiser to corrupt capitalist in a matter of a few years. But even he didn’t come close to CJ Rhodes. Rhodes was all things to all men, it just depended on who was standing in front of him. He spoke like a liberal in front of liberals, he claimed to be an “Afrikander” in front of Afrikaners, and an arch-imperialist in front of any jingoist. It just depended on who could help him out in the acquisition of money. 

  1. Thou shalt be the champion of crooks

Many people were shocked by Jacques Pauw’s revelation that Zuma “cavort[ed] with the Western Cape’s most notorious gangsters”. But Zuma was certainly not the first South African president to cosy up to common criminals. 

Van der Stel’s landdrost, Beelzebub, was the 18th-century equivalent of a West Rand heavy, while Sir George Yonge made a pretty penny out of his close relationships with slave smugglers.

Somerset too was certainly not shy of using spies and strong-arm tactics against anybody who stood in his way. He sided with people who used extortion and bribery within the Colony, as well as with his son, who refused to pay his debts. As for Rhodes? He got his bestie, Dr Leander Starr Jameson, to wage war against any tribe or state he thought might be sitting on gold deposits.

  1. Thou shalt destroy all evidence!

Zuma has often been accused of adopting the Stalingrad approach to his court cases. Enormous amounts of evidence against him have been to date overlooked with regards to the infamous Arms Deal.

But this doesn’t even compare to Operation Masada that occurred at the end of apartheid. Masada laid waste to a massive quantity of documentary records detailing the South African government’s vast money laundering and arms deal networks. As Hennie van Vuuren put it, the destruction of information was of an “allegedly biblical proportion”. In fact, every one of the rogues in his book engaged in a little shredding, a little burning, a little flushing of their sins down the old WC.

Coming up with 10 Commandments which encapsulate the scale and the scope of our national obsession with peculation was more challenging than we expected. If you, our gentle readers, can think of better ones, we’re all ears. DM


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  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    These points are applicable to the upper eschalon of society. The bottom feeders have different techniques, but are just as corrupt. It helps to be in a position of authority. Dishonesty is in the genes of homo sapiens. Recommended reading: The (honest) truth about dishonesty, by Daniel Ariely.

  • Philip Mirkin says:

    Thanks Guys. I like the angle you’ve taken. Let’s hope we have the capacity to grow up at some point…

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Very interesting angle and a light-hearted treatment of a fundamental human flaw. I had an ex-PAC business partner who often joked “What’s the point of high office if one cannot indulge in a little nepotism and self gratification?” But the truth is evil in others does not exonerate yours!

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    Interesting take. You could also have mentioned “To The Point” magazine, which as I remember it was set up to give an alternate narrative to Time magazine.

  • Charles Kieck says:

    Dwelling on the past does not absolve or justify the present lot of corruptors. What happened 300 years ago does not improve our lives today. Get real it is 2021 and we are being destroyed by these crooks NOW.

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    After God gave the climate and all the mineral bounty to Southern Africa, an angel asked why he was giving SA so much. His reply “Wait til you see the governments I’ll be giving them”. I used to think that was a joke ……….

  • Charles Parr says:

    When all is said and done there has been plenty of skelmheid going back over many hundreds of years but the proportional damage being done today is far greater than it was in the past and has the biggest impact on those with the least ability to protect themselves.

  • Sydney Smith says:

    And so it goes on all around the world . Point a finger and you have three pointing back at you!

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