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Helen Zille is right: State Capture is not a Zuma thing — it’s a South Africa thing

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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.

Students of history will know that State Capture predates apartheid — by at least 250 years. Given Helen Zille’s predilection for colonialism, it makes sense for her to gloss over the fact that State Capture — along with her much-loved ‘independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc’ — is a European import. But this is the unvarnished truth.

We don’t often find ourselves agreeing with Helen Zille these days, but she really hit the nail on the head when she responded to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s promise to end State Capture by saying that “State Capture is not a Zuma thing”.

It almost goes without saying that the above soundbite was part of a wider attack on Ramaphosa and the ANC. On her Facebook page, Zille wrote: “State capture, through the ANC’s deployment committee, remains in full swing, under the Presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. That is why I laughed out loud when I heard our President promise an end to ‘State Capture’ in the ANC’s January 8 statement. He clearly has no idea what the concept is.”

Here too Zille is at least half right. The flurry of post-Zumarian Covid corruption scandals has made it abundantly clear that there is no quick fix to our problems. As Zondo has shown, State Capture is both real and pervasive. On the other hand, we have to disagree with her assertion that Cyril doesn’t understand the concept of State Capture. Having served as deputy president under Zuma he should have a firmer grasp on the nuts and bolts of State Capture than any of us.

But we digress. What really bothers us about the DA’s gleeful attack on “cadre deployment” is the none-too-subtle implication that giving jobs to party loyalists is somehow an ANC invention. While Zille is right in questioning the practice, she is wrong in implying that what the ANC is doing is in any way new to South Africa.

On 7 January, Zille even went as far as tweeting: “If, under apartheid, it had been revealed, through the release of Broederbond minutes, that they hand-picked judges, it would have been a scandal of unimaginable proportions. There has now been a comparable revelation in our democracy. Barely a peep.”

As an ex-Rand Daily Mail journalist, Zille should be aware that the Broederbond didn’t keep minutes, and that the Broederbond-controlled Nats certainly did pack the courts, as Judge Dennis Davis put it, with judges “in their own political image”.

In the 1950s, the Nats also altered constitutional legislation through highly dubious means to wrest control of the senate. And although Verwoerd did launch a supposed investigation into the Broederbond’s activities, this utterly farcical inquiry was overseen by a National Party-appointed judge and by two high-ranking Broederbonders. Judge Raymond Zondo has done an infinitely more thorough and impartial job of exposing government failings than any apartheid-era commission of inquiry ever did.

Curiouser still, outrage against these apartheid actions was raised repeatedly in — you guessed it — the Rand Daily Mail. Although many of these events were before her time, the fact that Zille seems unaware of this history is a little odd. (We give a good account of what went down in our upcoming book on the history of “democracy” in South Africa, Spoilt Ballots.)

Students of history will know that the State Capture problem predates apartheid — by at least 250 years. Given Zille’s predilection for colonialism, it makes sense for her to gloss over the fact that State Capture — along with her much-loved “independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc” — is a European import. But this is the unvarnished truth.

While writing Rogues’ Gallery, a catalogue of 350 years of corruption in South Africa, we discovered that State Capture is a VOC thing, a British colonial thing, a ZAR thing, a homeland thing and an apartheid thing. The VOC, the British, Kruger, Rhodes, Botha, Smuts, Hertzog and the apartheid-era Nats all dallied in antidemocratic State Capture — with varying degrees of success. None of this makes ANC State Capture before, during and after Zuma any less deplorable. But it is wholly inaccurate to imply that the ANC invented South African State Capture.

But, as Zille should also be aware of, packing courts and capturing the state is no longer simply a local problem. The issues surrounding the appointment of judges to the US Supreme Court are a daily reminder that contemporary “democratic” political parties will, by their very nature, try to influence and select the judiciary in their own image. Globally, the scourge of recent democratic politics has been extreme partisanship and increasingly polarised ideologies. This has created a recipe for State Capture the world over.

South Africa under the ANC has in many ways been a testing ground for this new form of “democratic” partisan politics. Democracy is meant to be an open deliberative process, a political system of limits, of checks and balances, of the separation of powers. Can our country even be said to be a democracy where these in real terms do not exist? Where one party essentially decides who the judges are, who the Public Protector is, who is appointed to the SOEs?

Zille does have a point. But the question lingers: would any kind of change in government in South Africa alter this state of affairs? Perhaps one issue that Zille should sit down and chew on is that her newfound political stance — that of the “anti-woke” right — is, across the democratic world, currently engaged in very similar practices to those of the ANC. Just how the DA, with its ever-increasing ideological stance, will (if it ever gets its mittens on the real levers of power) distance itself from these non-democratic practices is not easy to say.

What might, however, help is if Zille and her fellow members in the DA look into our history and open the odd newspaper. There they will find that (a) State Capture is not an ANC thing… it’s a South Africa thing and (b) the politics she is aligning herself to is one that has disturbingly ANC-like undemocratic practices. DM

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All Comments 27

  • This article is, unfortunately, a very intellectually undisciplined and confused bit of nonsense.
    One would have thought that any one venturing into the vexed question of state capture and related or unrelated nefarious activities would have taken care to define the terminology used and taken further care to match the defined terms to facts on the ground.
    Both the authors ( and possibly Zille as well ) feel they are at liberty to use language and historical events in whatever way it suits them )
    Like Humpty Dumpty in ” Alice in wonderland they use language according to the crude maxim :
    ” when I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean.. neither more nor less ”

    State Capture, nepotism, political favouritism, corruption are all different.
    ” State Capture ” is usually taken to mean the undue , illegitimate control or influence by private interests in the affairs or processes of state administration or decision -making.
    One looks forward to a more thoughtful examination as to how this phenomenon has taken root under the ANC.

    • I agree. This point made in this article could have been complete in three sentences. For context of scale of state capture in the last decade there is no mention and it would seem to me as a South African in 2022, thats the point. The ANC was supposed to liberate our nation but yet they have systemically denuded the economy and state functions which were supposed to be rebuilt in the interests of society.

  • Dall and Blackman manage to agree with both Zille and the DA while at the same time being as negative as possible. Their central thesis, that all these nefarious practices go back 100’s of years, is mildly interesting, but completely irrelevant to the existential crises that SA now faces. The post 94 era, along with our Constitution, intended to try to break the cycle of political abuse and exploitation, in the hope that we’d genuinely be able to achieve better outcomes. What both the Zondo Commission and the DA’s revelations now confirm is that our ruling party had no such intention. What Zille means when she says that State Capture is a South African thing is that in every branch of government, through the civil service and including our SOE complex, is that competition for tenders and control of the procurement process is both fundamental and overwhelmingly dominant. The goal is rent seeking. In this scenario literally nothing is or can be built. And this means that what we have here now is not remotely comparable to any previous chapter in SA’s troubled history. So many examples amply illustrate this but perhaps the railway system is one of the best ones. First the British colonial rulers and later the Nats built it and expanded it and grew it, and while I’m sure many friends were enriched in the process, the result was a functional system of great value. Cadre Deployment has now rendered this fine inheritance to a skeleton. So not really the same thing then.

  • This article is a strange pastiche of strawman whataboutery.

    Summary: “Zille is correct but we still don’t like her so we’re going to invent some counterpoints”.

    For example: “Perhaps one issue that Zille should sit down and chew on is that her newfound political stance — that of the “anti-woke” right — is, across the democratic world, currently engaged in very similar practices to those of the ANC”. Can the authors provide any examples of this. Firstly what exactly are they talking about and which regimes “across the democratic world” match Zille’s purported political stance (which is what?) AND are engaging in state capture like the ANC?

    The DA’s heritage is in the Apartheid opposition and the PFP was active and vocal in decrying the perceived Broederbond interference in state appointments. It boggles the mind that the authors seem to now associate the DA with the Apartheid state.

    As a whole this article comes across as petty sour grapes.

    • How foolish a comment. Were you born at the time of Helen Suzman, or even van Zyl Slabbert? Mate. your precious party of today is a legacy of the old Nationalist party, pretending to be the same Democratic. Blatantly racist in leader selection, failing the poor in areas where they have the majority, and simply a party that employ token Blacks, Indian or Coloured in leadership positions, and call them “experiments”.

          • Sure…someone that cannot even substantiate their claims is not worth talking to.

        • Mr Sittlinger, I am way past the stage of talking to children in primary school. But my answer to your question is a big yes. But perhaps you better ask your leaders in the matric class of ….namely Steenhuisen, JP Smith, and Malzone. They are extremely well qualified to answer your question. Besides, I really do not either wish to speak to you either, as you have very little to offer

          • Funny stuff coming from someone that writes lies and inaccuracies laced with vitriol and hate all the time. Wasn’t a question but a statement that still stands.

        • Sittlinger, mudsling me as much as you wish. Hope you are extremely proud! Sadly, a person like you don’t even know the difference between a question (do you have any proof…….?) and a statement! So, please just go back to primary school!

          • The only one insulting and mudslinging here is you…. and your response was to this thread : “Sure…someone that cannot even substantiate their claims is not worth talking to.”
            Which is clearly a statement.
            Look at this thread and honestly look at who is insulting and escalating. All I asked for was proof for some very sweeping and heavy accusations. You on the other hand have been blasting ad hominem attacks from the get go.

      • Who are you responding to Coen?

        I’m not sure you’re doing yourself or anyone else any favours with your vacuous blathering.

        To answer your questions concretely, yes I am a person of colour born when Helen Suzman and van Z Slabbert were part of an alternative system of government.

        How old exactly are you Coen? According to the gravity of your posts on DM I would guess late teens – perhaps 16/17 – Afrikaner white boy trying to be good cos his Mommie and Daddie are bad but still buy him nice stuff.

        Kudos to you Coen. Aluta continua

        • Actually I lie. Helen Suzman was around when I was born but I’m pretty sure Mr Slabbert was a kid still. I certainly only heard of him as a teen for the first time.

  • Despite most commentators being critical of this article, I however found it most interesting, and fairly accurate. Thank goodness we still live in a country where there is freedom of speech. Messrs. Dall and Blackman, I personally loved the way you wrote the article, and is a refreshing take on things. The only thing that I might (and only might) disagree with is your text book explanation of state capture. Whilst state capture as such in South Africa is not new, it is what happened since Zuma became president that captures our minds right now. What happened in the past is exactly it, in the past. But we are living now, in the present, and the country has suffered immensely because of what Zuma, his cronies, the many members of the ruling party did. Someone must pay for that. If not, many will just continue living in misery for the rest of their lives.

  • Somewhat confusing and confused article . However , while State Capture could well be going back past ANC rule in South Africa , and be apparent elsewhere in the world , its essence is cadre deployment, ie choosing party aligned officials for administrative work. However in this country,in contrast to most democracies around the world , the ruling ANC has given State Capture and its underlying cadre deployment system , a uniquely South African attribute, spectacularly unqualified , incompetent and often corrupt administrators, from the rural villages right up to cabinet level.That is the difference!

  • OMG – “The VOC, the British, Kruger, Rhodes, Botha, Smuts, Hertzog and the apartheid-era Nats all dallied in antidemocratic State Capture.”

    Are you guys for real? Are you saying that, in 1652, there was a democratic government in this country, but the VOC dallied in antidemocratic State Capture? How dumb. There WAS no state – the VOC was the only entity. Likewise for the British. Kruger was a thief – we all know that – no secret revelation there. But Botha? And, even though Smuts was high-handed in his treatment of the strikers and black communities, please point out the instances of his dalliances with State Capture. This is just history rewritten in hogwash.

    The Nets captured the state in 1948 – everybody knows that – and with a minority vote at that. That is no secret. The consequent loss of freedoms (press included) and the plundering of South Africa’s resources was legion. But even the most avid Nat critic is going to have to concede that Guptagate was way ahead of any Nat inspired corruption.

    Please don’t make sweeping statements that are inaccurate and unsubstantiated. As I’ve said before – they simply make you look silly and foppish.

        • Coen, while I agree with a lot of your sentiment, I really cannot understand the need for vitriol, personal attacks and the facetiousness of some of your comments. It detracts from the import of your thoughts.

          • And you think I have not been a the victim of continuous verbal and malicious attacks by opponents to my opinion, by commentators to DM. Even tracing my name through You Tube and then insulting me via email and whatsapp. But if that is your opinion, so be it!

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