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There’s gold buried in the Zondo Commission reports, let’s not only mine the silver and tinsel

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Oliver Dickson is a political commentator and broadcaster, formerly hosting Late Night Talk on Radio 702. He is also a former competitive debater having ranked as the best debater in Africa at the African Championships.

In reporting the contents of the Zondo reports, we need to make unknown names famous if they deserve to become known villains. It would be wrong to focus on minor characters who happen to be of interest to the public because they are famous or notorious, but who are not in the public interest.

One of the dangers of having too much information made available to you as a citizen is that accountability, ironically enough, can be compromised if that information is not properly mined, synthesised skilfully and analysed carefully – coupled with State Capture fatigue and a sheer overwhelmedness to study the information diligently and not hastily.

Part one of the State Capture Report is an excellent example of this danger. It is more than 800 pages long and yet is but the first of three instalments in the making of the presentation of Justice Raymond Zondo’s final findings. There are at least three pitfalls to be avoided that are worth examining.

The first pitfall is: focusing insufficiently on institutions.

At the heart of State Capture lies the destruction of our institutions. These, most obviously, included the state-owned entities. Equally disturbing, of course, is the destruction of state institutions that were supposed to help protect us against State Capture. We have yet, by way of just one example, to reckon fully with the political role of the State Security Agency.

Volume one of part one of the State Capture Report is an excellent example of how the agency was in cahoots with the likes of former South African Airways board chairperson Dudu Myeni. She never acted alone. She was able to hollow out SAA only because other institutions of the state were part of the set-up that allowed the public aviation sector to be fleeced.

What does this mean? It would be a mistake to underemphasise the importance of repairing institutions and systems that had been intentionally broken. An important analytical lens to use when mining the State Capture Report is to engage in close analysis of institutions and systems. This, so far, has been missing from the initial reportage. What were the design faults that allowed SAA to be so porous? What were the design faults that allowed SOEs to misdirect public money to The New Age? These kinds of systems-focused questions must be centred and focused on very closely in the weeks and months ahead.

The second pitfall is that of implicated parties going to the courts in an attempt to delay any further scrutiny from the media and the public.

Embedded deeply in our jurisprudence is the principle of innocent until proven guilty. This phrase is often used by the guilty and innocent alike. “Let’s wait for the courts to pronounce on this,” it goes.

It is deeply fallacious to think of the courts as the only forums where accountability can be meted out. Our democracy has given no more power to courts and judges than it has to ordinary citizens and voters, so we carry an equal and parallel duty to mete out critical questions about the behaviours of certain individuals and institutions, and demand answers and get on with the work of assessing those answers against the available evidence. This is especially critical when those institutions and individuals are likeable or are seen as, on the surface of it, righteous and well meaning.

The implication of Nedbank, for instance, in the report as a potential enabler of corruption raised a lot of eyebrows, but those eyebrows soon gave way to muted questions when the bank announced it did no wrong, and will cooperate with any further investigations.

The media and public, like the investigative authorities, should be bombarding Nedbank with questions relating to the mentioned Acsa transaction, we don’t need to wait for the courts to do so.

The third pitfall to be avoided is to wrongly focus on minor characters who happen to be of interest to the public but who are not in the public interest.

The distinction is important and will be explained shortly. If someone is a legitimate target of public accountability, then of course they should be named and shamed. Myeni was not a minor character. She was a major actor in the State Capture game. It is appropriate that she gets the kind of attention and scrutiny that we see playing out in the public discussion on the report so far. Focusing on her should not be at the expense of simultaneously focusing on institutional questions and systems analysis. We can do both. We must do both.

That said, we have an obsession as South Africans, which the media sometimes feeds, of following the lives of public figures with morbid fascination. That is why tabloid journalism does so well in South Africa. It is also why “mainstream” media have collapsed at times into tabloidisation.

There was a fixation in the past, for example, on all the fancy cars Edwin Sodi had in his garage and his relationship with his socialite girlfriend, or the fascination with the obnoxiousness with which Markus Jooste lived his high-rolling life – this often came at the expense of understanding how Jooste was able to bamboozle a highly educated, two-tier board into being derelict in their fiduciary duty, for instance, or how Sodi and Blackhead Consulting were able to viciously manipulate the Public Finance Management Act.

The increased commercial pressure to make money, when traditional media products are in decline globally, worsens this trend. Genuine public interest concerns issues and people and institutions that affect our lives materially. It is an editorial value judgement that must be made delicately. But because we are nosey, impatient and often lazy, we are routinely, as readers, viewers and listeners, also interested in things that are not of material concern to the public. This difference must be taken into account by media apparatus over the future lifespan of unpacking State Capture.

What does this mean practically? If you see a name, for example, in a footnote that happens to be a famous name, the responsible question to ask is whether or not that name is central to the theft of public money, central to the destruction of our institutions, or in enabling thereof, or if said person or institution’s “presence” at the crime scene is innocuous at worst, or irrelevant at best.

That is but one example of public interest versus of interest to the public.

The journalistic challenge is to tell the real story of the content of the report so well that the media can make money while also being ethical.

With parts two and three of the report forthcoming, as media houses compete with each other for mindshare, it is to be hoped that none of them will let the crooks who are not famous get away with criminality by focusing on non-core issues or minor characters who are not central to the grand-scale looting we have witnessed in South Africa. We need to make unknown names famous if they deserve to become known villains.

The Zondo Commission did excellent work. It is up to us to use the report ethically in order to do justice to that work. The starting point is to mine the report with a view to understanding the deeper truths in it rather than to use it to create a quick set of infographics that can make you trend quickly on social media. DM

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  • I applaud your warning tgat we need to focus on deeper institutional analysis “The first pitfall is: focusing insufficiently on institutions” Yes: “Focusing on her [Myeni] should not be at the expense of simultaneously focusing on institutional questions and systems analysis. We can do both. We must do both.” YES, thanks for this emphasis

  • Besides being well written and well argued, Mr Dickson, you’ve done a great job to get us to dig deeper into the State Capture Project and to focus not on the bit-players but on the institutions that were captured and that enabled the decimation of our state infrastructure. I would like to see Nedbank further investigated.

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