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Putin’s lessons for South Africa: He has taken State Capture to its logical conclusion


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

For South Africans, it is not possible to understand Putin’s state with its Mafia/KGB origin, its hatred of democracy and its devastation of Ukraine, without comparing it with State Capture under the ANC government of Jacob Zuma, who studied in Russia as a pupil of its despotism and corruption.

Earl Browder – married to a Russian Jewish woman – was leader of the Communist Party of the United States of America during the whole of the Great Depression and the Second World War and was imprisoned in the US during both the First and Second World Wars. Members of his family worked for the Soviet Union’s secret intelligence agency. He supported all Stalin’s crimes during Stalin’s lifetime.

Few American families have had a closer political connection with the Soviet Union.

Yet Bill Browder, Earl Browder’s grandson – a wealthy US financier, founder of the Russian investment company, Hermitage Capital Management, and now a British citizen – said of his tax adviser in Moscow, Sergei Magnitsky: “He wouldn’t be dead if he hadn’t been working for me. That has been the thing sitting on my shoulders every day for the past 12 years.” [Interview with Tom Whipple, “How I’ve survived Putin’s death threats (and Trump’s stupidity)”, The Times Magazine, London, 1 April 2022].

Sergei Magnitsky was tortured and killed in a Moscow prison after being arrested in 2009.

In a US Senate hearing in 2017, Republican senator Chuck Grassley said: “In 2007, Russian government officials and members of organised crime… stole the corporate identity of three Hermitage companies and used them fraudulently, obtaining $230-million.

“Hermitage filed criminal complaints with law enforcement agencies in Russia. In response, the Russian government assigned the case to the very officials involved in the crime … Mr Magnitsky, Mr Browder’s lawyer and the one who uncovered the fraud, was eventually jailed and died under highly suspicious circumstances.”

The article by Tom Whipple continues: “Despite this, Browder had faith that the Russian legal system would avenge Magnitsky’s death. Through months of torture, Magnitsky had meticulously recorded his treatment.” What Browder discovered was that (according to Whipple) “this isolated and – in the scheme of things – small fraud was not isolated at all.

“The $230-million was sliced and diced, used to buy silence and influence and sloshed into a great river of corrupt cash – hundreds of billions – flowing from the turbulence and treacherous rapids of Russia for the placid and predictable property rights of the West. This money represents the safety and security of Russia’s millionaires, but it is so much more than that. It is Putin’s tool of patronage and power. It is, Bowder maintains, the cement of the Russian state.

“This was, he says, the problem facing Putin. He could not make an example of a few prison guards. The river of money ran too deep and, in any case, ‘He was a beneficiary of the crime. The Magnitsky case was the piece of string that if you pulled on it could unravel the whole system’.”

Browder’s book, Freezing Order, is about his fight for what became the Magnitsky Act in 34 countries, as a result of which those involved in corruption or human rights abuses in Russia can have their assets seized.

According to Browder, “Vladimir Putin is a criminal personally. He participates financially in crimes, he orders murders, he lies to governments and creates false narratives. And everything that happened to Sergei and to all the people around us is an absolute carbon copy of what’s happening on a much larger basis … And he knew the Magnitsky Act was going to become the template for going after his money. And that’s why he hated it so much.”

As the article points out, after the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, “the country’s vast wealth was carved out between a few people canny or brutal enough to get it for a song”.

As a former insider in the system and, like his grandfather, married to a Russian woman, Browder continues: “The oligarchs are not like rich people I’ve met anywhere else … in Russia, you can’t be an oligarch unless Putin decides that you’re entitled to be an oligarch. If he doesn’t want you to be an oligarch, he’ll take your money away and throw you in jail or kill you…

“We don’t understand the medieval nature of Russia because we can’t put ourselves into their system. You can’t be the most powerful person in Russia and not be the most brutal person in Russia and not be the richest person in Russia. To be the tsar you cannot be subordinate to anyone.”

For South Africans, it is not possible to understand Putin’s state with its Mafia/KGB origin, its hatred of democracy and its slaughter and devastation of Ukraine, without comparing it with State Capture under the ANC government of Jacob Zuma, who studied in Russia as a pupil of its despotism and corruption.

Very fortunately, from its Constitution under Nelson Mandela, South Africa inherited a legal system and a culture of media freedom from a different historical background compared with that inherited by Russia from serfdom – the basis of Putin’s gangster wealth, murderous autocracy and his imperialist war against Ukraine.

The government of Cyril Ramaphosa, however, is effectively continuing Zuma’s alliance with Russian autocracy and corruption, both in violating the Constitutional Court’s ruling in 2020 on the need for electoral reform including individual candidacy for political office and in its servile response  to Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The worst features of the ANC in exile and in government are in evidence and indicate a serious threat to democracy.

South Africa plus Russia equals Quatro. DM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    This article should be compulsory reading for those that think ‘a neutral stance’ is an appropriate response to Putin’s attempted invasion of Ukraine. I do not understand the argument that says ‘the aggression of NATO’ is a factor in considering one’s response to the invasion. NATO is a defensive alliance of nations that believe in democracy, i.e. the government of the people by the people for the people, – compare that to Putin’s Russia. The rationale of NATO is that rather than leaving smaller nations to be picked off one by one by aggressive regimes e.g. the Nazi invasion of Poland, the members nations of NATO know that if they are attacked all the other member nations of NATO will give military support to the attacked nation. That is not aggression but simply stopping democracy, as described above, being destroyed by some authoritarian regime – ‘All for one, one for all’.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    When might my comment below be moderated?

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