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South Africa’s Zondo Commission is a historically unp...

Defend Truth


Zondo Commission is a historically unprecedented national treasure


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.

As South African commissions of inquiry go, nothing even comes close to Judge Zondo’s painstaking and impartial analysis of the evidence. The four volumes of his report are among the most important books printed in our country’s history.

The utterly exhaustive (and let’s face it, exhausting) findings of the Zondo Commission are a product of our democracy that we should be proud of. We live in a world and in a country where populist attacks on democracy and the independent role of the judiciary are wearing democratic institutions down – and winning.

Things were better, so the populist narrative seems to go, before such things as democracy. Considering Zondo’s findings and the recent 28th celebration of our democracy, we thought it might be worth having a look at just how things were before 27 April 1994. As we found while researching Rogues’ Gallery (350 years of corruption) and our latest Spoilt Ballots (200 years of electoral skullduggery), they were hardly rosier.

Nkandla 1.0

In 1706, Adam Tas and 62 other farmers in Stellenbosch smuggled a complaint about Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel ’s corrupt administration onto a ship bound for Amsterdam. Van der Stel’s kleptocratic fiefdom at Vergelegen bore all the hallmarks of State Capture.

Not only did he gift himself the land Vergelegen was established on and use company labour and materials to develop it into the Cape’s largest agricultural operation, but he also sold its produce back to the company he controlled.

When Van der Stel discovered he’d been ratted on, he tossed the complainants into the dungeons of Cape Town Castle and tortured many of them into recanting their accusations. He also presided over a sham commission of inquiry where he kept track of proceedings from behind a thin door through which “it was possible to hear every word”, wrote historian George McCall Theal.

“When any difficulty arose, the commissioners and the prosecutor would step aside, with no attempt at concealment, to consult with the Governor! … The commission was nothing but a puppet show.”

An explosive scandal

In the 1890s, the commission into Edouard Lippert’s decidedly dodgy dynamite concession threatened to blow – literally – Paul Kruger’s corrupt administration of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek into the open. 

Being the only supplier to the world’s largest dynamite market, Lippert had a licence to print money. While his agreement with the government stipulated that he must produce the ontplofbare stoffen on ZAR soil, he had a better idea. He would import the dynamite from Europe and simply repackage it as “Made in the ZAR”.

Soon rumours of his skulduggery abounded and eventually the government was forced to look into the dynamite’s origin. During the commission’s tea break, members of Kruger’s Volksraad gathered in central Pretoria to see whether Lippert really was importing non-explosive “raw materials”. The answer was emphatic. As Land en Volk reported: “The stuff that Mr Lippert alleged was not dynamite exploded with terrific force, throwing great masses of rock into the air.”

As a result of these revelations the dynamite concession was restructured by Kruger. Lippert, however, retained 25,000 shares. Between 1894 and 1896 alone the company sold 1.1 million cases of dynamite … at a profit of about R6,000 (in today’s money) per case!

Up the poll

Kruger adopted a similarly disappointing approach to a commission into alleged electoral fraud. After rigging winning the 1893 election in highly contentious fashion, he appointed a commission of inquiry into alleged irregularities, which included counting votes cast by “lunatics, children under 16, persons resident in other constituencies, persons whose names had been removed from the voting lists and persons who had not even been to the polls”.

As CT Gordon wrote memorably, the commission “regarded speed as the essence of its task”, taking only three days to prepare a report that rubber-stamped Oom Paul’s victory. (Zondo’s innumerable delays don’t seem so bad now, do they?)

Five years later, Cecil John Rhodes showed Kruger that the Brits were equally capable of committing electoral fraud and getting away with it. 

After an electoral campaign in which Rhodes and his cronies bribed voters and officials with literal sacks of gold, CJ was taken to court by the man he beat in the Barkly West election. In court, Rhodes denied everything (a line made possible by the fact that he’d conveniently destroyed all of his election records), and Judge De Villiers found that Rhodes and his election agents “had come perilously close” to bribery, but had not “entered into the forbidden territory”.

Grand (apartheid) larceny

When Rev Beyers Naudé in 1963 leaked papers into the public domain of the secret Broederbond organisation, the parliamentary opposition demanded a public inquiry into what, in contemporary terms, would be called “State Capture”.

Prime Minister HF Verwoerd, a Broederbonder himself, agreed to an inquiry so long as it also included investigations into the Freemasons and the Sons of England. On 9 June 1964, he announced that a one-man commission under apartheid-appointee Judge DH Botha would investigate the three secret organisations.

Verwoerd had stipulated that the commission would collect its evidence “in camera” (i.e. not in public). This was in direct contravention of the Commissions Act, which stated that commissions had to be held in public. The National Party then quickly pushed through legislation to change this law. Judge Botha’s commission into a secret organisation took place in secret.

It later turned out that Botha’s two assistants in the inquiry were high-ranking members of the Broederbond. Naturally, Botha’s commission turned into a complete farce.

Funding fake news

A decade later, a little-known judge by the name of Anton Mostert was running a one-man commission into exchange control violations in a cramped office in Pietermaritzburg. When Mostert subpoenaed the fertiliser baron Louis Luyt, he uncovered what would later become known as the Information Scandal. At the root of this was an absolutely mind-boggling secret propaganda programme that peddled fake news across the globe and engaged in staggering acts of corruption and graft.

When he went public with his findings after a heated private confrontation with PW Botha, his commission was cancelled. As Rand Daily Mail editor Allister Sparks put it, Botha then appointed “a more compliant judge” in order “to prevent any further publication of the scandal under the sub judice rule”.

After two sets of findings, Dr Eschel Rhoodie, the administrative puppet master behind it all, was dragged back from sunny France to face the music. Rhoodie was sentenced to six years in jail, but the sentence was overturned by a Nat-packed Appeal Court.

Be careful what you wish for

Near the end of apartheid, several commissions of inquiry were set up by the new broom that was FW de Klerk. In 1991, Judge B de Villiers Pickard was appointed to head an inquiry into the Department of Development Aid. As Pickard stated in his findings, “public officials felt they were missing out if they were not helping themselves”.

Pickard discovered that tender fraud was rampant and nepotism rife. 

On the publication in 1992 of his report, the ANC demanded the “setting up of an independent commission into corruption and state expenditure – at all levels of government”. 

In Raymond Zondo, the ANC finally got what they and our country have longed for – although the fact that the lens is focused on their party is probably not what they had in mind. DM


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  • The value if the Zondo Commission and its subsequent report can only be assessed by the subsequent action taken and the effect of such action on the punishment i of the corrupters and the recovery of stolen funds.
    Until that time arrives, it should be seen as an enormous cost which demands to be justified?

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