Catchphrases quickly move from being nifty idioms that ignite thought to clichés that stifle it. Such is the likely fate of “state capture”, a phrase that features in virtually every media account of President Jacob Zuma’s controversial relationship with the Gupta family.
But what has been happening in the past weeks is not about state capture, the seizing of a nation’s wealth and power to benefit a well-connected elite. That happened ages ago. The present kerfuffle is mainly about who will control the spoils.
The question is whether those in the driving seat will be the central structures of the governing African National Congress, as has been the case for the past 22 years of cadre deployment and burgeoning corruption? Or will they will be the carpetbagging Guptas, Zuma’s Johnny-come-lately benefactors who parlayed a relationship with the president into a multibillion-rand business empire?
A hint to the likely answer lies in how the ANC national executive committee (NEC) responded to the steady stream of well-regarded politicians and officials coming forward, at risk to their political careers, to plausibly claim that the Guptas were appointing and firing cabinet ministers and the heads of state entities.
The ANC response was not to appoint a judicial commission, or institute a Public Protector investigation. Nor to seek a cross-party parliamentary inquiry. Most tellingly, it was not to ask SA’s law-enforcement agencies to investigate. Instead, it was to appoint its own, internal party committee, to hear evidence and to make a ruling.
In terms of how modern constitutional democracies work, that is an astonishing move. It is a simple tenet of justice that one cannot be both player and umpire. So while one might credibly set a thief to catch a thief, it would be pointless to set a thief to judge a thief.
On the one hand, the ANC’s move is a reminder of how absolutely it conflates its existence as a political entity, which by definition serves a certain group, with the existence of SA as a sovereign constitutional state that answers to all its citizens. But it is also a grim reminder to those within the ANC who genuinely do seek the truth, that law enforcement, one of the key institutions of the state, has indeed been captured by what has come to be called the Zuptas.
Following corruption charges laid by the Democratic Alliance, the Hawks, the police directorate that targets economic crime and corruption, have now said that they will investigate the Guptas and Zuma’s son, Duduzane. But as the ANC NEC knows, this is most likely pointless.
The head of the Hawks, Major General Mthandazo Ntlemeza — aside from the fact that a court found him to be “biased and dishonest … [lacking] integrity and honour…” — is widely seen as a Zuma stooge.
Under his leadership the Hawks have pursued investigations that appear to be politically motivated against the likes of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and former national prosecutor, Glynnis Breytenbach, now a DA MP.
There is also the remarkable coincidence that on Friday last week the Helen Suzman Foundation approached the North Gauteng High Court seeking a suspension of Ntlemeza. On Monday, in what the Foundation describes as a slick, “highly orchestrated” armed robbery, all their computers were stolen.
The Foundation, however, might be flattering the Hawks with their hinted-at suspicions. For even at harassment the Hawks — should they be called the Parrots? — do not seem particularly capable.
After all, Gordhan remains stoutly unintimidated. And as regards Breytenbach, the Hawks this week shamefacedly had to admit that the criminal docket against her had been pinched from the back seat of the Hawk investigator’s car when he left it unlocked “for five minutes” at the unit’s headquarters.
Among the few institutions that remain resolutely “uncaptured” are the judiciary and the office of the Public Protector. The DA has asked the Public Protector to investigate the Guptas and Thuli Madonsela, whose term of office ends in October, has asked Gordhan’s office to advance her office the necessary funds to conduct such an arduous investigation.
The reason why the ANC itself didn’t approach Madonsela is the same reason why it has not sought a judicial investigation. Neither the Public Protector nor the judiciary can be relied upon to limit the investigation to only the Guptas, but both would likely broaden it to encompass the possible nepotism and corruption of other ANC politicians and their cronies.
All is not lost, though. As we know from the firing of former president Thabo Mbeki and the expulsion of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, the ANC bureaucratic machinery might be ponderous but once on a roll can obliterate all before it. The Guptas, and President Zuma, should be worried.
Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye