Political developments in South Africa continue to dish out lessons about the acquisition, use, abuse and limits of political power.
The state capture commission of inquiry is proving to be a fountain of such lessons. Those interested in how crucial aspects our political system work, how it can be compromised and how it can respond should watch closely the proceedings of the inquiry. So, what are the lessons thus far?
The first lesson is that political power is diffused. You don’t need to be a politician to hold political power. You can influence political developments by buying politicians or by using the law to resist corrupt political influence.
The extent of Gupta influence in government and ANC actions indicate clearly that the ballot box is not the only big terrain where power can change hands.
Voters might innocently choose a party they love because it has delivered for them in the past or they genuinely believe in the manifesto it presented to them during an election campaign. But they’ll never be certain that the party will carry their mandate with absolute fidelity.
State capture has laid bare reasons why citizens must develop a healthy but strong mistrust of politicians and their buddies. This should apply to all governing party politicians and those who salivate to replace them.
Who a politician hangs out with, what he discusses with those friends and whether they buy him coffee or hot curry, might be a better measure of the extent to which the politician is willing to serve voters or not, than the political promises made during an election campaign.
“The Guptas are just friends. Like anyone has friends, what’s wrong with that?” Jacob Zuma once said something to this effect with a straight face in Parliament, the institution that represents the people of South Africa. Now we know he enjoyed insulting the people. His recent claims that state capture didn’t exist was a clear act of rubbing pepper on the gaping wounds he inflicted on South Africans during his ruinous presidency.
Using his political power, he unleashed a political mob on the banks whose decision to resist such pressure had political consequences.
To appreciate the legitimate political role the banks played, you have to think about the possibility that had they agreed to bend over backwards and opened Gupta accounts, citizens would in future have to queue at Luthuli House to secure bank loans and open savings accounts. Unless of course such private banking services at Luthuli House would be reserved for those who could afford to pay transaction fees in Nkandla. Luthuli House could also have become a banking ombudsman.
By resisting political pressure, the banks in a way helped to preserve a reasonable level of sanity in our political system and kept the relationship between petty politics and commercial transactions separate.
The testimony of the bank was chilling. A group of governing party officials and Cabinet ministers go all out to fight for the opening of bank accounts of money laundering thieves! And we are supposed to believe politicians when they stand on public platforms promising to kill the beast of corruption. It’s like believing an undertaking that they would commit suicide after the elections.
The second lesson is that politicians are capable of playing double roles when faced with conflicting situations. Take Gwede Mantashe, for example. He attended meetings where banks were pressurised to open Gupta bank accounts. At the same time he approved Mcebisi Jonas’ plan to make a statement exposing the Guptas’ corrupt relationship with Zuma and his son Duduzane. At some point, Mantashe’s office in Luthuli House led an ANC-initiated investigation into state capture. Predictably, it got nowhere.
The third lesson is that all of us must make an effort to understand how South Africa’s political system works. Many people don’t understand it. Sadly, these include people who are supposed to be operating the system at the top. Some were in struggle for years to produce the constitutional democratic system.
The Guptas either did not understand South Africa’s political system and the limits of politicians or they thought that South Africa was a stereotypical African basket case where capturing the president is the ultimate route to heaven. Whichever way, the political leadership had a role to educate foreigners like the Guptas on how the system works and the necessity to preserve it because it came at a cost to many lives.
One cannot rule out the possibility that racist beliefs about Africans being inherently corrupt were behind the daring heist on the African-led democratic state. But they got it wrong. Hopefully, would-be capturers have learned that it’s possible for a corrupt fellow like Zuma and an upright man like Mcebisi Jonas to operate in the same political system. And it’s possible for the latter to have massive influence on the course of political events. South Africa’s system is too complex.
Lastly, the extent to which huge multinational corporations have been embarrassed, some even displaying corporate crocodile tears by offering to pay back the loot, is a demonstration that being an international player doesn’t absolve you from accountability. It should be a lesson that dodgy dealings in South Africa can collapse companies.
Representatives from these companies are yet to testify at the inquiry. When they eventually do, their peers all over the world must sit up and listen. They will learn it’s better not to capture state systems and get deals only to vomit your loot – and whatever is left of your integrity – later.