On the first day of the highly anticipated Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, an elderly woman sat agog in the public gallery, waiting to hear allegations of corruption and fraud in government.
Sitting behind me, she struck up a conversation in isiZulu.
“I don’t believe in this thing called state capture,” she said with conviction. “The media are trying to damage Jacob Zuma’s reputation. It started with Nkandla and now it’s state capture.”
It’s a pity I didn’t engage her further, but she left midway through the session chaired by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.
Many observers have jaded views of the commission, with some already writing off its work and purpose. SA’s love affair with commissions continues, they say.
At a cost of R250 million for its work in the first six months, the inquiry into state capture adds to the R580 million in taxpayer money spent on earlier commissions. Why bother with commissions when their final recommendations can be snubbed by the government?
With an even more amplified news cycle pointing to inefficiencies in the country, it can feel like the commission is just another talking shop. But I’d argue that it’s not.
Although the commission won’t lead to criminal prosecution of wrongdoers, it has other ways of restoring justice. It’s a tool of the Constitution intended to find information, help us understand how bad things really are, and identify individuals or cliques that have been instrumental in looting the public purse.
It’s not for entertainment purposes, but it is about giving South Africans an opportunity to hear first-hand experiences from government officials who were loyal to the goal of making SA succeed, but who suffered from the massive weight of state capture.
The woman who sat behind me is probably representative of many South Africans who believe that the concept of state capture is nothing but a fib. Perhaps this is fuelled by a trust deficit between the public and the media.
Revelations in media reports – about how the Gupta family was SA’s de facto government since its members made key policy decisions, and the level of their brazenness in repurposing the state to line their pockets – are often met with scepticism.
There are politicians who still question the authenticity of the Gupta email leaks and label media reports about state capture as ‘fake news’ to delegitimise them and distract the public.
What better way for South Africans to hear how there was a deliberate attempt to undermine their constitutional democracy than from former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor and former top government spokesperson Themba Maseko?
They all blew the whistle on state capture when it wasn’t popular or safe do so. They endured emotional distress and death threats as the capturers launched aggressive pushback campaigns.
Their testimonies at the commission have revealed several shocking things: the Guptas wanted to hijack SA’s nuclear energy programme to grow the money they generated from the state from R6 billion in 2015 to R8 billion; the Guptas had the power to hire and fire government officials, aided by former president Jacob Zuma; and there were deliberate attempts by the Hawks to sabotage cases against the family.
Perhaps the latter is a key revelation, explaining the Hawks’ dithering on criminal prosecutions despite the volume of information in the public domain about state capture.
The focus of the commission is broad enough to include government departments and state-owned enterprises. Some of the questions it will explore include:
• How deep does state capture go, if indeed it exists?
• Was there a deliberate attempt to weaken democratic processes and shift political decision-making away from constitutional bodies?
What has been revealed by the Gupta leaks is probably the tip of the iceberg. The broadness of the commission’s mandate brings hope that it will gather enough evidence to create a clear picture of what we are dealing with.
We are in a different political cycle. Government, having lost the credibility to govern, has a renewed focus on building a capable state from scratch. Repairing the state will take time.
While the commission does its work, efforts should be directed at reforming law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system so that the book can be thrown at those implicated in state capture.