Zuma’s valuable lesson, or what state capture has taught us about South Africa and the world – Ivor Chipkin, Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI).

In early 2017 in the midst of what we argued was a ‘silent coup’ in South Africa, several colleagues and I published the Betrayal of the Promise report. The book is coming out next month, I believe. It is called ‘Shadow State: the politics of state capture’ with Wits University Press.

There we argued that ‘state capture’, the term that Thuli Madonsela had popularised when she was Public Protector, was more than simply a criminal enterprise perpetrated by former President Jacob Zuma and a network of family, friends and allies. Here I argue that the Zuma era was a response to the paradox of global power today.

When we started assembling documents and reports in the public domain, consulting court papers, affidavits, judgements and interviewing people, we started to notice several patterns.

In the first place, from 2012 there was a sudden flurry of activity in the State Owned Companies, starting with Transnet and Eskom. In 2010 Barbara Hogan was fired as minister of Public Enterprises and in November Malusi Gigaba was appointed in her place. Early the following year, Brian Molefe was made CEO of Transnet, despite that Cosatu warned of his close connections to the Gupta brothers. Then followed major industrial acquisition projects, starting with cranes and then locomotives.  PARI has just completed a new study of Transnet to assist with the parliamentary enquiry starting soon. One of the alarming new discoveries is that the SOC used worker’s pensions as a hedge on some of its major deals.

Secondly, we noticed that after a very long period of stability there were dramatic changes in the number and mandate of government ministries and departments after 2009. Three new departments were established, 5 were split or divided, five changed their names and their functional mandates.

Thirdly, there was astonishing flux in the cabinet itself. When President Zuma fired Pravin Gordhan as Minister of Finance (again) on the 30th of March 2017, this was his eleventh cabinet reshuffle since he became President. In all he had made 126 changes to the national executive since 2009: 62 changes to ministerial positions, 63 changes to deputy ministerial positions and one change to the deputy presidency.

Fourthly, starting in 2014, serious purges began at several key state institutions, beginning with the South African Revenue Services (SARS). In September 2014 Tom Moyane was appointed Commissioner of the South African Revenue Services. The story is by now familiar, though it is worth recalling some of its highlights. A dodgy intelligence dossier appeared alleging that Ivan Pillay, Johan Van Loggerenberg and others were part of ‘rogue unit’ at the agency, that they were involved in illegal spying and other outlandish activity – even running a brothel. The report and the subsequent KPMG ‘investigation’ were used to purge the agency’s capable, independent and honest leadership. In 2015 a similar pattern of events crippled the Hawks. Dodgy intelligence dossiers appeared implicating senior Generals and eventually Anwar Dramat, the head of the organisation, in illegal activities. Again these claims were used to remove them. Likewise, the independence of National Prosecuting Authority was crippled. Taken together, between 2014 and 2015 the criminal justice system was destabilized.  

Fifthly, it was being reported and we were increasingly hearing from interviews that cabinet processes were in disarray – the cabinet memo system was being observed in the breach – and that key issues, like the proposal to build Nuclear Power Stations, were not being discussed in those forums. Key decisions were being taken elsewhere.

Finally, Mcebisi Jonas had come forward in 2016 to report that he was offered the position of Finance Minister, not by the President, but by the Guptas at their home in Saxonwold.

It seemed that key matters of state were being decided there. The extent of the shift of power away from political institutions of the constitution, of government and even of the ruling African National Congress were revealed in the Gupta Leaks. They showed that even administrative tasks were being performed in the shadow state.

Taken together, we argued the Zuma administration had turned against the constitutional state, that this turn represented a silent coup and that it was working to establish a parallel and informal system of government that we called the shadow state.

Civil Society

For a long time, there was very little organized opposition to these events. The South Africa media had largely managed to fend off moves formally to introduce censorship. There was still a legacy of brave, independent, investigative journalism. Largely through the efforts of several such journalists, many of them associated with AmaBhungane and Daily Maverick, stories regularly broke about the corruption of government officials. The Public Protector’s ‘State of Capture’ report went far in creating public outrage. But the political response was strangely muted. Within the ANC, there were some important voices of dissent but as an organization the ANC reliably rallied behind its President. This began to change when the then Minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene, was dismissed in December 2015. Financial markets reacted strongly and the Rand plummeted in value. Thousands marched on the street to protest ‘state capture’. Yet the phenomenon remained largely a middle class one. It was not very difficult for those around the Zuma administration to present such opposition as the work either of political forces opposed to radical change or as in the service of a foreign agenda.

This began to change after the dismissal of the new Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas in 2017 – both highly respected technocrats but also savvy politicians. Opposition to the Zuma administration grew, including from within the ANC.

The problem with the resistance up until then, however, was that its analysis of what was going on was superficial. It ultimately fell back on the assumption that the President and his allies were simply corrupt.  Something much more serious was going on as well, however. The Zuma government was actively and deliberately attacking the foundations of South Africa’s constitutional State and democracy.  From 2010/11 South Africa drifted towards anti-constitutional rule – fired by various (often conflicting) ideologies that called into question the value of the 1994 settlement and the progressive nature of the constitution.


The Zuma period coincides with the rise of nationalism around the world. In the name of the ‘people’ nationalist politicians from Trump in the USA to the movement that delivered Brexit in the UK are withdrawing from global or international bodies and reasserting the sovereignty of ‘national’ institutions. This is what makes BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ politics in India, or Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism in Turkey or the neo-fascism of governments in Hungary and in Poland comparable. All these ‘populisms’ cry out for a lost past, a time when political and economic power rested largely in national, political institutions.

Zygmunt Bauman writes about the ‘divorce’ between political institutions and economic power brought about by globalization. I think the relationship between the two is an expression of where a country is positioned in the world system. ‘Divorce’, however, is increasingly true for countries like South Africa more and more spinning out into the periphery.

Locally, when governments decry ‘ratings agencies’ or thrash about against international bodies like the IMF or World Bank, or bemoan ‘Western’ conspiracies, what is being admitted is this:  ‘there is no power where we are in power’. It is similar when ‘radical’ parties advocate nationalizing the mines or the land or ‘indigenising’ the economy. These are Quixotic declarations of powerlessness and a naïve will to reclaim it from ‘whites’, from ‘capitalists’, from the ‘West’.

The Zuma era was one of disenchantment. If the EFF and other nationalist parties around the world seek naively to assert the omnipotence of  national political institutions – what else is nationalization but a wild will to power? –  Zuma was content to bypass them. He sought power elsewhere, in the shadows of formal institutions and in private networks, many of them routed across borders. He actively undermined and weakened state institutions. His ambitions, moreover, where modest. He sought only a little bit of power, for himself, his family, friends and political associates.

What does it mean to return to constitutional government and democracy today? Firstly, it cannot be done naively. We have to ask basic questions about the limits of the state and of our political institutions. Otherwise we swing hysterically between hopelessness and megalomania. Secondly, we need to ask what can be done to give political institutions meaningful and realistic power? The place to startis in building professional government administrations so that political institutions, even with a more sober sense of their reach, have some chance of seeing their decisions implemented.