Melodrama as SA’s corruption probes drop ‘silent bombs’ 

Friday March 22 2019

Jacob Zuma

Former South African president Jacob Zuma appears at the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Durban on April 6, 2018. PHOTO | NIC BOTHMA | AFP 

CHRIS ERASMUS
By CHRIS ERASMUS
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Watching South Africa’s state capture and related probes into corruption in high places is like watching a television soap opera with high-drama moments — except everything is taking place in what seems like slow motion with no background music and no audible sharp intakes of breathe to give the viewer the clue that something important is unfolding.

In the main event, the state capture inquiry being conducted by Deputy Judge President Raymond Zondo, the surreal sense of near-silent significance has been amplified as one politically meaningful bombshell after another has been detonated by explosive testimony of the involvement in corruption of high-ranking members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, some of them still in their jobs.

Starkly contrasting the shocking evidence of wide scale corruption, given recently by one employee or former employee after another of controversial facilities company Bosasa, has been the quiet power of Justice Zondo who has relentlessly stalked down every bit of testimony such that when, perhaps a year or more from now, he finally is able to draw up his report, there will be no loopholes and no doubt.

TOUGH JUDGE

Zondo himself commands respect, carrying with him a bearing and gravitas far beyond the norm even for senior justices.

His amiable and careful manner belies on obviously astute legal mind, and his powerful personal impact on the process has been clear in those moments when, for example, he has looked sternly at the media observing the hearing and berated them for publishing elements of witness statements not yet placed into evidence.

Likewise was his attitude to former Bosasa executive Angelo Agrizzi whose testimony took eight days to deliver but included a secretly recorded extract of a conversation in which Agrizzi repeatedly used the “k-word” and which, said Zondo in no uncertain terms, was “racist”, “extremely offensive” and “utterly unacceptable”.

In the latter instance, Agrizzi attempted to explain himself, saying he had been under duress at the hands of Bosasa boss Gavin Watson and his family, had had too much alcohol and was frustrated.

But under Zondo’s fierce stare, Agrizzi’s efforts to distance himself from his slurred racial insults aimed at two other Bosasa executives, both black, broke down and he admitted that, “yes, I am a racist”.

DAMAGING REVELATIONS

Those wishing the entire process had never happened — being, in short, former President Jacob Zuma, who has now been directly implicated by each Bosasa witness so far, along with several other very senior ANC figures — are daily enduring another round of highly damaging revelations which, taken together, paints a rather bleak outlook for their futures.

So far several of Zuma’s ministers, some of them still holding posts in the executive, have been named directly or implicated in corruption, along with “close Zuma associates” such as former SA Airways chief executive Dudu Myeni, chair of his personal foundation.

Myeni tried to dismiss Agrizzi’s testimony as that of an “angry racist” but her effort to diminish the impact and import of what the Bosasa operational executive laid before the commission, since supported by three other Bosasa employees including the group’s former chief financial officer, are not merely unconvincing, they sound desperate.

'FIGHT BACK'

Indeed, desperation is running high in the pro-Zuma camp which is engaged in a “fight-back” against President Cyril Ramaphosa’s promised clean-out campaign to rid SA’s public offices and his ruling party of corrupt elements.

Another close Zuma ally, former North West province premier Supra Mahumapelo, has this week taken the ANC to court over its disbanding of his regional government structures and his ouster from the premiership of that province which forms SA’s northern border with Botswana.

Talks are under way to make that embarrassment to the ruling party “go away”, but it seems that any “settlement” will be short-lived, lasting likely to no longer than the elections due to be called shortly by Ramaphosa, probably for early May.

'GOOD FOR RAMAPHOSA'

As has been pointed out by almost all commentators and analysts assessing the situation here, these commissions — there two others also underway at the same time — are serving Ramaphosa well in that they are, slow motion revelation, damaging his pro-Zuma opponents in the party.

But, as has also been pointed out, Zuma’s recalcitrance and the ANC’s slowness to act has meant that, in a constant drip-drip process, the ANC’s reputation is also being tarnished in the run-up to an election, with each detailed account of which minister, former minister or senior public servant was corrupted, and which “favours” were granted, cars provided, houses built and cash payments made by their corruptors.

It is going to be simply impossible to ignore what is coming out, in the end.

While those who have allegedly been “on the take” will have their chance to cross-examine commission witnesses, and the commission itself is not a court of law in which they are on trial, yet it seems certain that trials will eventuate, even if maybe two years from now or later yet.

'HURT ANC'

The damning weight of what is being provided — backed up by records including “black book” accounts of cash bribes received monthly from Bosasa by senior ANC and government figures, each with their own codename, plus video evidence of the cash payments being compiled in Bosasa’s offices — is such that the implicated parties are being irretrievably tainted.

This goes for Zuma, who according to testimony was receiving over US$22,000 monthly in cash via Myeni, along with several of those leading the “fight-back”.

These figures are all, as things now stand, still on the ANC’s candidate lists for the upcoming elections.

That will mean a certain loss of votes, even among hardcore ANC loyalists, because of the level of citizens’ disgust with their political leadership’s venal failings — while millions struggle to survive, eking out a living in a much-weakened economy, the “fat cats” have grown fatter yet in the Zuma years.

That inescapable fact will hurt the ANC at the polls, and having the names of those responsible on party lists will make the party’s pain deeper yet if they are still up for a parliamentary seat after the next vote.

SYSTEMIC CORRUPTION

It is true that the evidence so far shows that the systematic corruption of state officials by Bosasa’s Watson began in the early-mid 2000s, the era of Zuma’s processor President Thabo Mbeki.

But that helps the ANC, and those implicated along with Zuma, not at all.

The sorts of images that will be with voters on election day will likely include the startling picture painted by former Bosasa CFO Andries van Tonder of an expensive Louis Vuitton handbag, picked specially for Myeni, into which one of Zuma’s monthly cash “payments” was being stuffed prior to delivery to Zuma.

Political polls indicate that the ANC may still do fairly well in the 2019 elections, perhaps obtaining 55 percent or even a bit more — but most have been taken on limited populations of likely voters and prior to some of the most damning revelations of the last while.

MALEMA PARTY

Julius Malema’s populist Economic Freedom Fighters party appears to be on track to make gains, mostly at ANC expense, and could double its 25 MPs, while the current official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, will likely have cemented itself further into that position, despite some internal wrangling of late.

Whatever the final count, however, it is certain that Zuma and his ilk will be done for as a force after the vote – and the South African political landscape will have changed in the wake of Justice Zondo’s and the other corruption probes underway.

While things move at their seeming snail’s pace, and no cheering or jeering is tolerated, the process of lancing the political boil of corruption is neither quiet nor without major drama, all that noisy drama being played out beyond the closed doors behind which the ugly truth is slowly yet clearly emerging.