Editorial: Let’s cool our heels as we gather facts

Extreme situations beget extreme responses, and sometimes that is to the good. We cannot, we must not, act as if everything is normal while evidence mounts that our country’s leaders may have been complicit and, at best, stood idle as the state was first captured and then looted.

It is right that we are incensed by the testimony now being heard in Parliament that is so very far beyond the ordinary, everyday corruption to which we have become inured. It is right that we mistrust, to the point of paranoia, those leaders of government and state-owned enterprises who shrug off the allegations against them as an annoyance, or bluster denials without substance.

But vigilantism is never right, no matter how vile the crime. Whether it is a case of rape, murder or state capture, the worst-case scenario is the same: a rampaging mob wreaking vengeance on the innocent in what they may only recognise as a terrible mistake once righteous indignation has run its course.

By a preponderance of evidence, the Gupta family and their lieutenants are not innocent. Neither, by their inaction if nothing else, are President Jacob Zuma, the prosecutors and police, or the corporations that aided and abetted and profited. A judicial finding would merely be a formality that would allow us to express this as fact in our news pages rather than as opinion in columns such as this.

About other individuals and institutions, however, there is still doubt. Did Malusi Gigaba, Lynne Brown and Brian Molefe play knowing and active roles in these events, or were they ill-used by those around them? Perhaps they are guilty, and perhaps the incontrovertible evidence is right around the corner. Then again, perhaps not. Yet many South Africans are convinced they already know the answer.

This is particularly concerning when we know that there have been determined, sophisticated and well-funded campaigns of misinformation about state capture. Assuming to be true what we cannot yet know makes us vulnerable to manipulation, with consequences for both the innocent and the guilty. The mob, realising it has persecuted the blameless, loses its hunger for blood. Character assassination has only barely less terminal consequences.

Meanwhile, the touchstones of belief have cracks. Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture investigation did South Africa a great service but it was also rushed and hamstrung, by her own admission — and it contains mistakes. Jacques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers reveals an entirely new layer of allegations involving Zuma, his family and the State Security Agency. It also includes no responses from those who stand accused, and some aspects remain uncorroborated.

Madonsela and Pauw, and many others, have done tremendous work, painting vast swaths of what will eventually be a more complete picture of state capture. Looking at that picture and imagining we can see the missing pieces is human nature. But we should not rush to judgment based on hypotheses we mistake for fact. 

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