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The civil society resistance to state capture

Book Extract

For a long time there was very little organised opposition to these events, but the South African media had largely managed to fend off moves to introduce formal censorship and there was still a legacy of brave, independent investigative journalism.

Largely through the efforts of several such journalists, many of them associated with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, stories broke regularly about the corruption of government officials.

The public protector’s State of Capture report did a great deal to create public outrage, but the political response was strangely muted. Within the ANC some individuals raised concerns, but, as an organisation, the ANC reliably rallied behind its president. This began to change when then Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene was unexpectedly dismissed in December 2015. Financial markets reacted strongly and the South African currency, the rand, plummeted in value.

These events triggered a political response as thousands marched in the streets 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 either the work of political forces opposed to radical change or as working in the service of a foreign agenda.

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

The problem with the resistance 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 corrupt and motivated by self-interest, or that they were kingpins of a vast network of patronage. Apart from the obvious flaws of such an analysis – it resonated with all sorts of racist clichés about African leaders – it obscured the political project that was at work.

In May 2017 we and several colleagues published a report called Betrayal of the Promise: How South Africa is being stolen. We had worked quietly and quickly to gather as much information as possible that was in the public domain in order to ‘join the dots’, so to speak. The highlights of the argument we made in that report have been referred to above. The centrepiece of the analysis was the way in which the Zuma–Gupta political project turned against the Constitution, the law and South Africa’s democratic processes and institutions.

Essentially, we were able to show that the struggle today was between those who sought change within the framework of the Constitution and those who were ready to jettison the terms of the transition to democracy. The report proved to be hugely influential in South Africa, and we think it has played an important role in galvanising political opposition to state capture from constituencies beyond the middle classes. It marked an inflection point in two ways. 

In the first place, it provided a new vocabulary for understanding political dynamics that was readily taken up in the media and especially among social movements and political organisations,even those allied to the ANC. Terms like ‘shadow state’, ‘silent coup’ and ‘repurposing institutions’ have become part of the everyday language of political discussion about South Africa. Secondly, in concert with a range of university-based institutes and NGOs, the report has been influential in galvanising a new kind of political activism in South Africa – one that focuses on defending honourable civil servants and building progressive state administrations.

The launch of the report on 25 May 2017 was covered live by one of the major national television channels, eNCA. It was all over the radio and there were numerous interviews with the authors. The print media gave the report extensive coverage.

It was front-page news in most of South Africa’s major daily and weekly publications,and it was the lead story in the Sunday newspapers. City Press, for example, South Africa’s second-largest weekly paper, reported carefully on the report’s argument and on the new terminology it introduced. It also generated numerous opinion pieces in various papers.

The weekend after our report came out an enormous trove of emails, which became known as the #GuptaLeaks, began to trickle into the public domain. The emails have provided, and continue to provide, rich confirmation of our argument.

We had discussed the emergence of a ‘shadow state’, and how political power was seeping away from constitutional bodies. Apart from furnishing evidence of further illegal rent seeking, the leaked emails provide details of Gupta associates’involvement in the day-to-day administration of key government departments –writing speeches, commenting on proposals, suggesting regulations. That is, they are witness to the evolving, silent coup d’état that was taking place.

The reception of our report among political parties was no less spectacular,especially within parts of the ANC and within the SACP. The SACP and the ANC have been long-standing historical allies (since at least the 1950s) and, together with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), form the Tripartite Alliance,the united front that spearheaded resistance to apartheid and that today makes up the political coalition that forms the government of the country. The rise to power of Jacob Zuma is, in part, credited to the SACP and to the unwavering support given to him at the time by its general secretary, Blade Nzimande.

While the SACP had become increasingly critical of the ANC and, especially,of its president, tensions merely smouldered. The report seems to have been the match that set them on fire. The weekend after the launch Blade Nzimande came out strongly to endorse the argument, using the report’s terms and concepts. He has continued to do so.

Most dramatically, the country’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, The Star, reported:

Due to the damning report, pressure mounted on Nzimande to break his silence on the alleged looting of the public purse by the Guptas. During his party’s 14th national congress this week, Nzimande assured his supporters that his relationship with Zuma had broken down irreparably due to the Guptas’ influence on the incumbent.

When we were invited to present the report to the SACP’s 14th National Congress,the details were received in hushed silence. Apart from the nearly 2 000 delegates,many Cabinet ministers and senior political figures attended. The ANC’s deputy secretary general, Jessie Duarte, was heard complaining bitterly to a party official that the SACP had organised a ‘hostile’ congress.

Since then the SACP has come out officially against state capture and has supported efforts in the ANC to remove the president. In a surprise Cabinet reshuffle in October 2017 Blade Nzimande was dropped from the Cabinet. Then,on Wednesday, 29 November, for the first time in its history the SACP contested a local government election as an independent party against the ANC. This was an unprecedented development that signalled the end of the historical alliance between the two movements.

If this marks the most dramatic consequence of the report, the study has been useful in galvanising action across civil society too. It was widely taken up by some of South Africa’s major trade unions. Since at least 1985 the largest unions in South Africa have been affiliated to Cosatu. In April 2017 several Cosatu affiliates left Cosatu to form a new body, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, with Cosatu’s former general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, as its general secretary. They were joined by the massive National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, which,three years earlier, had been expelled from Cosatu for its increasingly robust criticism of the union leadership and of the ANC.

When he was still general secretary of Cosatu, Vavi had said that under Jacob Zuma South Africa was headed for a ‘predator state’. Whereas this criticism had previously rested on accusations of corruption in the ANC, after May 2017 there was growing appreciation of the relationship between corruption and a disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law.

This is a significant development, especially because, for many involved, there is sympathy for the argument that the 1996 Constitution was the result of an ‘elite pact’ that came at the expense of workers and the poor. As will become evident below, this had made possible new kinds of unexpected and even awkward political alliances.

The SACC, the largest ecumenical association of Christian churches in the country, was already active in the struggle against corruption. It had convened confessionals for compromised politicians and officials and others with information about corruption to ‘unburden themselves’. The SACC hosted a national public event to announce its commitment to opposing state capture a week before we released our report. Many originally believed that Betrayal of the Promise was a church document.

We had consulted with the SACC, but our report was compiled completely independently of the ‘unburdening panel’. The problem the SACC had was that all those who ‘unburdened’ did so on condition that their testimony remained confidential. This made it impossible for the SACC to use the information to compile its own report. However, when the SACC read our report it said our analysis accorded exactly with the first-hand testimony it had received from church members across the country, including very high-level officials and politicians.

The church mobilised religious opposition to the Zuma administration.The SACC position was taken up by a group of ‘veterans and stalwarts’ of the ANC, who addressed an open letter to the secretary general of the organisation,explaining:Our hearts are broken as we watch some in the leadership of our movement … abrogate to themselves the power of the State to serve their own self-interests rather than the interests of the people of South Africa.

In July 2017 the largest gathering of civil society organisations came together under the umbrella of the Future South Africa coalition to fight state capture and tore build state integrity.

Business associations were also mobilised. The firing of Nhlanhla Nene galvanised the ‘Young Turks’ in Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA), who had ousted the old guard collected around the likes of Anglo American’s Bobby Godsell. They activated public action by chief executive officers, issued press statements that were openly critical of government and raised funds to support various anti-state capture campaigns, including a public relations campaign to counter the infamous Bell Pottinger campaign funded by the Guptas. Other business coalitions were also activated and a new bilateral dynamic opened up between business and the trade union movement. The BLSA attended an indaba on state capture hosted by the SACP.

Two features of this coalition are notable. The first is that, though it comprises many of the people and the kinds of organisations that advanced the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s and 1990s, and in this sense marks a revival of an older civil society,it is not exclusively made up of such groupings. Organised business formations have shared a platform with radical trade unionists and avowedly liberal associations.

The second notable feature is that civil society activists in South Africa have,for the first time, taken up issues of state building and, even more surprisingly, of public administration. For the first time there is appreciation of the fact that the immediate victims of tyranny in South Africa have been honest civil servants committed to a public service ethos. The move towards tyranny has, first and foremost,been a political war waged within and for state administrations. This fact goes some way towards explaining why journalists and activists have not been subject to the kind of repression seen elsewhere.

Civil society tactics

All these initiatives taken together saw the re-emergence in 2017 of powerful coalitions of civil society groupings, often bringing together new and unexpected partners.Working separately, and occasionally together, they have used four effective tactics.


The growing lawlessness of the government has made litigation an often powerful tool. The High Courts have overwhelmingly safeguarded their independence,and civil society groupings have used them to successfully challenge illegal government decisions and appointments – ranging from challenging the president’s appointments of heads of key state institutions (such as the state prosecuting authority and the police) to reinstating criminal charges against Zuma himself, to upholding the independence of state organs, to insisting on the force of law of constitutional principles and to further developing the jurisprudence on public law.

Social mobilisation

Some civil society groupings have successfully drawn people onto the streets in fairly large numbers. Especially important is the fact that they have constituted new and diverse publics willing to speak out against state abuse of power and national resources.

Political mobilisation

Especially impressive has been the ability of activists to build energetic and diverse political coalitions, drawing senior figures in the ANC itself into alliances with abroad range of other organisations.

Unsettling hegemony

The shift to tyranny in South Africa has been accompanied by political arguments about the nature of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, and about the Constitution. Essentially, the Zuma government was able to justify growing criminality as a necessary instrument for radical change, and to depict opponents as acolytes of ‘white monopoly capitalism’. Reports like Betrayal of the Promise played a key role in unsettling these claims and providing a new language of resistance.

Excerpt from Shadow State: The Politics of State Capture

By Ivor Chipkin & Mark Swilling with Haroon Bhorat , Mbongiseni Buthelezi, SikhulekileDumal, Hannah Friedenstein , Lumkile Mondi, Camaren Peter, Nicky Prins, Mzukisi Qobo

Published by Wits University Press: 2018

Price: R280.00

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