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Review: State capture is business as usual in ‘Vagabond’

Comparisons between South Africa and South Korea tend to urge the emulation of the  apparent economic success won by the Asian nation. However, any parallels between  the economic trajectories of the two countries might be more apt in a far darker realm. The highly rated Netflix drama series Vagabond offers an account of Korean society’s  perennial struggle with corruption that reads as an eerie playbook of South Africa’s  own era of state capture. 

Vagabond’s story revolves around Cha Dal-gun (Lee Seung-gi) a down-and-out stuntman who uncovers the true cause of a commercial airline crash in Morocco in which his nephew was killed. A reluctant alliance develops with a rookie intelligence agent Go Hae-ri (Bae Suzy) attached to the Korean embassy in Rabat. Together they expose the crash as the lynchpin in a corrupt tender process for warplanes between the government and competing arms manufacturers. 

If you see fiction film as a form of historical document, Vagabond presents the South  African viewer with a gloomy looking glass indeed. It can be presumed that director Yoo In-sik and writers Jang Young-chul and Jung Kyung-soon drew on the true-life  corruption scandals that rocked South Korea from the moment of its transition from  dictatorship in the late eighties to its climax in 2018 when former president Park Geun-hee was impeached and imprisoned, with a reformist president ushering in a new era of clean government. 

These scandals involved corrupt dealings between corporate  capital and an overly powerful executive not averse to embezzlement, fraud and blatant tinkering with judicial and public-service appointments. The birthing pangs of South Korean democracy have been no less painful than our own.  

The particular insight Vagabond has to offer those of us transfixed by the spectacle of  the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture is that the notion of a clean relationship  between big business and government is something of a unicorn. Moreover, the drama  seems to show that a country pushing hard to move out of underdevelopment through the use of neoliberal economics is bound to fall into these sorts of underhand relationships. In South Korea, from the get-go, the decidedly authoritarian state relied on an oligopoly of industrial conglomerates to bring about job creation, consumer spending and the eventual engenderment of a comfortable middle class. 

In Vagabond, Lee Seung-gi exposes an airplane crash as the lynchpin in a corrupt tender process for warplanes between the government and competing arms manufacturers. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)

As in the case of South Africa, the system of state tender invites fraud and  embezzlement, a state intelligence begging to be captured, and a cohort of top public servants who must of necessity be drawn into complicity. Because Vagabond is a TV drama, the state tender in question is heightened; it is the purchase of warplanes from  competing international arms manufacturers, not underhand dealings with Samsung, as was the case in the real-life downfall of Park. 

In the case of South Africa, the public record of our woes can be traced to a corrupt arms deal; in the telling of South Africa’s story there is little need for dramatic embellishment. So too, Vagabond illuminates how no embezzlement or bribery is possible without at least a unit or two within the national intelligence service brought on side. Not only that — this covert unit must be willing to undermine the entire body politic.

In Vagabond, the covert unit — under the leadership of the director of national  intelligence, no less — covers up evidence that the downed airliner was the victim of  sabotage. It is imperative that it never come to light that the crash was a ploy to win  government favour for one of the aeronautics manufacturers competing in the bid to  supply warplanes. The threat to the functioning of an independent judiciary is realised  when the dissident unit uses violence in its bid to murder loyal intelligence agents and charge the key witness in the trial that would expose the dizzy heights the corrupt arms deal reached. That the covert intelligence unit draws in a bamboozled and crooked police force is all too familiar to a South African audience.  

Vagabond exposes the criminal behaviour of lobbyists for the competing aeroplane  manufacturers, with the audience led to believe the one innocent and the other dastardly, but in the end left with the gloomy observation that each is inevitably as corrupt as the other. Moreover, the charismatic president who has ostensible, and even plausibly sincere, devotion to the wellbeing of the people of South Korea, stands atop the corruption with ready self-justification. The analogy with the role of arms manufacturer Thales in the two-decades long corruption case against former president Jacob Zuma need hardly be pointed out.  

The sentimental diversion sometimes voiced by politicians under the spotlight  for corruption — the natural wealth and superb climate of the country — finds reference in Vagabond, with the film seeking to ironically frame corrupt South Korea in the glossy wide shots of South African Tourism-style PR catalogues. 

The all too tragic conclusion that the viewer is dared to resist is that for a developing  state deemed to have made it, like South Korea, as much as for one that has not, like South Africa, state capture is business as usual. 

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Zinaid Meeran
Zinaid Meeran is a writer and filmmaker based in Cape Town. He is a founding member of art collective Team Tarbaby. He is the author of the novels Saracen at the Gates and Tanuki Ichiban.

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