Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s findings are beautifully explained by Jeffery Reiman’s “Pyrrhic defeat” theory, criminologically exploring the state’s inability to take action against the monstrous crimes (the destruction of Sars, SAA and Eskom) of the rich and powerful by deflecting attention away from this behaviour to “conventional” crimes of the poor and powerless. Reiman’s Pyrrhic defeat theory also predicts that economic inequality demands that only a token few (for example Angelo Agrizzi) will be prosecuted.
Reiman and Paul Leighton, conflict criminologists based in the US, develop their Pyrrhic defeat theory in their provocatively titled book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice. Reiman and Leighton brought out the 12th edition of this text in 2020. This text was originally published in 1979 by Wiley and its endurance testifies to its significance in the field of criminal justice.
Reiman and Leighton coined the term “Pyrrhic defeat” to explain the aim and function of the criminal justice system as the indirect legitimisation of the existing inequitable and unjustifiable economic system embedded in deeply unequal societies, such as that found in South Africa.
In a much-publicised visit to this country during 2015, the well-known French economist Thomas Piketty has called out South Africa as being “at the top of its class” in terms of income and wealth inequality. Whereas a Pyrrhic victory is a victory achieved at such cost that the outcome hardly matters, according to Reiman and Leighton, a Pyrrhic defeat is a defeat in name only because the resultant defeat was the very purpose of the exercise.
The criminal justice system is intent on such a defeat since the demonisation of the poor as criminogenic, serves the idea of diverting attention away from the monstrous corporate crimes committed with the state’s collusion or the crimes committed by the state itself.
Similarly, in the apt words of Eugene McLaughlin, professor of criminology in the City University of London, “the blindspot of conventional criminology retains its steadfast refusal to research victimisation by the powerful, not least because the state does not recognise nor fund such research”. In the perceptive words of Willem de Haan, a well-known Dutch criminologist, “what we need is not a better theory of crime, but a more powerful critique of crime”.
While it should be acknowledged that with his swift action, President Cyril Ramaphosa is making a show of taking its contents seriously, it should accordingly come as no surprise that Zondo’s report will gather dust wherever it might land.
In the hard-hitting words of Ralph Mathekga, the well-informed author of The ANC’s Last Decade: “This picture [the prospects of Ramaphosa’s presidency] becomes complex in the sense that the more Ramaphosa achieves what he promised in government ― for example, fighting against corruption ― the more tensions emerge within the ANC, making it difficult for him to win a second term in the party. That Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption drive in the government is creating enemies for him in the party is an open secret.”
Ramaphosa’s success with his so-called “anti-corruption drive” is by no means certain. Speaking of criminals, Agrizzi lamented the fact on a recent eNCA interview aired on September 30, 2021 that, correctly in my view, so very few individuals who benefited enormously from this criminal racket were ever brought to book. Agrizzi is the former chief operating officer of the Bosasa group of companies who subsequently became a whistleblower. It is ironic that only the whistleblowers themselves were arrested and prosecuted.
One of the usual suspects fingered by Agrizzi is, of course, our recently released man cooling his well-dressed heels in Nkandla (no surprise there), to which we may add his motley crowd of gangsters. No more turning tricks for our favorite madala. Hard cash is now called for all the way down the line.
Against this background, I suggest that if the aim of research is to partially test existing theory (either by proving or disproving elements thereof), then the findings contained in Zondo’s Report into Allegations of State Capture confirm Reiman’s Pyrrhic defeat theory’s prediction that in inordinately unequal societies there is no political will to act against the crimes of the rich and powerful.
Indeed, as the late Stanley Cohen, who was a South African anti-apartheid activist while he was studying at Wits and then went on to become professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, points out, the harmful behaviour of the wealthy and powerful are not even recognised as being crimes. Considering the powerful pro-Zuma faction within the ruling party and Malema’s prediction that Ramaphosa will not (politically) survive to serve a second term, our “Ramasaviour” showed great bravery in releasing Zondo’s findings, unredacted and promptly, although perhaps at the expense of his own undoing. I do, in fact, fear for his personal safety.
In the perceptive words of Noam Chomsky – the rightfully famous social and political critic – recorded on a recent podcast for The New York Times, the idea of representative democracy is an illusion. It is the rich and the powerful who call the shots. Occasionally the rich and powerful, such as Jeffrey Epstein, Robert Durst (who actually ended up in prison as a result of his own unintentional confession during a live documentary) and Jacob Zuma himself, do end up in prison, but I suggest that these tiny exceptions prove the rule.
Seasoned criminologists such as Pat Carlen, former editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Criminology, might add to these observations that there is a tendency of professional criminologists to put their skills at the service of governmental correctional initiatives in uncritically legitimising the state’s “criminalisation and marginalisation practices” (in the words of Eugene McLaughlin) thereby creating a perfect storm.
In conclusion, Ramaphosa did all South Africans a huge favour by releasing Part One of nothing less than 874 pages of Zondo’s Report on Allegations of State Capture. Even if connecting the dots as a result of this report does not lead to any kingpins being prosecuted (apart, of course, from whistleblowers and other nobodies), it would nonetheless lead to a measure of healing on the national psyche. But more worrisome, is the fact that, for once, our “Ramasaviour” might have moved too fast for his own good and Zondo’s report might just be his own undoing. This having been said, I would be most relieved if I can be shown to be wrong on this score.