One of the main reasons for the failure of so many countries’ attempts to navigate the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy is the phenomenon known as “state capture”.
This comes in different guises. But it always involves the capture of the institutions of state by a small ruling clique to entrench their own power and enrich themselves. “State capture” typically involves a “big man” leader, extending his power by deploying loyalists to control all state institutions in order to put the leader’s interests ahead of the people’s interests.
The deal is that if the network keeps the big man in power, he will protect and reward them in office. Eventually, all institutions become tools in the hands of the ruling clique, including the judiciary, the prosecuting authority, the electoral commission, the police, the intelligence services, and the army. Instead of protecting citizens against power abuse, these institutions become an extension of “big man” rule. Eventually they abuse their power to destroy opposition, inside or outside the “big man’s” party.
That is why many democracies stand or fall by their capacity to build strong, independent institutions that can call “big men” to account, stop corruption and ensure the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.
The only way to prevent state capture is if voters spot the danger signs early enough. If voters wait too long to vote out the incumbent “big man” when he starts to abuse power, there is a serious chance they won’t be able to do so when they realise they have to. By then it is too late. The ruling network is usually so entrenched that it can rig elections, intimidate people, cut them off from state benefits, use the army and police to crush legitimate protest, and ensure the judiciary adjudicates disputes in its favour.
Nearly twenty years after our founding democratic election, our country is showing many signs of “state capture”. As a result, the jury is still out as to whether our transition will succeed or not. Indeed we are in a race against time. We have already seen how President Zuma and his faction in the ANC have sought to annex independent state institutions to do their bidding.
The most dramatic example is the National Prosecuting Authority’s inexplicable withdrawal of charges on over 700 counts of corruption against the President shortly before the 2009 election. Since then, the President has made sure that the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) is somebody he can control to ensure he stays out of jail. We are watching closely to see how the newly appointed NDPP, Mxolisi Nxasana, lives up to his constitutional obligation to prosecute without fear or favour.
Unanswered questions remain about whether Judge President of the Western Cape, John Hlophe, attempted to influence two constitutional court judges to decide a matter in favour of Jacob Zuma. And we all know that “terminal illness” was not the real reason that Schabir Shaik and Jackie Selebi were released from jail.
State capture is in full swing.
And when state capture succeeds, it is accompanied by the ruling clique’s capture of the economy, the media, the universities, and many “independent” non-governmental organisations (NGOs). I call this phenomenon “capture creep”.
Developing economies are particularly vulnerable because so much economic activity is driven by the state. In this way, the ruling clique ensures that it controls access to positions, tenders, contracts, advertising revenue and other opportunities. People (and enterprises) soon learn that their prospects depend on their political connections. And they know the consequences of supporting the opposition, through donations or even advertising revenue.
The independent media can do all they like to expose this, but if voters don’t act on this information and use their power to change their government it is all for nothing. And if they leave it too long, it is too late. In the last election, President Robert Mugabe did not even have to intimidate voters to win. He just rigged the voters’ roll.
Our own newspapers are filled with reports every day that would lead to a change in government in any established democracy.
Take Chancellor House, a “front company” used by the ANC, to make hundreds of millions of Rand for the ruling party through state contracts with the private sector. It works this way: the ANC buys a stake in private companies to which government then awards lucrative state tenders, ensuring a handsome return for the Party.
It is corruption writ large, based on a form of insider trading. And some companies are reported to have given generous donations to the ANC and appointed a powerful “cadre” on their boards in order to be eligible for “Chancellor House” facilitated deals.
Another example is the ANC’s abuse of state advertising and sponsorships to promote sympathetic media such as the Gupta Family’s “New Age” newspaper. Observers are now waiting to see whether Sekunjalo’s buyout of Independent News and Media is part of “capture creep” as many suspect it may be.
On University campuses throughout South Africa, ANC-aligned student organisations (sometimes with the support of university administrations) are trying to prevent the DA Student Organisation (DASO) from registering and contesting SRC elections.
DA activists on campuses are often intimidated and harassed, even assaulted, with rarely a peep from university management. They know only too well that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande is tightening his grip on universities through increasing his nominees on their Councils.
But what about civil society organisations, often called non-governmental organisations, such as lobby groups, think tanks etc?
There are a number of such organisations that have always ingratiated themselves with the ruling party. Others have become critical of various aspects of ANC rule — but scurry back into the fold come election time.
And the ANC has now resorted to starting NGOs that receive state funds to drive the ANC’s agenda. Why else did Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s department transfer R2-million to an organisation led by Nosey Pieterse, an ANC cadre, shortly before it fuelled the violent strike on Western Cape farms last year?
And why else did Jacob Zuma’s cousin, Deebo Mzobe, start an NGO called the Masibambisane Rural Development Initiative that was reportedly pledged R900-million from various government departments to distribute food parcels in the run-up to the 2014 election? (The plan has since apparently been put on hold.)
An article in the Sunday Times by Mark Heywood, executive director of the NGO Section 27, gives a chilling account of what is happening to NGOs that refuse to toe the line.
In this context, a few NGOs that have long been known for their dogged independence are also making interesting moves.
This week the 84-year-old South African Institute of Race Relations, through its newly-appointed Chief Executive Officer, mounted a propaganda campaign for the ANC on social media with the hashtag #IRRKnowYourANC. It was clearly a counter to the #KnowYourDA campaign that the DA launched earlier this year.
The ANC has as much right as the DA to tell any aspect of its story that it likes. But why would a think tank do so, especially one that has historically promoted itself as independent and non-aligned? It would have been totally inappropriate had the SAIRR run the #KnowYourDA campaign, and we would have been the first to point it out. Such a move would have permanently destroyed the institute’s “independent” credentials.
But the Institute clearly has no such qualms about doing the same for the ANC.
Why would a self-styled “independent think tank” compromise its credibility in this way?
In an interview in Business Day shortly after he was appointed CEO, Dr Frans Cronje said his appointment “came at a time when the government needed to foster stronger relationships with think-tanks”.
He went on to say: “I would be very pleased if … the government comes to realise that think-tanks make better allies than adversaries. I am encouraged that this is already increasingly the case — we have always enjoyed a good relationship with the administration of (President) Jacob Zuma.”
His real motives becomes clearer in a subsequent interview with the Daily Maverick that reveals how “a growing number of government departments have come to depend” on the SAIRR.
In the interview, Cronje talks of the “institutional make-over” he wants to effect, pointing out that many businesses are reluctant to fund openly the institute because it may affect their dealings with government.
So, in order to become sustainable, the SAIRR must boost its profit-making consultancy work through its Risk Analysis Unit. And we learn that some 40 government agencies — including the Presidency — have already “made extensive use” of the SAIRR’s data.
If the SAIRR wishes to continue being thought of as an independent think tank, it is important for the public to know how much of its money is raised from the state. This will explain whether its @IRRKnowYourANC campaign has got anything to do with consolidating and expanding its client base — both in the public and private sector.
In the meantime, we will continue to expose and oppose “capture creep” – whether it is in the public sector, independent institutions or civil society. This is not an insignificant side-show, or diversion, as some have suggested. It forms part of a bigger picture that we must expose.
South Africa’s future depends on all of us defending our Constitution and, when necessary, using our power at the ballot box to hold the government to account before it is too late.