Getting the low-down on the How To Steal A Country documentary

How To Steal A Country is a masterfully edited and brutally revealing synopsis.
How To Steal A Country is a masterfully edited and brutally revealing synopsis.

The incisive documentary How To Steal A Country has finally been released on Showmax. Using interviews and plenty of archive footage, it weaves together a devastating picture of how the Gupta-Zuma alliance stole about R1 trillion for itself through state capture. Grethe Kemp speaks to the film makers, Rehad Desai and Mark Kaplan.

Over many months, South Africans watched the press in horror as a picture of corruption on a grand scale by former president Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family flashed across our headlines.

State capture they called it – the theft of an entire country. It is estimated that it cost us around R1 trillion in total and, to date, little of that has been returned to our coffers. Zuma potentially faces some sort of punitive justice. Meanwhile, the Gupta family walks free in Dubai.

As Mail & Guardian investigative journalist Thanduxolo Jika says in the documentary: “It’s been almost 10 years of unabated looting. They estimate that it’s close to a trillion that the whole state capture debacle cost the country.

[In] a country that has the highest unemployment rate, the highest rate of people who live in poverty, a trillion could have changed their lives.”

And justice has barely been served. As the documentary states:

“To date, there have been no successful prosecutions of people involved in state capture.

Some of the companies involved, including Trillian Capital, were ordered to return $39 million [R745 million] in commission fees paid to Eskom.

Regiments Capital has been pressured into returning $33 million to the Transnet pension fund.

[Management consultancy] McKinsey paid back $70 million in commission fees to Eskom and apologised. The Chinese rail company [CRRC] has so far returned $40 million to Transnet.

Profiteering, bad investment and corruption have left Eskom in severe debt and on the brink of collapse. The power cuts continue.”

Prominent South African film makers Rehad Desai and Mark Kaplan joined forces to make How To Steal A Country, a masterfully edited and brutally revealing synopsis of what happened. City Press spoke to them this week.

Tell us about your feelings in making the film, as well as about the time frame of making it.

Kaplan: It was quite a quick production, relative to other work I’ve done. I think both Rehad and I were propelled by a lot of anger from what we saw coming out of the Gupta leaks. It was apparent to us, as documentary film makers who care about our society and our history, that we should contribute film-wise by providing an analysis based on those revelations.

Rehad Desai and Mark Kaplan

With documentary you can go deeper into both the heart space as well as the head space. You can reach people who are not reading News24 or the Daily Maverick. At the same time as we were filled with anger, we were filled with admiration for some journalists in the fourth estate. But the more we dug, we also realised there was a battle royal going on and that some journalists in the fraternity had been used by the system to propagate false news.

Desai: I was deeply disturbed by what we saw. This was looting on an industrial scale. A large part of our gross domestic product was just whisked away from underneath our feet. You get into the story and you start understanding who these people are and how they see things, and you get an understanding of their character and how they justify things; it’s deeply disconcerting. But our job is not to be on some morally righteous bandwagon; we are trying to tell a story and provide an understanding of that story.

A large part of our gross domestic product was just whisked away from underneath our feet... It’s not just the new burgeoning black elite that we’re talking about. We’re talking about endemic, systematic corruption... You look at America or Turkey – that’s state capture

Let’s get into that – the character of the likes of Jacob and Duduzane Zuma, as well as the Guptas. Did you, in the film making process, gain some insight into what makes them tick? Do you think they believe in any way that what they did was wrong?

Desai: I have no doubt that they felt that they were justified. They truly believed that they were disruptors of white monopoly capital. It wasn’t just some big con game. It has the feeling of a bank heist, but in many ways this was a political project. There where black South Africans in a very exclusive club of people who got empowered in a meaningful way – the likes of Mzi Khumalo, Patrice Motsepe, Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa and a few others, who bagged their share of black economic empowerment deals. But then there were many people who were left outside despite the rhetoric about broad-based black economic empowerment, and they too wanted their slice of the cake, they too wanted to get filthy rich. To quote a former ANC spokesperson: “What’s wrong with being filthy rich?”

Kaplan: I think it’s important to note that the scope of the criticism needs to get wider. It’s not just the new burgeoning black elite that we’re talking about. We’re talking about endemic, systematic corruption. We’re talking about people who can only get away with this level of looting because they are enabled by the banks and by international institutions such as the big accounting firms.


There’s been state capture in other countries in different forms. You look at [US President] Donald Trump’s America or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey – that’s state capture. It’s not a uniquely South African story. In fact, there’s a continuity of looting, using access to state power and the systematic nature of institutions such as the banks and the arms industry. These are all legacies of apartheid, these were institutions that maintained apartheid and were maintained under our new democracy, and were then utilised as leaders to enrich the politically connected.


Desai: If you look at Trump’s bailout for the corporate sector in America in the face of the Covid-19 coronavirus, a lot of those people are industrial lobbies that got behind his campaign, whom he owes favours to, whom he’s now giving backhanders to. He’s making sure that his friends are compensated for their loss of business, while hundreds of thousands of small businesses in America are on their knees. This is what happens when you allow the state and the private sector to merge in an unregulated manner.

What was your personal impression of whistle-blowers and investigative journalists such as Jika, Sam Sole, Susan Comrie and Richard Poplak, as well as commentators such as Ferial Haffajee, who helped bring this story to light?

Desai: We identified Comrie through her writing at amaBhungane. She is deep on the Transnet trial and the corruption there, and her writing is a great example of what investigative journalism can be. When we got around to interviewing her, her clarity and ability to articulate these matters in an accessible way were what attracted us to her. We interviewed widely and many people, and had to, at the end of the day, determine who we’d use. Jika has gravitas; he speaks in a way that’s believable and genuine, but also he has led the way at this time at both the Sunday Times and Mail & Guardian. They’re both young, dynamic, fearless journalists and we easily gravitated to them as film makers.


What would you want people to walk away with after watching the documentary?

Kaplan: I hope it mobilises people. What happened should not be something we just leave in the past because its repercussions are going to be with us for a long time. I’d also love the film to be screened widely, for instance in schools around the country.

Desai: That our audience come out with a greater respect for investigative journalism and the role it plays, and that they see what Zuma and his patronage network were doing for what it was – corruption using political office. And that they were able to do so because they were part of an international architecture that is still in place.

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