In an era of post-truth “alternative facts”, smoke and mirrors tactics have become the new currency of political gamesmanship.
Yet, while it is true that our realities are socially constructed and what’s considered to be the truth is malleable, there are reliable institutionalised ways of establishing the truth based on facts.
These vary across disciplines and practices, and with good reason – they serve different objectives.
So, when evidence of individual involvement in state capture is requested, and no legal proof can be tendered, it can be misconstrued by the public to mean that state capture itself does not exist; is nothing more than a conspiracy theory. Yet this is a misunderstanding of what state capture entails, and how it is diagnosed.
The term derives from former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report.
It emerged colloquially in popular discourse and has no legal or academic definition. That is why the academic investigation into “state capture” never used the term, but instead referred to “repurposing” the state.
Notwithstanding, state capture can be generalised as a systematic process that is consciously undertaken to erode the functions, controls and processes that guarantee the integrity of the state, in service of a political agenda that cannot be achieved through the strict adherence to the Constitution.
As such, state capture is primarily a political project, and was diagnosed from an analysis of the political machinations that were eroding the institutions of government in South Africa.
The main academic theories used to explain what was happening in the academic investigation into state capture were Tim Kelsall’s neo-patrimonial developmental state theory and William Reno’s shadow state theory. The analysis was done by:
- Mapping a periodised sequence of events for a range of cases (primarily those raised in Madonsela’s report);
- Fitting narratives to these sequences of events; and
- Mapping the networks of the prominent actors.
The academic study adopted a whole systems perspective on what was transpiring across the state and connected the dots by analysing different cases.
It found that similar methods were deployed by those undermining the state, such as replacing the boards of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), targeting whistle blowers and hounding out career civil servants who refused to go along with unethical and/or illegal agendas.
Many of the same actors – political and private – pop up in different cases where SOEs were compromised. These actors were tied to a core network that appeared to be central to coordinating these activities.
This core network closely resembled Reno’s shadow state model, which is based on empirical evidence from Sierra Leone.
This network was leveraging the political aims of state capture to enrich themselves and buy political influence. This is where criminal acts enter the picture.
Hence, the academic diagnosis of state capture was not a legal investigation that deployed legal theory or precedents. Rather, it was based on political theory.
The study provided compelling but heuristic proof that an overarching state-wide political project was ensuing, and that it warranted further academic and legal investigation.
It essentially fleshed out and further corroborated what Madonsela had investigated and put in her report.
The legal investigations that followed that report and the academic work on state capture as a political project are independent criminal investigations that will determine who might be criminally liable for specific, individual wrongdoings.
The realm of legal accountability is restricted to the ambit of the law, and prosecuting agencies are responsible for acting in this realm. Yet there is another level of accountability that must be accommodated – that is political accountability.
Even if a politician is found to not be responsible for any criminal wrongdoing, anyone who occupied political or state office that was responsible for ensuring the integrity of institutions should be accountable.
And if they failed to do so, they must surely be held to account. Are we to ignore ethics just because they are not encoded in law?
Are maladministration and malfeasance that erode the state acceptable? It’s deeply misleading – and misguided – to conflate legal and political accountability because they are not the same thing.
The academic work on state capture will no doubt continue to evolve, and, through peer review and further interrogation, will improve its understanding of the phenomenon of state capture.
At the same time, legal and criminal investigations into wrongdoing must proceed and hold the wrongdoers to account.
These are separate activities that may draw on each other from time to time, but they serve fundamentally different purposes and are conducted through very different methodologies.
So it makes no sense to discredit the notion that any state capture was occurring purely because in individual cases there may not be legal proof of any wrongdoing.
The diagnosis of state capture was based on a broader analysis of what was happening across the state institutions.
It’s like invalidating Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity because its effects are negligible on Earth, where Newtonian physics is sufficient. Or that the global climate crisis is not occurring because the winter in your city was colder this year.
It’s like not seeing the wood for the trees.
State capture was a political project, and it therefore makes sense that political accountability for it is ensured, alongside legal accountability, for specific transgressions of the law.
So, when Advocate Dali Mpofu launched into Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan this week at the Zondo commission, over whether he had proof of former SA Revenue Service boss Tom Moyane’s involvement in state capture, he knew that the public would interpret it as a request for legal proof. He was attempting to bamboozle the public. His audience was not the legal fraternity in attendance – it was the ordinary citizens who could be fooled by such a performance.
Pretty much nothing Mpofu raised was of any value to the commission in respect of its terms of reference – it was simply a sideshow.
What we are witnessing is a sleight of hand; an attempt to instil a cognitive dissonance in the public mind that can then be exploited for political gain.
With the amount of noise that permeates both traditional and social media these days, ordinary citizens can be forgiven for being confused and getting the wrong end of the stick.
It is the responsibility of the leaders to clarify these matters and put out consistent messaging that the public can digest and put their support behind.
The confused messaging they are receiving, however, is an indication of how deeply divided and polarised our politics has become, and how easily it can be hijacked by those who would undermine it for political and personal gain.
Simply put, it is a failure of leadership.
The Zondo commission finalises its investigation in March.
Finally, the citizenry will learn what the cost of state capture has been to the country in real terms.
At this point, public intolerance for this kind of leadership might well manifest in a backlash in next year’s local government elections. It could signal major changes on South Africa’s political horizon.
Peter is an associate professor at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business and is director and executive head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own