The fatal flaw in Project State Capture

President Jacob Zuma. (File: Themba Hadebe, AP)
President Jacob Zuma. (File: Themba Hadebe, AP)

The creation of a parallel, criminal state under Jacob Zuma progressed surprisingly far, but there was never a chance that it would be completely successful or last long.

It is now collapsing spectacularly in front of our eyes.

This ambitious project, which has cost South Africa many billions of rand, a lot of prestige and several credit downgrades, could not have worked without the central roles Zuma and his chief Rottweiler, David Mahlobo, played.

The fatal flaw in the project was their poor understanding of the very nature of South African society.

Their other mistake was to lose control over the three Gupta brothers – or rather, to allow them to treat South Africa as their private spaza shop in exchange for truckloads full of money.

The decision to channel Zuma's bounty through his son Duduzane and this young man's role as Gupta point man in the circles of power were also just too transparent and contributed to the demise.

(Duduzane was only 25 years old when the Guptas made him part of their empire, and he quickly became a billionaire.)

Zuma's share in the collapse of the grand state capture scheme is relatively simple to understand.

In his essence, Zuma is a Zulu traditionalist who was sent to Robben Island for ten years as an illiterate 21-year-old and then spent all his life as an MK soldier in Mozambique and Zambia before returning home in 1990.

He is more African strongman than democrat; he understands brutal power and never fully appreciated the concepts of a constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

His view of the world and of life was mostly influenced by traditional ethnic communities, the guerrilla military and the intelligence world.

It was clear from his relationship with Schabir Shaik and other wealthy benefactors that he struggled to understand why it would be unethical to dish out favours for donations – he's the chief, this is Africa, isn't it?

Mahlobo (42), son of a Zulu chief from the Piet Retief area, spent much of his youth in Swaziland. After a degree in biochemistry, he joined the civil service and ended up as head of Mpumalanga's department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

In 2012 Zuma plucked him from obscurity and had him elected to the ANC's NEC. He was appointed minister of state security less than two years later.

In time, Mahlobo became Zuma's de facto prime minister with a finger in almost every state department pie and was always at the president's side, even during foreign visits.

He spent a lot of time in Moscow the last few years and has established a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin and his senior security people, who taught him the art of dezinformatsiya, kompromat and other Russian dirty tricks.

We now know that Mahlobo had student movements like #FeesMustFall infiltrated and controlled them for his own purposes, as he still controls Black First Land First and the ANC Youth League hotheads.

Mahlobo was the mastermind behind the propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting the crack special investigations unit at SARS, which was ultimately successful and led to the once efficient revenue body to be taken over by Zuma loyalist, Tom Moyane.

For Project State Capture to be successful, all those in the criminal justice system who could oppose it, had to be axed and replaced by loyalists – another job Zuma and Mahlobo completed successfully.

But Zuma and Mahlobo completely misjudged the modernity, sophistication and democratic commitment of the black urban middle class and elite and South Africans in general.

The two and their advisers never fully comprehended that South Africa had become an open society in the true sense of the word; that its citizens had internalised the Constitution's guarantees of free speech and association, and of equality before the law.

The two never considered that people like Thuli Madonsela, Mogoeng Mogoeng and Pravin Gordhan would forcefully stand up to them.

Neither Zuma nor Mahlobo was part of the UDF during the 1980s and clearly have no appreciation that this broad national movement had a completely different ethos from the closed, militaristic culture of the ANC in exile.

Mahlobo's Moscow trainers clearly thought what would work in Russia would also work here. Big mistake.

(By the way, don't be fooled: Mahlobo may officially be minister of energy as Russia's point man, but he still runs the State Security Agency.)

After his Polokwane victory in 2007, Zuma quietly giggled behind the backs of those who helped him to victory, because they thought they would be able to control him.

He outfoxed them and ruled by fear and manipulation, and the ANC leadership allowed him to get away with murder for years.

But in the end, Zuma and his inner circle were just too crude and his state capture comrades too greedy and blatant.

Our independent judiciary, committed investigative journalists and a new wave of civil society activism, outside and inside the ANC, saw to it that their goose was cooked.

Zuma, Mahlobo and their corrupt loyalists in government, the civil service and state-owned enterprises are today despised by most South Africans outside a few rural pockets, and Zuma's popularity rating is well below junk status with an extreme negative outlook.

The Guptas are on the run; many of their shady business partners have been named and shamed; several wannabe state capturers face criminal investigations; the boards of state-owned companies are being cleaned up; Zuma himself could be in court early next year – on the old Shaik charges – and on the charge of fraud because he received a private salary for four months after he became president.

And that is very reassuring: even if Zuma's favoured candidate is elected ANC president two weeks from now, or there's a big compromise in the new leadership, we know that the Zuma era – and Zumaism, and state capture – is almost over.

South Africans are generally a decent, proud and democratic people and we're keen to close this shameful chapter in our history.

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