Getting rid of the rot

William Saunderson-Meyer says high profile arrests are just the start of cleaning up the criminal justice system


It’s in the nature of South Africa’s tumultuous politics that every win has close on its heels a loss. Every hard-won advance is offset by a rapid setback.

So, it’s a little too early for excitement and backslapping that has accompanied the first high-profile arrests of those responsible for the financial evisceration of the state. It’s understandable, though, given that it’s three years since President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to excise corruption in government and party ranks.

Since we’ve waited so long, we’re entitled to enjoy what African National Congress Secretary-General Ace Magashule has disparaged as the “Hollywood-style”. He’s referring to the spectacle of handcuffed notables doing clumsy perp walks in pointy Italian shoes to waiting cop cars. 

But, while it’s obviously necessary to arrest the enablers in business and the enforcers in the police service they’re ultimately only important to the degree to which they can be turned into chum, to net the big fishes. This is the tactic that the National Prosecuting Authority is following in nailing its first conviction of those involved in stealing R2bn from VBS bank.

Former VBS chief financial officer Phillip Truter this week pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, money laundering, corruption and racketeering in terms of a plea and sentencing agreement. In exchange for an effective seven-year sentence, Truter has co-operated with law enforcement and has turned state witness to testify against the other accused.

Arrests and convictions on the periphery of the party and government will not worry the governing elite overmuch. On the contrary, it serves to buff an ANC construct of zealous — if somewhat newly acquired — moral propriety.

It’s when the Hawks start pecking in parliamentary precincts that party nerves will be tested. So the catch that will worry the ANC’s sharks is that of their former parliamentary colleague, Vincent Smith.

Smith, a former chair of the public accounts parliamentary committee and a member of the correctional services committee, has been charged, with a touch of judicial eloquence, of receiving numerous “corrupt and improper gratifications”. He resigned as an MP in 2019 and describes himself now as a pensioner surviving on a piteous R21,000 per month

Smith will be an interesting test of prosecutorial mettle. One of the brighter sparks in a dulled ANC firmament, he is firmly in the Radical Economic Transformation camp of former president Jacob Zuma and, hence, keen to see the humiliation of President Cyril Ramaphosa. After two decades of frenetic self-gratification in parliament, Smith is doubtlessly well placed not only to blow the whistle on the ousted Zuma-era looters, but also on those skabengas still serving in Cabinet and on the national executive committee, and on whom Ramaphosa relies upon survival.

If Smith is a test of prosecutorial skill, Magashule is a test of political will. Despite the heated assertions of the Hawks and the NPA, the ANC has always interfered, both covertly and overtly, to impede and channel judicial processes. Next to Zuma, he would be the most influential politician to face the prospect of jail.

Unlike Zuma, who smoulders away in malodorous but ineffectual disgruntlement in rural KwaZulu-Natal, Magashule is a live round. Sitting in Luthuli House in Johannesburg, in the centre of a vast and intricate web of influence and patronage, he will not be inclined to go gently.

ANC insider and political commentator Oscar van Heerden recalls, in an article on Daily Maverick, media claims that when Zuma was pushed into resigning in 2018, there had been murmurs of mutiny in the SA National Defence Force. He warns of present-day sedition and cites rumblings among Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans and the highly irregular call by retired SANDF General Mojo Motau for a “conversation” among serving officers and soldiers over the state of the ANC.

Van Heerden notes that there is “a very thin line between a bloodless coup and the ‘recall’ of a sitting president of the Republic … You simply call a meeting of like-minded people, you gather in a smoke-filled room on the outskirts of the Free State and decide that he must go.” 

In contrast to fragile indications of pockets of resolve and possible competence in the specialist sections of the SA Police Service and the NPA, on the ground, nothing has changed, except for the worse. In the regional and magistrate courts, the level of prosecutorial skill, as reflected in convictions, mostly continues to erode.

With policing, it’s reaching chilling new lows. Colleagues in a health NGO this week recounted how one of their drivers and his passengers were abducted, threatened and held at ransom. The mind-boggling response of SAPS when they dialled the emergency number for assistance was to refuse to intervene.

What explains the apparently inexplicable, such a dereliction of duty, is the identity of the perpetrators. A cabal of powerful taxi bosses.

What had happened is that the NGO, in order to keep their medical staff safe from Covid and in turn infecting patients, had been ferrying them to and fro from the townships. The taxi operators had taken umbrage at the loss of potential income.

The NGO car was forced to a stop and then compelled to travel in convoy to the taxi rank. There the driver was presented with an ultimatum. Pay thousands for a weekly “safe travel” pass or face the consequences, which were by implication dire but not explicitly spelt out.

When the NGO roused the police by kicking up a stink, the police travelled to where the terrified driver and passengers were being held. Not to make arrests but to negotiate over two hours their release. 

No further SAPS action was taken or indeed should be expected. Virtually every South African has experienced police corruption, incompetence, indifference and politically skewed policing. 

It’s no secret in rural areas that most poaching and stock theft crime takes place with the connivance of the police, at best through turning of a blind eye or at worst through active participation. The same is true, in the cities, of drug trafficking. 

Some politically influential groups, like the minibus taxi mafia, have for a very long time been a law unto themselves in terms of traffic offences, defying the emergency pandemic regulations, and — to the judicially untested suspicions of many — being behind the torching of commuter trains, Uber taxis, and public bus services. Now they appear to be branching into kidnapping and extortion.

To be worthy of respect, a government must protect both the rich and the poor, the black and the white, the favoured and the outsiders. The first arrests of those involved in bankrupting the state are only the beginning of an agonising process of repairing hollowed out agencies and institutions.

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