'State capture' didn't begin with the Guptas

John Kane-Berman says the current controversy should force a wider reconsideration of practices such as cadre deployment

Opposition to "state capture" free-for-all comes late in the day

At long last somebody quite senior in government has had the courage publicly to blow the whistle on the alleged "capture" by the Gupta family of the power to make ministerial appointments. The Guptas of course immediately denied that they had offered the position of minister of finance to the deputy minister, Mcebisi Jonas, in December last year. But it's a racing certainty that most people believe Mr Jonas, who says the Guptas offered him Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene's job just before Mr Nene was suddenly axed by President Jacob Zuma for reasons still shrouded in suspicion.  

"The narrative that has grown around the issue of 'state capture' should be of concern to all responsible and caring South Africans," says Mr Jonas. Quite right. The problem, however, is that state capture is the official policy of the ruling alliance of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). So routine has it become that it is barely noticed unless something unusually dramatic involving the Guptas happens.  

According to Mr Jonas, the Constitution vests the power of ministerial appointment in the president of the Republic. But it also vests in the president the power to make ambassadorial appointments. Yet only a fortnight before Mr Jonas blew the whistle on the Guptas, the ANC announced that its parliamentary chief whip, Stone Sizane, was to be the new South African ambassador in Berlin. This suggests that the South African embassy in Berlin has been "captured" by the ANC. South Africa is not the first country to use foreign embassies as dumping grounds for unwanted politicians. Nor is the ANC the first South African party to do so. Nor is this the first time.

What distinguishes South Africa is the sheer brazen barefaced shamelessness of it all. And the reason is simple. The deployment of party cadres to capture as many centres of power as possible is one of the hallmarks of ANC/SACP rule and ideology. There has never been any secret about this. Nor is there any secret that it copies the Soviet model of government. It means the first loyalty of the public service is to the ruling party, not the public.

That being so, malfeasance follows pretty much automatically. And it extends beyond the public service proper. Has the ANC not been trying to capture the Independent Electoral Commission? Some years back the ANC captured enough power at Eskom to divert a hefty sum to its front company Chancellor House.

If the Guptas have been using the friendly new mineral resources minister to help swing a bit of coal business their way, as has been alleged, they can argue that they are merely applying principles learnt from the ANC. And who can blame them if they assume the ANC is not unhappy with "state capture" anyway?

Did they not capture the use of the Waterkloof military base for a time back in 2013? The only people punished for that were a couple of bureaucrats and dutiful air-force officers made into scapegoats. And the secretary general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, no less, last month leapt to the Guptas' defence against those "obsessed" with their supposed influence over the state and the ANC. Critics of such influence, he also said, were driven by "racial prejudice".  

So what's gone wrong? Why is Mr Mantashe now suddenly denouncing the Guptas as "arrogant"? Have they backed the wrong faction? Perhaps they've overplayed their hand. They've done so, moreover, at a bad time given that further political interference with the ministry of finance carries risks to South Africa's already shaky financial standing in the world. But if the Guptas' egregious behaviour wakes a few more people up to the dangers of state capture and cadre deployment, they would have done the country a useful service.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.