Jeremy Gordin examines the possible impact of Angelo Agrizzi's shock testimony to the Zondo commission

Do you know Paul Simon’s line “These are the days of miracle and wonder”? It comes from the “The Boy in the Bubble” on the Graceland album. This was in 1986. Still, the line seemed to resonate 10 years later at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), as gruesome testimony started emerging.

Of course, the brutal behaviour of the security forces was known to many, especially its victims. But hearing it described – and sometimes acted out – was, firstly, traumatic corroboration for families of the tortured and dead. Secondly, for the victims, families, and many, many people of every ideological stripe, it was vindication. What they had believed, what they had been told, what had been suggested but never proven, was set out for all to hear.

Ordinary white South Africans who had long given the benefit of the doubt to their leaders, and over the years accepted the indignant and strident denials of wrongdoing, were brought face to face with the appalling truth about what had been done in their name. This was devastating to the moral authority of the National Party establishment not among its enemies, who believed the worst of it anyway, but among its supporters and sympathisers. They felt that particular humiliation that comes from trusting someone, defending them, and then finding you have been played for a fool.

If the apartheid regime had ever had a moral leg to stand on, which was doubtful, the NP was, following the TRC, legless.

Now we have before us the testimonies seeping out at a different sort of TRC, the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. I’m referring particularly to the evidence of the last few weeks featuring Angelo Agrizzi, former chief operating officer at Bosasa, and several other former Bosasa employees – during which more than a few notables have been fingered.

These are, among others, former President Jacob Zuma; Minister of Environmental Affairs Nomvula Mokonyane; former Deputy National Director of Public Prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba; former chair of South African Airways and chair of the Jacob G Zuma Foundation Dudu Myeni; axed South African Revenue Services boss Tom Moyane when he “served” as commissioner of correctional services; former chair of the parliamentary portfolio committee on correctional services Vincent Smith; Minister of Mineral Affairs and former ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe; Pretoria chief magistrate Desmond Nair; as well as (Richmond) Linda Mti, Patrick Gillingham and other senior employees at correctional services.

Quite a few people, even those on the periphery of dealing with correctional services[i] pretty much knew that Bosasa’s modus operandi was, to put it mildly, pungent. Besides, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) had investigated Bosasa in 2008 – and this was not the best-kept of secrets in the world, though (surprise, surprise) nothing came of the investigation.[ii]

But while it is one thing to be told or hear “rumours” (always strongly denied) about rampant corruption, it’s quite another to hear it described from the inside by one of the preeminent players – especially Agrizzi, who seems to have emerged directly from a movie directed by Martin Scorsese, and who is somehow a quintessential Seffrican type: energetic, hard-working, adept at covering his own posterior, aggrieved, foul-mouthed, impatient, dislikeable, disinterested in and unaware of  politically correct cant, deeply loving of his family (what Italian pater familias isn’t?), apparently not au fait with the latest dieting fads (got to love the man!), and who had a Damascene moment during which he saw the Light. (We may also presume that before agreeing to testify he set up a plea bargain.)

Before Agrizzi testified, there was testimony – some from important people, including ministers or former ministers – relating to high-level “state capture” by (it would seem) the Gupta family. But, given that the major Gupta hard drives were copied and turned over to the fourth estate, most of what we heard during the earlier sessions of the Zondo commission was in the public domain. Up until this moment too it was also possible for those sympathetic to the ANC to believe that the Guptas were the problem, and now they were gone.

By contrast, the nitty-gritty of Agrizzi’s testimony was previously unknown. For most of us, it’s been the proverbial bolt from the blue. Perhaps therefore it’s been so riveting and perhaps therefore there has been a litany of: “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, can you believe this? Can you believe that?”

Now, let’s leave aside for a minute whether (or what) prosecutions will flow from the Zondo commission; after all, a number of prosecutions flowing from the TRC still haven’t happened.

And let’s ask ourselves this question. Will the testimony of Agrizzi – and of others that have testified or will testify – will these testimonies have the same or a similar effect as the evidence that came out of the TRC? Yes, I know – of course the Zondo commission does not (so far) have anything to do with brutality, violence and murder.

But might the Zondo commission open some eyes? Might some people finally be able to close the curtain on the belief that the senior ANC members were solely a band of noble and honest heroes devoted only to ameliorating the life of the people? I’m talking of those who grasped the levers of power or started grasping the levers from 1994 onwards.

Scan the list above: Zuma – well, we knew or know about him; Gwede Mantashe; Nomvula Mokonyane; Tom Moyane; Vincent Smith; Gwede Mantashe; and so on. And I’m not even adding in the names that emerged from the pre-Bosasa Zondo testimonies, such as former Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba, former Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown, former Minister of Mineral Affairs Mosebenzi Zwane, and others.

There’s an anecdote relating to the Prussian field marshal, Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742–1819), the fellow who, with Wellington, whipped Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. At the invitation of the British government, he was invited to England to be thanked formally for his and his army’s role in the Waterloo Campaign. When his carriage stopped on a hill overlooking London, in all its magnificence, he is said to have exclaimed, “What a city to plunder!”

Not too difficult, is it, to imagine Zuma, Mokonyane, Moyane, Gigaba and various others publicly proclaiming their commitment to creating a “better life for all” on coming to power, while privately thinking “what a country to loot!” (Zuma might have added: “Heh heh.”)

Will the various testimonies have the effect I have described? Could it help more people put the ANC’s golden age of integrity and honesty into a different perspective?

I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile, recalling the words attributed to Jesus, “The truth will set you free (John 8:32),” I find solace in us having been set free by the likes of Angelo Agrizzi and Frans Vorster, and not by one of the many sanctimonious twits who hog the newspapers and air waves.


[i] E.g., me, when from August 2009-February 2012, I was director of the Wits Justice Project at Wits’ journalism school, trying to investigate miscarriages of justice related to the criminal justice system.

[ii] During those years I had a fair amount of contact with parliamentarian Smith and thought him quite a straight shooter. But then I also found Zuma charming. As my wife and offspring have been known to ask rhetorically: “Well, what do you know anyway?”