The “red herring” of Zondo

Jeremy Gordin asks whether the commission is really gunning for state capture rather than grand corruption

A “red herring”. This, as you know, is a dried smoked herring, turned red by the smoke, but, more to the point, a clue or piece of information which is, or is intended to be, misleading or distracting. Please keep this in mind.

A second cliché is “not being able to see the wood for the trees” – i.e., being unable to understand a situation clearly because you are too involved in it. Or – in my case, for example – not clearly understanding a situation because you’re not thinking hard enough or because you’re a bit dim. Please keep this one in mind too. 

There’s also “barking up the wrong tree,” which suggests a mistaken emphasis in a specific context. “The phrase is an allusion to the mistake made by dogs when they believe they have chased a prey up a tree, but the game may have escaped by leaping from one tree to another”.

A fourth sort-of saying, not really a cliché, is what some of the wits in grade 10 at Brakpan High would respond when I said, “I’ve been thinking ...”. The response was, “Thought we could smell something burning”. 

So, if you’d come near me during the last few days, you probably would have smelled something burning and it wouldn’t have been my cheap deodorant or the tobacco in my pipe.

What I have been thinking about was not, let me stress, the few fine articles about the “end” of the Zondo commission’s hearings and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s testimony [i] . What has struck me in retrospect was the general tenor of most articles and reports delivered at the time, about which yet another handy cliché comes to mind.

For the journalists of yore and the competent ones of today, “dog bites man” is not supposed to be a significant story; it’s “man bites dog”. Yet what was the drift of most articles a couple of weeks ago? “Golly gee, the Seffrican president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was willing to appear (and did!) before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture”.

But I ask you with tears in my peepers: why on earth would Ramaphosa not want to appear? 

Think about it: an opportunity for two days on national television to present (as the lawyers say) argument in mitigation, in what is the prime spot in any legal proceedings – the closing speech – and a chance to deliver a master class in public relations. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? He must have relished the opportunity.  

And here perhaps is what the wily Frogboiler might have mused to himself as each learned counsel addressed those lengthy speeches to him: “Such a long speech,” he would have been thinking, “hmm, which part is the most advantageous to comment on? Sure, some parts might need a little explanation. But, hey, for the most part, nobody is asking me anything pertinent, so I can brush those parts off. 

“What a great opportunity to bedazzle them with the glorious future that lies ahead ... and to tell them of the bold steps I have taken. Appointment of the NDPP (albeit four years back), a Commission on SARS (albeit three years back), and to note that since then we have been vigorously looking at things.”

Now, thinking about what the president might have been thinking got me thinking even more (my wife thought I’d left an empty pot boiling on the stove) – and wondering whether I’d missed the wood for the trees for the last three years.

There’s no dispute, boychik (I said to myself), that the institutions of State were captured. 

But the billion-rand, or maybe more, question is – by whom? Zupta Inc? Don’t be silly. Brian Molefe? Sillier still. People running around with bags of money? You, Mr Gordin, really deserve to fail.

All of those – and many of the others of whom we have heard – were not the capturers. They were the beneficiaries and manipulators of the capture.

So, who captured the State?

The ANC itself, dummkopf. Only the Party had the ability to take control of State institutions. That individuals they “deployed” were able to take advantage, for themselves and the Party, is merely the result. 

Consider. Had one wanted in 1939 to know what was to happen in Europe one need only have read Mein Kampf by you-know-who. Therein is everything – the fate of the Slavs and the Jews, the invasion of Russia [ii]. Did nobody read it? According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “[b]y 1939 [Mein Kampf] had sold 5,2-million copies and been translated into 11 languages”.

Oh well, maybe those who read it thought it was no more than the ravings of a maniac. And maybe it was. But, although I’m not comparing the ANC to the Nazi party, here’s my pennyworth (I don’t deal in billions [iii]): when a person, or people, say what he and she or they intend to do – believe them.

And if one wanted to know what would happen in Seffrica one need only have read what the ANC successfully exhorted itself to do in numerous internal policy and strategy documents in the late 1990s, namely “seize control of all levers of state power!”

What is that other than capturing the institutions of State? Finish en klaar ... 

If I’d been an evidence leader at the Zondo commission (I’d have dusted off my suit), my main question to the president would have been: Will you now – you’re the president of the ANC – release your hold on the levers of power? Will you allow the civil service, state institutions, and municipalities to be run by well-qualified professionals rather than unqualified comrades?

But let’s leave aside my little moment of fantasy and follow my steam train of thought further. Flowing from the above, it also occurs to me that the Zondo commission has, alas, been something of a giant and monstrously expensive [iv] red herring – because we know who captured the state; the answer to the question is staring us right in the face.

Ironically, too, the giant march we have been on – perhaps something like Mao Zedong’s and Zhou Enlai’s Long March – following this red herring was initiated by everybody’s favourite lovey, erstwhile Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.

I don’t believe for a minute she meant any harm. But, again, I say: we know who captured the State, so why the commission, or why a commission the guidelines (rules) of which were formulated in the manner that they are?

Surely this commission should have been constructed around my fantasy question to Ramaphosa. To wit, given that the country has been clearly ruined by the ANC’s seizure of the so-called levers of power, let us analyse in detail how it’s been done and, above all, how it can be halted. 

No, no, I hear many cry. I hear them shout Judge Zondo’s words – “(We have) to make sure looting doesn’t happen again. If the looting repeats itself, it would be a serious indictment on us as a country.” I also hear them explain that the commission’s work has exposed the theft of billions – has provided a detailed account of how the State Capture loot was assembled and distributed. 

To be sure. We heard from Pravin Gordhan about how he was fired from his position in government for resisting state capture and had to battle Tom Moyane at SARS. We heard from Gordhan’s former deputy Mcebisi Jonas, former director general at National Treasury Lungisa Fuzile, former minister of public enterprises Barbara Hogan, former head of government communications Themba Maseko, former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, and from former minister of mineral resources Ngoako Ramatlhodi.

I could go on and on – and on; for a summary, see Pieter du Toit’s recent article on News24.

I agree the whole process has probably been cathartic – it’s put flesh on the bones, clothes on the flesh. No doubt the public – that’s me and you – had to hear it all. But has the Zondo commission been about (i) state capture or merely (ii) grand corruption?

Given that we know who has captured the state and that doing so is the ANC’s stated `policy, I’d say the Zondo proceedings have clearly been about grand corruption.

And if one thinks that the Zondo commission should have been about state capture, and if one believes the commission’s recommendations are going to take us forward in any positive way, then the commission might better have investigated whether the state remains captured.

As a legal friend recently remarked to me – a famous advocate once said to him: don’t litigate about history, litigate only about now.


[i] Such as William Saunderson-Meyer’s “Rambo-phosa fights with eyes wide shut” (see here) and “The mystery of Cyril’s missing minutes” (see here).

[ii] Encyclopaedia Britannica: “[The book] also expresses Hitler’s racist ideology, identifying the Aryan as the ‘genius’ race and the Jew as the ‘parasite,’ and declares the need for Germans to seek living space (Lebensraum) in the East at the expense of the Slavs and the hated Marxists of Russia. ... Hitler ascribed international significance to the elimination of Jews, which ‘must necessarily be a bloody process,’ he wrote.”

[iii] When my mother was a little girl, she came home from school and proudly told her father that she’d learnt that day that the sun was 93 million miles away from earth. What do you think of that, hmm, she asked? My grandfather, a sceptical Litvak, who’d been a smous in the Cape interior, and knew well the length of one mile from personal experience, looked at her and asked quietly: “So tell me, do you know how long one mile is? Five miles? Yet you talk about 93 million miles ...”

[iv] According to Ferial Haffajee on June 30, the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture has cost South Africa almost R1-billion.