Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture. By Pieter-Louis Myburgh. Penguin Random House SA, 2019. 331 pp.
In his new collection, Working, the Pulitzer-prize-winner Robert Caro, 83, emphasizes that one of the best pieces of advice he ever received came from a crusty old journalist when Caro was a young apprentice, soon to be an reporter and author and later a famous investigative historian: “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page” [[i]].
Pieter-Louis Myburgh appears to have done just this in his book on Elias Sekgobelo “Ace” Magashule, 60, presently Secretary General (SG) of the ruling party, the ANC – which from May 8 looks set to rule the country again.
Clearly Myburgh had the sitzfleisch to turn every goddamned page; Gangster State is a thorough, relentlessly detailed, methodic and dogged trawl through Magashule’s life; it’s an excellent book of investigative journalism.
This then might be an apposite point to recall a favourite moment of mine during the Nugent Commission of Inquiry into SARS, when it came up that ex-commissioner Tom Moyane had paid some attorney in the region of R300 000 (that’s your money) to read a certain book, presumably Jacques Pauw’s The President's Keepers, presumably with a view to suing Pauw for defamation. Commission chairman Judge Robert Nugent, who at that juncture didn’t know precisely which book was under discussion, was heard to exclaim irascibly, or faux-irascibly (I was watching on TV): “Well, what is this book, for heaven’s sake? Is it War and Peace?”
Gangster State is not War and Peace and nor for that matter is it John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl [[ii]]. Although it’s well-edited, clear and with each chapter carefully reined-in, it is, given its subject matter, by no means light-hearted; and it is very detailed. It’s an investigation, after all, into the murky wheelings and dealings – the apparently criminal dealings – of Magashule.
In other words, you should not read this book if literary entertainment is your goal. You should work through it – I think we all should – so as to know the kind of person you’ll be putting into power if you vote for the ANC next week; though, according to all the polls, it looks as though Magashule’s party’s set to come into power whether you or I vote for the ANC or not.
Myburgh has divided the book into eight sections, starting with Magashule’s youth, his days as premier in waiting in the Free State (FS), his purported shady dealings in the FS, his dealings with the Guptas and former president Jacob Zuma, the questionable gift he apparently gave his daughter, the dubious asbestos deal in which Magashule was involved , and then his elevation to the position of SG.
But I am not going to trawl through all the painstakingly-recorded events of Magashule’s life. The reader ought to buy the book and do that him/herself. Instead I’d prefer to focus on the major points that emerge from Gangster State.
First, do we accept Myburgh’s version of the Ace story? There is no reason not to do so. Everything is carefully referenced. But let’s not forget that investigative books are complex animals, especially in South Africa and especially when your subject is Magashule. Such books are heavily “lawyered” because the lawyers’ jobs are to make certain their clients don’t get zapped [[iii]].
What this means is that often the author can’t write everything he wanted to put down and therefore that the reader might wonder about the “relevance” of a certain incident. An example of this – for me – is the assassination of Noby Ngombane (ch. 7). I get it that Ngombane was a “problem” for Magashule but precisely why Myburgh has “tied” Magashule to the killing, I am not sure. Presumably, to give Myburgh the benefit of my doubt, he knows more than he could set down.
Second, I noted above that Gangster State is not light reading because of the sort of book it is. But there’s another reason. Magashule, as portrayed, must be one of the most unprepossessing people around. Presumably Magashule’s family and his dogs love him, but it is hard to see why.
Third – and I was about to write “Not to put too fine a point on it, Magashule is shown to be, in all his activities, a South African mafioso, finish en klaar.”
Now then, I would not “unwrite” that sentence. But it seems to me that the picture that emerges from this book is “larger” than simply “Magashule is a bad guy”.
Magashule wanted money – so he brutally, doggedly and graspingly played “the system”. What was (or is) “the system”? Well, follow the money. If you’re not an entrepreneur, inventor, a very hard-working type or the heir to a large fortune, the money is in local and national government (also in SOEs but initially these were out of Magashule’s sphere of influence).
There were (and are) pots of money floating around for all sorts of government projects, notably housing, roads and such-like. Well, if you can cash in on those funds – by hook or by crook, via cutting in on tenders or putting the squeeze for bribes on suppliers or by ensuring your family members are players – you’ve got it made. And that, as Myburgh shows us, is exactly what Magashule did.
It’s almost impressive, isn’t it? Think about it: what other game in town is there if you’re a not-so-rich politician who wants more than your salary? There’s a ton of money about that’s supposed to go into improving the lot of the poor and the vulnerable – well, you just find ways to take it. Oh, and bear in mind that to be able to keep taking this money, you need to be in control (political power) – which, in turns, involves other kinds of skullduggery and bullying.
Was Magashule good at this? Well, yes and no. Yes, because he and family members apparently have the money; and I’ve not heard of any pending prosecutions against him. No, because he’s been relatively easily outed in this book.
I’m reminded of one of Trevor Noah’s shticks that I saw on TV. As best as I recall, it goes something like this. This one guy is talking to a fellow tenderpreneur: “Hey,” he says, “you got a contract and the money to build six bridges. Couldn’t you have at least put up one bridge? Just one. What’s the matter with you?” Nearly all the projects with which Magashule has been involved have mostly been disasters: badly-built houses, unbuilt houses, you name it. The man might be a brutal mafioso – or he might be one of the land’s greatest klutzes. Probably both.
Fourth: state capture is not only about the Guptas or Bosasa. It’s also about the Free State – the Duchy of Magashulistan, which has been ticking along merrily under our very noses. Myburgh should be called before the Zondo Commission. All he then needs to do is work through his book. It’ll take some time, sure. So what?
Fifth: Reading this book, you realize Magashule is far from unusual. You realize that this is how the ANC works because, as mentioned, Magashule’s modus operandi is the only game in town. How else are the cadres – especially those serving the people in government – supposed to make as much money as those white monopoly capitalists? You realize the ANC is not a “political party”. It’s a business enterprise, a “trough-facilitation” party. How this operates emerges in a remarkably detailed way in Gangster State. It falls into the place for the reader.
Sixth: Magashule has had countless run-ins with various ANC worthies, ex- and serving, over the years – including Mosiuoa Lekota, Tokyo Sexwale and Fikile Mbalula. Also, it becomes apparent that Magashule’s modus has not been a secret – maybe the details have been but not the generality. Hate to sound like a stuck record, but where was Cyril Ramaphosa all this time? Stupid question, really; Magashule cosied up to Zuma (and the Guptas) and the rest is history.
Finally: what is remarkable about this book if you think about it is that “it” was all there all the time, under our noses, as I said. Other than one particular – though very important – leak (the IgoFiles), Myburgh has written this book by having the gumption to turn every page and to follow and work through every lead. Impressive stuff, with implications – as I have tried to suggest – that probably stretch even further than perhaps even Myburgh realises.
[i] “Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. ‘Just remember,’ he said. ‘Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.’ He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.” Caro, Robert A. Working (p. 11). Random House. Kindle Edition.
[ii] The DM’s books newsletter of May 2, Burn After Reading (geddit?), doesn’t have a review of Gangster State, but it does tell us, Financial Times-style, which books author Myburgh presently has on his bedside table: John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, 1983; Hermann Giliomee’s The Afrikaners, 2003; and Xolela Mangcu’s Biko, 2013. Myburgh’s reading appears to be lagging a bit. So, either he made up the list on the fly, reads very slowly, or – and this is what we hope – he has been so busy being an investigative journalist that he hasn’t had much time for reading “other” books. Daily Maverick,5/2/2019.
[iii] It doesn’t always work. On May 2, it was reported that Myburgh is being sued for defamation by Durban-based businessman Vikash Narsai and his company, Nexor 312, over certain allegations made in the book.