When the state is the predator and the people prey

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on a new book by Rehana Rossouw on David Mabuza's Mpumalanga


Corruption seems a relatively benign crime. When everyone is the victim — as is the case with state looting — no one is the victim.

Sure, we know that we are in theory each made incrementally poorer with every act of illegal enrichment perpetrated by a crooked officialdom and the political elite. But at least, we rationalise, this is not the abrupt violence of a knife to the throat in a back ally, the guts churning horror of shuddering awake at 3am to realise that despite one’s best precautions, there is a gun to one’s head.

With state corruption, the individual’s loss seems minute and we are lulled by it being extracted with stealth over a long time. It is possible to shrug it all off as an annoyance, as one of the reality taxes — among the many others are the government’s poor education and health facilities, as well as widespread civil service ineptitude — of living in Africa.

It’s a bit more jarring when we do the arithmetic. State looting, according to the African National Congress government itself, amounted to around R1,5 trillion during the free-for-all that characterised former president Jacob Zuma’s two terms. That means around R25m of common wealth — of never built schools, hospitals, roads and power stations — that each of us has lost in just a decade.

It’s of course as absurd to imagine that ANC-sanctioned corruption existed only in the Zuma years, as it is to accept the estimates of its scale from the same men and women who were party to it. And it’s a problem that has grown steadily worse under every president. Just look at the breathtakingly brazen scale of COVID-19 procurement graft this year.

What was no more than a mildly vexing boil on the buttocks during Nelson Mandela’s presidency is now a debilitating, suppurating plague of carbuncles. And contrary to the soothing reassurances of President Cyril Ramaphosa, the infection may yet prove fatal.

A critical point is when the state moves from being the victim to being the perpetrator. A tipping point is when the state forsakes its primary purpose, the protection and well-being of its citizens, to target them instead.

We know that perversion from next door in Zimbabwe. It’s when the state seizes the property of its people without recompense or due process. It’s when its bureaucracy uses the structures of governance to serve not the nation but the ruling party and the favoured. It’s when the police plunder and the military murder, not as erratic aberrations, but in response to orders from the politicians.

That’s Zimbabwe. It’s also South Africa, as a new book by journalist Rehana Rossouw, appropriately entitled Predator Politics, chillingly shows.

In the past dozen years, South Africans have benefited from some of the best and bravest investigatory journalism that exists in the world. Rossouw, however, is better known as a literary novelist than an investigative reporter. In Predator Politics, she excels at both.

And although her corroboratory evidence is as painstakingly and mind-numbingly detailed as the journalistic defence against litigation — that of truth and public interest — demands it must be, it’s the focus on the state's harassment and abuse of an individual and his family that makes the book viscerally important. For it’s only when we comprehend what the effects of corruption and government are at the sharp end, that of the ordinary citizen, that it dawns that government malfeasance is anything but a victimless crime. 

Simply put, it’s a tale of the trials and tribulations of one man, Fred Daniel, and his family, at the hands of predatory politicians, the scariest and most sinister of whom is Deputy President David Mabuza, the man who is a heartbeat away from being the next president. It’s a saga that stretches over 15 years and continues to this day, despite Daniel having won 22 consecutive court cases against the state and its agents, chronicling how a corrupt government-funded and supported mafia tries to grab his Mpumalanga game reserve.

It’s a harrowing account of arson, vandalism, smears, death threats and violence. Whistleblowers die (no fewer than 22 have been murdered in Mabuza’s Mpumalanga) and many of those who are constitutionally entrusted with the defence of Daniel’s rights, are either suborned or frightened into acquiescence. Here is the stark reminder needed that we are, but for the possible grace of a few years, turning into a Zimbabwe, where the law is at best ineffectual, at worst complicit. 

Although it revolves around the injustices visited on one family, Rossouw provides abundant evidence that there are many other landowners and business people who are suffering a similar fate, generally unheralded by a media which, with a few exceptions, is underpowered and often politically naive as to how events are unfolding. Nor is this about the woes of the relatively privileged. Entire subsistence communities are being further impoverished by a land redistribution process that the government knows is immoral, corrupt and exists not to ensure restitution but to enrich an ANC elite.

The book is a lament, too, over the destruction of our richest heritage, our wildlife and our achingly beautiful land. In a vignette that echoes what is happening today in virtually every national and provincial parks nationwide, veteran forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan is in 2009 appointed by Mpumalanga parks agency to assess the damage done by nepotism and corruption. He finds that the more rangers a reserve had, the worse degree of poaching. “In some cases, the rangers were so involved in poaching that a whole industry of bush-meat butcher shops had sprung up [to] feed the demand for cheap meat in the local communities.”

Rossouw quotes a searing assessment of the dark times we are in, coming from Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu, who has just retired, speaking at a media briefing last year. Makwetu refers to how municipalities were being used “as piggy banks to finance the operations of political parties and the lifestyles of politicians and their top management. The looting at state-owned entities, in government departments, intelligence, everywhere — from the president, from the ANC, from the top six officials and the national executive committee of the ANC — all of this is permitted and sometimes encouraged by them … What we now need to recognise is that we are busy finishing off this country.”

There are also some poignant words from Fred Daniel: “All I wanted was for civil servants to do their jobs. To do what it says in the Constitution.” 

Us, too, Fred. Us, too.

+ Rehana Rossouw’s Predator Politics: Mabuza, Fred Daniel and the Great Land Scam is published by Jacana Media.