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The Zondo commission cost taxpayers R1bn. Picture: VELI NHLAPO
The Zondo commission cost taxpayers R1bn. Picture: VELI NHLAPO

It might be too early to declare the effort to undo the ravages of state capture and bring the culprits to book a costly failure for the country. The Zondo commission cost taxpayers R1bn, but it is not money alone that may have been wasted if the dire prognostications of legal commentators come true.  

Not slaying the state-capture dragon, apart from letting the culprits remain unpunished, would encourage future corruption and manipulation of the state and its entities for personal and political gain. It would undoubtedly put SA on the low road. 

As it is, the arms-deal scandal has remained just that, a scandal that has cost the country dearly. If the arms deal laid the foundation for later institutionalised looting, the era of state capture completed the whole rotten edifice, with its hidden escape routes for perpetrators to make their getaway.  

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s promise, to clean up after state capture and bring the Gupta brothers to justice, has produced little fruit. South Africans are rightly cynical.

The feeling has been intensified by the mismatch between the lurid and damning Zondo testimony about those, including ministers, selling out the country and the lack of any commensurate civil and criminal action against them.  

The most stinging indictment raised at Zondo was the influence of cadre deployment on the appointment of executives and boards of state-owned entities. Not only did this enrich ANC politicians, but the party itself gained from this parasitic relationship. It goes without saying that SOEs thus affected, and few escaped unscathed, were ruined, and we’re seeing the consequences at Eskom and Transnet.  

We are  regarded as a global centre for organised crime. Despite the existence of financial controls meant to inhibit the flow of dirty money, SA has developed a reputation as a money-launderer’s paradise.  

Already, we have been penalised for what the global money-laundering watchdog the Financial Action Task Force has identified as lapses in our efforts to combat money-laundering and other financial crimes, with SA now on the organisation's greylist. This could potentially discourage investors and make doing business in SA that much more onerous.  

Together with cadre deployment, the hollowing-out of law-enforcement agencies, especially the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), allowed a culture of impunity to take root and blossom into what became a full-blown free-for-all. Equally, it was expected that this could not possibly be reversed overnight, and the appointment of Shamila Batohi  in early 2019 as NPA head was billed as a first step at reintroducing rigour and a stronger sense that nobody is above the law.  

The establishment of the NPA's Investigating Directorate (ID), the work done by its Asset Forfeiture Unit (and several high-profile arrests have all contributed to a sense that while progress has been slow, almost glacial, at least something was being done. 

Notable among the positive steps were the arrests and appearance in court of former Transnet bosses Brian Molefe and Siyabonga Gama, among others, in connection with allegedly dodgy locomotive deals with a value of about R398m. They are due back in court next month. 

On the civil front, the paying back of R2.5bn by Swiss engineering group ABB as “punitive reparations’’ was hailed by the NPA as a “bold and innovative step towards accountability and justice for alleged offenders’’. Others such as global consultancy group Bain & Co set aside R164m it was paid by Sars, while KPMG and McKinsey also pledged to pay back money.  

But the Gupta brothers remain fugitives from justice in SA, and attempts to extradite them appear to have made little progress for almost a year. 

This is why it is both disappointing and surprising that the NPA’s headline prosecution in the Bloemfontein High Court in the Nulane case seems to have hit choppy waters and attracted such negative commentary, much of it valid if the critics are to be believed. This is one of 29 state-capture cases to be enrolled in court. It is the only one to have reached trial stage.  

Former Transnet board member Iqbal Sharma and seven co-accused are alleged to have defrauded the Free State government of R24.9m for the Gupta brothers’ benefit. The trial has heard testimony about an elaborate money-laundering scheme, which allegedly reached its climax with the transfer of R19m into a Gupta-linked bank account in the UAE.  

If all of this can be proved, it would provide the legal basis for the extradition of Atul and Rajesh Gupta, said to be under arrest in Dubai awaiting extradition. Yet many suspect, perhaps wrongly, that the government is in no rush to get the Guptas back, perhaps to be expected given how they could potentially fill in the blanks in the state capture saga.  

In spite of the importance of the Free State case, the state has been heavily criticised for the allegedly lacklustre manner in which the prosecution has acquitted itself. Its attempts at first to introduce the GuptaLeaks emails as evidence came to naught, and now all of the accused bar one have applied for acquittal and seem confident they will prevail. Critics suggest the state should have gone all in on this one, legally speaking, but that does not appear to have been the case.  

Acting judge Nompumelelo Gusha will have the final say, and perhaps the apparent thinness of the evidence will be overlooked in favour of what the state says is a clear-cut case of fraud, even if it can't produce all the documents to prove it. The NPA remains optimistic, and let's hope it is right to be so.  

SA can ill-afford to consolidate its dubious status as a place where money-laundering takes place without fear of prosecution. And on a political level, Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” project, to the extent that it still exists at all, can hardly afford more evidence that it is a failure, a bouquet of empty promises meant to lull the nation into a gradual acceptance that it is OK to loot the public purse. 

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