Tom Moyane. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Tom Moyane. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

The fact that state capture took place is no longer in dispute; it is the degree of damage that remains to be fully revealed. In tabulating the cost, judge Robert Nugent’s inquiry into the leadership of the SA Revenue Service (Sars) under commissioner Tom Moyane has already offered a fascinating, if petrifying, glimpse into a microcosm of this.

How deep did state capture go? Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as the establishment of a parallel state, alongside government but more powerful. This was a planned, sustained and unopposed operation that set up, for criminals and looters, their own shadowy command and loyalty networks, with a honeycomb of rewards, job opportunities and personal favours. Through methodical appointments to high office, extensive access was gained to most of the crucial levers of power. Law-enforcement bodies were neutered.

Perhaps a useful analogy for this parallel state would be the Mafia in certain US cities in the first half of the 20th century. All values were subordinated to intense internal and family loyalties; the law was ruthlessly rejected; and sympathisers in city hall, the police and judiciary were routinely paid off. It played on its members’ sense of alienation and promised them great wealth.

The Mafia rendered the state illegitimate, but the looting of society acceptable — a Robin Hood mentality, but not on behalf of the poor. For such a network to flourish, the critical assumption was that Mafia members would never get caught.

We saw a similar boldness in our state-capture story, so confident were the offenders in their power grab and the networks in place. Any legal challenges were swamped with endless litigation — and "our people" in the police and the prosecuting authority could be relied on to block anything, should matters ever get that serious.

And it nearly worked.

The effect on Sars was profound. What Pravin Gordhan achieved at the revenue service between 1996 and 2009 was immense. He took a lumbering bureaucracy that was neither self-respecting nor respected and turned it into a highly efficient machine — while developing a service ethic unprecedented in any SA government department. People responded, and revenue soared.

Gordhan gave Sars direction administratively, and people wanted to work for him in service to SA’s new democracy. Transformation was not negotiable, but experienced white employees were encouraged to stay if they shared their expertise. Many, including the present acting commissioner Mark Kingon, did so.

So we do not have to wait for Nugent’s findings to see what Moyane ruined.

For years, Sars formed a golden triangle with national treasury and the Reserve Bank. Treasury was relatively easy to capture politically; the Bank less so, because of the governor’s fixed tenure. By capturing Sars, with its power to overlook criminality, favour wealthy individuals and protect shady companies, the looters scored a handsome prize, unlocking one of the three levers to SA’s purse.

Now the horror is being revealed. And Moyane’s bid to block the truth from emerging is failing, with Nugent describing his submissions in support of halting the inquiry as "half-baked", "a disgrace" and "not competent in law".

Ultimately this inquiry will do far more than examine the decay at Sars. It has also been a good battle for President Cyril Ramaphosa to pick. He needs this inquiry to demonstrate to those still loyal to Jacob Zuma just how close to the precipice SA came — and why the ANC must excommunicate those linked to state capture.