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Picture: 123rf/ Igor Stevanovic
Picture: 123rf/ Igor Stevanovic

Twenty years ago, Bulelani Ngcuka, then national director of public prosecutions (NDPP), offered a deep and detailed analysis of the national network of organised crime.

The heart of gunrunning was KwaZulu-Natal, partly because of the many weapons left over from the 1980s civil war in that province between the ANC and the IFP — a war inflamed by the covert activities of the police. The market for stolen and hijacked vehicles was centred on Gauteng, with a sophisticated export pipeline serving Southern Africa and beyond. And in the Western Cape, the underworld specialised in the import, manufacture and distribution of drugs.

These lucrative activities were complex, mutually supporting and often brazen; they overlapped with the malign influence of prison gangs, and were facilitated by criminals in high places in the state and the private sector.

Ngcuka is mostly remembered today for his decision in 2003 not to prosecute then deputy president Jacob Zuma. But this detracts from the reputation he and some other law enforcement agencies established for being clean and potentially effective, relying on good crime intelligence on the ground. The decline, it is now clear, began with the cynical disbandment of the Scorpions, officially the directorate of special operations, which fell under the NDPP.

Crime in the mid-2000s certainly seemed unacceptably high, but there were signs that the authorities were doing the right things and might get a grip. It helped that the economy was entering a boom, with finance minister Trevor Manuel able to declare a surplus in the national budget.

Now the state of the nation of two decades ago seems almost a paradise of safety, hope and optimism.

Still ahead lay the astonishingly deep and broad penetration of the public sector by corruption in the Zuma years, the start in 2008 of the steady 15-year horror-show collapse of Eskom, and the relentless reduction of one of the world’s great rail networks into almost complete dysfunction because of corruption, incompetence and theft on an industrial scale.

Alongside all this, the ANC’s capacity to renew itself and deal with the problems was exposed as nonexistent. It became clear that the “good” ANC, if it existed, was and is in thrall to the criminals. Those who try to deal with corruption are assassinated, and whistleblowers are inexplicably not protected.

Just in the past week, four people were killed by gunmen in KwaZakhele — the third incident in that township in two weeks, with 17 deaths. On Monday, five were shot dead in two attacks on “vehicle repair shops” at Mariannhill near Pinetown. Such things are routine, no longer shocking. The murder of rapper AKA in Durban has been reported as if it was an unfortunate accident, such as a car crash or a heart attack. Dealing with the blatant attempted poisoning of Eskom CEO André de Ruyter appears to be beyond the detective capabilities of the police.

It is now clear that the writ of the state does not run in most of the country. The government is failing in its most basic duties: to protect its citizens, and enable the economy to feed and sustain them.

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