Former president Jacob Zuma and son Duduzane Zuma. Picture: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times
Former president Jacob Zuma and son Duduzane Zuma. Picture: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

Who met the Guptas has become the focus of the public narrative on the state capture investigation. The real issue, though, is not who met the Guptas, or how many times, or where. Rather, it is this: did the Guptas, with the help of Duduzane Zuma, try to capture the then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene to do their bidding?

And when that failed, did the Guptas orchestrate Nene’s dismissal (through then president Jacob Zuma) and his replacement with Des van Rooyen, who was more willing to do their bidding?

And, looking wider, did similar activities take place in which officials were approached to make decisions that were unlawful or not in the public interest, but were favourable to Gupta-Zuma interests? If they refused to play along, were they then removed and replaced with more pliable people?

The evidence of who met the Guptas is only relevant to the extent that it reveals interactions between the Gupta-Zuma grouping and people who exercised state power or would later be appointed in questionable circumstances to replace officials who were removed from office.

This is particularly relevant where questionable decisions regarding the use of public power were made that benefited Gupta-Zuma companies.

Take, for example, the state capture investigation of Eskom, conducted by the public protector’s office in 2016. The Tegeta story was examined to verify whether questionable decisions were taken by some at Eskom, and to look deeper into the questionable relationships between the Zuma-Gupta alliance and Eskom’s decision-makers. For this reason, the evidence of Brian Molefe’s visits to Saxonwold was relevant.

In that case, the evidence also suggested a spiderweb of relationships that appeared to have been leveraged throughout the value chain to give effect to various procurement decisions. This is why it is so critical that the incomplete forays into Trillian and Denel are now part of the investigation by the Zondo inquiry into state capture.

Every attack that reduces credibility in this way helps the wrongdoers to establish doubt

Of course, to complete the "capture" loop, the Zondo commission also has to look into activities that may have affected law enforcement and other agencies.

The point is, many of the wrong questions are being asked, and it would seem the goal of doing this is to deflect attention from the real issues underpinning the state capture probe. The beneficiaries of this deflection are those implicated in state capture.

Distractions galore

This dead cat strategy — introducing a sensationalist topic to shift the focus — is used a lot in litigation to deflect attention from the real issues, or even to present victims and witnesses as the real villains.

It was a tactic used during the public protector’s Nkandla investigation, when I was accused by senior ANC officials of being a CIA agent. Later on, a story was also manufactured about me running away with a government car — a story unleashed in a timely manner to dominate the airwaves. By the time the retraction was made, it did not matter because my authority had been delegitimised, at a time that suited certain people. And let’s also not forget the "white monopoly capital" dead cat that Bell Pottinger designed to shift the debate away from state capture.

Over the years, I’ve learnt that when the integrity of a witness, investigator or adjudicator is unduly attacked, the intention is not to prove the innocence of the wrongdoer. Rather, the plan is to diminish the credibility of the accuser. Every attack that reduces credibility in this way helps the wrongdoers to establish doubt, no matter how unreasonable.

So let’s wake up and smell the coffee. It’s not about who met the Guptas or who has feet of clay. It’s about whether democracy was hijacked and good governance and the rule of law perverted for certain families.