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South Africans have been held spellbound by the torrent of evidence of corruption emerging from two parallel commissions of inquiry — into state capture, and the fitness to hold office of two senior officials of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

These strengthen perceptions that SA under former president Jacob Zuma — from May 2009 to March 2018 — transformed from a democracy into a “kleptocracy”: a country ruled by thieves.

The country scored only 43 out of 100 on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index for 2018, down from 47 in 2009. So the question is: is it indeed the case that SA has become a kleptocracy? Has it travelled far along the road to joining states such as Russia and Equatorial Guinea, notorious for being ruled by authoritarian leaders in league with corrupt oligarchs at the expense of ordinary people? If this is so, is that condition reversible? Understanding kleptocracy Derived from the Greek words for thieving and ruling, the word “kleptocracy” entered the modern social science lexicon through the work of the Polish-British sociologist Stanislav Andreski in the 1960s. His book The African Predicament identified post-independence African regimes as kleptocratic. Basically, he presented kleptocracy as government by corrupt leaders who use their power to exploit the people and national resources of their countries to extend their personal wealth and political powers. But...

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