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Gangster State: A Book Review by Monde Nkasawe

Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture - by Pieter Louis Myburgh

A Review by Monde Nkasawe

Imagine this scenario: The Mayor of Mangaung is sitting in his office, doing whatever it is that mayors do when in the office. And then out of the blue, the Premier of the Province shows up, unannounced, alone with no bodyguards or driver, and asks the mayor to come with on a drive to Johannesburg, at once. Curious as hell, the mayor obliges, thinking that perhaps there’s an urgent meeting at Luthuli House. However hours later it becomes clear that the destination is not Luthuli House, that it is in fact the Gupta mansion at the Johannesburg suburb of Saxonwold. The mayor mildly wonders why his ‘boss’ has brought him here. This too is clarified in no time. The mayor, in the presence of the Premier, is made an offer which he chooses to refuse, at the pain of subsequent horrendous political fortunes.

Months after the Saxonwold meeting, alone and licking his wounds, the former mayor recalls the boisterous tone in Atul Gupta’s voice as he tried to impress him with how much power he wielded, even saying “If we call any cabinet minister right now, he or she will be here in an hour.”

Of course as we have seen in other instances of state capture revelations, the meeting to which the former Mayor of Mangaung was dragged by the former Premier of Free State reflects the essential elements of a Gupta method of capture, namely to capture the boss first. Then arrange a meeting with both the boss and his underling, to visually demonstrate that the boss is already on board, that there’s no need for the underling to ask questions, and that if the underling accepts what is on offer, the boss will be pleased. That way a twofold crisis is induced for the underling - follow the boss, and do as told, or go eat grass in the wilderness. But then, as with every scheme, there is always the unknown factor. It seems that Ace Magashule made one fundamental error of judgment - to assume that every leader of the ANC he interacted with shared the same corrupt intention, and would bite as soon as they saw what was in it for them.

No doubt South Africans will continue to ponder the question, long into the future - why did we have state capture? Considering the struggle to liberate this country, for which so many lost their lives, the notion that the heroes of that struggle would be the ones that hand the country over to predators is as painfully disappointing as it is mind bogglingly bewildering. But is it surprising? Are there aspects of our history that serve as its ignored signifiers?

The book, ‘Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s of Web of Capture’, by Pieter Louis Myburgh, is not necessarily attempting to answer these questions, but describes the murky world of Free State politics in a manner that will make the reader ponder them. Well researched and presented in a simple and straightforward language, the book is a bleak, no holds barred description of a seemingly unchecked feeding frenzy, which unsurprisingly is not only endemic and entrenched at present, but is arrogant and brooks no challenge. It is in this endemic context that perhaps the desperate clamour to quickly consign the book to the scrapheap and to make of it the biggest fire there ever was, may be understandable. The book is a well woven tale of a thinly veiled bloody minded pursuit of material needs, by any and all means necessary. But more importantly, the book not only opens the lid on royal level looting, it blows the lid itself into smithereens.

Without summarizing the book, these are some of the thematic meanings I want to draw from it, purely from my own subjective viewpoint. Firstly, whatever happens from this point onwards, it is unlikely that things will remain the same. That a book of this nature exists is an important signal that the debauching party is about to end, and those at the frontend of the trough know it. The calls for the book to be burned betray the instinct of predators, who when disturbed, they growl at, and attack the source of the disturbance. That point when course must be changed, or the ship sinks has been reached. Seen in the context of a rising awareness and disapproval of corruption by citizens, the political costs of corruption have significantly increased. President Ramaphosa’s clean-up crusade, through the number of commissions of enquiry he has appointed, including the Zondo Commission, is the clearest indication yet, that the voice of citizens is not, and has not been in vain, and that for the purveyors of state capture, the jig is well and truly up.

Secondly, in its manner of description of the attitude of the Free State government to matters of governance and absence of any sense of frugality in the management of scarce public resources, a distinct impression is created, that there is a definition of governing and being in power as nothing more than the control of who eats and who does not. In this context, the gamut of legislation and regulations that dictate compliance in order to effect good governance, is turned on its head. Instead of prescribing the conduct and behaviour of civil servants and public office bearers, the legislation is used to motivate and explain it ex post facto. It is a situation where the law is subordinate to politics, and not the other way around. This goes along with a permeating attitude that regards the party as higher than, and equidistant from the state, where in essence the state serves the party.

Thirdly, although the book casts a sustained and an unflattering light into the person of Ace Magashule, it also reveals, perhaps indirectly, a fault line of structural weakness that cuts deep into the ANC itself. For example the looting described by Myburgh happened under cover of factional politics, defined along strong tribal and regional identities. To date, the ANC has seemed completely unable to reign in these tendencies. As you read the book, you will notice that running through it is a disturbing theme of acquiescence. Myburgh for example describes a number of instances where the Free State government either through the Premier, his MECs or civil servants, were given numerous warnings that what they were doing was wrong. But with each warning they seemed to be emboldened to make more transgressions of governance legislation and rules. Myburgh for example describes the looting of close R1 billion in 2010 alone by contractors, from the province’s Department of Human Settlements, without any actual houses being built on the ground. To date there has been no accounting for this

Fourthly, in the book the debilitating effects of unchecked factionalism, to a point where the national leadership is completely unable to act even when presented with bona fide cases of wrongdoing, are there to be seen. The alternate visions of factions - that while the one side is committed to democracy and its constitutional foundations, the other side sees the constitution and all other law as merely utilitarian instruments that serve nefariousness, are well described, with the looting gang totally oblivious to the fact that the abuse of ANC processes goes parallel with the discrediting of the self-same ANC in the eyes of society, thus displacing the ANC from the position of being ‘leader of society’.

Fifthly, perhaps more significantly is that this book, together with many others like it, such as How to Steal a City by Crispian Olver, and The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw, not only represent a lament of the failure of democracy as a result of corruption, but more significantly they represent a displacement of the narrative of blaming apartheid – a loss of the moral high ground, if you will.

In essence the book is putting a serious question mark on Ace Magashule’s struggle credentials, and falls just short of calling him an enemy agent. It accuses him of consciously capturing the ANC in order to use it as a platform to loot the state. How the ANC allowed itself to be abused in this manner is a question I’m not equipped to answer. For his part, Ace Magashule has promised to challenge the book in court. As the reading public, we await, and wonder what aspects he’ll choose to litigate on.

Monde Nkasawe is a poet and a novelist. His first publication was a poetry anthology called Journey of the Heart, published by Kwarts Publishers in 2014. He since published 6 novels with Kwarts Publishers: The Death of Nowongile; The Madness of Rodney Makhelwane; Pieces; Liziwe; The Fullness of Time; Go to the Eastern Cape. His newest publication is a novel called ‘We need a Country’- published by Sifiso Publishers in 2019.

Read more about Monde Nkasawe

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