The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A corruption inquiry ends in South Africa. Will justice follow?

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JOHANNESBURG — For three years, South Africans watched live on television as a massive corruption inquiry took aim at some of its post powerful people. The accusations centered on the country’s former president, Jacob Zuma, and his associates, and the misdeeds recounted were sprawling and salacious.

On Wednesday evening, the commission charged with investigating these allegations released the final sections of its report from the hearings, the beginning of the final chapter in a public reckoning that has gripped the country since 2018.

“The report is far more than a record of widespread corruption, fraud and abuse,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday evening at a ceremony announcing the release of the final volumes from the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. “It is also an instrument through which the country can work to ensure that such events are never allowed to happen again.”

Like the previous sections of the report, this one detailed endemic government corruption under Zuma, Ramaphosa’s predecessor, whose administration diverted resources intended for some of the country’s poorest people and lined the pockets of some of its wealthiest.

In one instance, more than $20 million earmarked for small-scale Black dairy farmers under a program called Zero Tolerance for Hunger was doled out instead to a family of wealthy Indian business executives and their associates. In another, a state-owned railway relied on by millions of working class people to travel to work fell into “almost total ruin,” according to the inquiry, as a result of theft and mismanagement. The country’s state-run broadcaster — the main source of news for those unable to afford cable — was run by a CEO who was found to have axed stories critical of the government and gave valuable contracts to Zuma’s son. Authorities at the state intelligence agency stole money and set up a parallel spy network, the report said.

But its release came at a moment when Ramaphosa’s own credibility is under fire. Earlier this month, allegations surfaced that the president had covered up the theft of millions of dollars from a game farm he owns.

“Ramaphosa’s ticket was to fight corruption, but people are now asking, ‘Does he still have the capacity to point fingers at his comrades?’” says Hlengiwe Ndlovu, a senior lecturer in governance at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “He’s lost a lot of his authority.”

At the heart of the commission’s investigations over the past four years have been Zuma and the Gupta family, a trio of Indian business executives close to him who amassed a major fortune during his administration, much of it via government contracts. To Zuma’s supporters, the commission was an expensive witch-hunt against the grandfatherly figure with little formal education, whose disdain for the “rainbow nation” politics of his predecessors made him popular among the country’s Black working class.

But the evidence against the former president was damning. Whistleblowers detailed paying off government functionaries with Audis, prime cuts of lamb, and once, a Louis Vuitton handbag stuffed with more than $20,000. With Zuma’s help, the Guptas infiltrated the highest levels of South Africa’s government, amassing wealth from government contracts and installing their supporters in the country’s cabinet. In all, tens of billions of dollars were likely stolen during Zuma’s administration between 2009 and 2017, according to government estimates.

The inquiry came out of a 2017 report by South Africa’s public protector, Thuli Madonsela, on “state capture” — a phrase that soon became synonymous with the plunder of government resources by private citizens with political connections.

From 2018-2020, the commission held 429 days of televised hearings. Its investigators called nearly 300 witnesses, who detailed staggering graft and cronyism in many of South Africa’s most powerful government agencies and state enterprises, including its treasury, tax agency, power utility, railway, public broadcaster, airline and police service. In some cases, international firms hired to audit or advise the government, including Bain & Company, McKinsey, and KPMG, were also implicated.

Many of the institutions investigated were crucial to South Africa’s rebuilding effort after the end of apartheid, its system of white rule, in 1994. After decades of South Africans not paying their tax as a form of protest, for instance, the South African Revenue Service fought to rebuild its reputation as a trustworthy institution and earned a global reputation for effectiveness. But under Zuma, thousands of tax collectors were forced out of the agency as it became embroiled in a fictitious scandal planted by the president and his associates to avoid paying their taxes.

But as the commission came to an end, its legacy remained uncertain. The report did not actually order the prosecution of anyone involved in corruption, but provided recommendations for charges to be filed and further investigations to be conducted.

“If you look at the history of commissions like this in South Africa, they are very good at aiming a spotlight into a dark corner and making [information] public,” says Bianca Goodson, a whistleblower who testified before the commission. “But what happens from there is less clear.”

As the commission prepared to release the final section of its report in early June, police in Dubai announced that they had arrested two of the Gupta brothers, Atul and Rajesh, who had fled there around the time the inquiry began in 2018. Zuma was jailed last year for refusing to appear at the inquiry but is out on medical parole.

The report’s findings were sent to Ramaphosa, who now has four months to present to the country’s parliament a plan for acting on the commission’s recommendations.