Woeful tale of SA’s historic political skulduggery
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With the mire of corruption being unpacked at the Zondo commission as our politicians viciously turn on each other in a desperate effort to keep that pay-check (and possibly a few contracts), South Africans can only watch in disbelief and a growing cynicism about the political elite and all those connected to it.
But perhaps it’s simply history repeating itself, as it has done throughout the centuries.
This is highlighted in Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall’s new book Rogues Gallery, described as “an irreverent history of corruption in South Africa from the VOC to the ANC” ‒ which takes the reader through the shenanigans of SA politicians and their like as far back as the 1600s. The book starts with the Dutch-East India company (VOC) and the slim pickings for their up-and-coming and ambitious employee, Jan van Riebeeck.
His actions set the stage for things to come, really picking up pace in the early 1700s with governor of the Cape the Honourable Willem Adriaan van der Stel, son of first governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel.
Has it always been about keeping it in the family? The highlights in the book are “just a few twigs in the vast family tree of South African nepotism”.
In his first seven years as governor, Willem Adriaan van der Stel became an extremely wealthy man and ruled the area through fear, becoming known for violence, intimidation and terror. The authors describe the Van der Stel’s Vergelegen estate as the 18th century version of Nkandla.
The book moves on to ‘’The Lofty Twaddler“, Sir George Yonge (1799-1801), described as “the most incompetent man who has ever been at the head of affairs in the colony”.
Or as Lady Anne Barnard, wife of the colonial secretary Andrew Barnard, said of Yonge in a letter to a friend, he “is for having every supposed improvement done at once and I fear does not begin with the things most necessary, but with those most connected with his own domestic conveniency.”
This included a high wall built on Parliament Street costing an extravagant £6 000 (R10.8 million today) and “emptying the entire contents of the Treasury“.
The next governor under the authors’ spotlight is Lord Charles Somerset, who took up governorship in 1814. Somerset started out his career in 1797 as “Gentleman of the Bed Chamber” to the Prince of Wales.
As governor, Somerset squandered cash and created chaos, described as “a most unwholesome state of affairs came into existence. Public money was spent on objects of doubtful public utility and men of questionable ability and probity were entrusted with important offices for little reason other than that they were personal friends of Lord Charles Somerset”.
Cecil John Rhodes, known as “The Young Swindler” and “Colossal Corrupter”, has a couple of chapters devoted to his pursuits, particularly his obsession with gold and diamonds.
In a gathering of indunas, one of northern Ndebele King Lobengula’s elders, Hlesingane, warned: “O, king of the country, open your eyes and ears. I have been at Kimberley Diamond Fields and one or two men cannot work them, it takes thousands to work them. Do not those thousands want water and they also want land. It is the same with gold, once it is found the white men will come to work it and then there will be trouble.”
Next on the authors’ list is Paul Kruger, or Oom Paul, and his republic, “an extremely important (and deliciously corrupt) piece in the jigsaw puzzle of our country’s history” along with a “coterie of shady concessionaires”.
In 1881 after being elected Transvaal president, narrowly beating “Slim Piet” Joubert, Kruger also set up a commission, described in the pro Kruger newspaper, The Press, to “rescrutinise the scrutinised scrutiny”.
As the book states: “The commission, like some other South African commissions ‘regarded speed as the essence of its task’, taking only three days to prepare its reports on Joubert’s complaints.
“While the report acknowledged errors in the electoral process, they were not considered grave enough to impact the result and Kruger was declared president.”
The book moves into the 1900s looking at the Broederbond’s “perfect ten in state capture to the Department of Information’s peddling of fake news”.
The chapter Wickedness in High Places looks at secret foreign bank accounts, misappropriation of funds and deals with the super-elite, while happenings in the ‘independent homelands’ feature coups and kidnappings, along with corruption in the Transkei, making up “thousands of pages in evidence”. Sol Kerzner’s hedonistic “Sin City” also comes into play.
The final chapter of the book looks at our present day political affairs with “Jacob Zuma ‒ The Case Against Accused Number One”. It highlights that “in all of our research, the only top-tier leader (if you can call him that) to serve jail time for corruption was Chief George Matanzima” who was released after three years of his nine-year sentence.
Lucas Mangope avoided jail after being found guilty of 102 counts of fraud and theft, while “Wouter Basson must have been in a state of pure ecstasy when he was found not guilty on 46 counts, including murder, fraud and drug-trafficking”.
“Most of our corrupt leaders get to live out their days in healthy disgrace, or better still” for some “as national heroes”.
The first chapter of the books explains that “The word corruption does, after all, have its roots in Europe, coming from the Latin verb ‘rumpere’, which implies the breaking of something ‘altogether’ or ‘completely’. In this there is the suggestion that it takes more than just one rogue to break something ‘altogether’. And in South Africa, as you will discover in the pages that follow, corruption has in many ways been a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual endeavour”.
Rogues Gallery is a result of meticulous research, matched by fascinating insight into the unsavoury peddling and meddling of South African politicians, often related with a touch of incisive humour.
And as the teaser reads: “If you reckon corruption in South Africa began with Zuma or even with apartheid, it’s time for a wake-up call.”
- The book is available on Amazon and in all good bookstores. Recommended retail price R290.
The Independent on Saturday