Pain by numbers: From Sarafina to Guptas, it all adds up to a theft orgy

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There are two numbers. One is very large. The other is fairly small. Combined, they form a set of co-ordinates showing us where we are.
The very large number is an amount of money that has been stolen from us. There are plenty of numbers to choose from, not least the figures coming out of the Zondo commission: an alleged R6m a month in bribes to ANC officials; R300,000 a month to Jacob Zuma.
But those aren’t the big number. The big number is R100bn, the amount Pravin Gordhan in 2017 estimated had been stolen by the sebaceous cysts we now refer to as state captors. They did it, most agree, over a period of about 10 years, which means they stole on average about R27m every day.
Which brings me back to Bosasa.
I don’t want to trivialise the information coming out of the Zondo commission. It is essential that the rot be exposed. But I think it’s important to remember that it’s not new rot. This is not a new scandal. This is still state capture. And, it must to be said, a pretty low-rent iteration of it: R6m a month allegedly paid in bribes by Bosasa sounds like a lot, but for a state stealing R27m a day, it’s no more than a morning’s looting, just over five hours. The R300,000 per month allegedly paid to Jacob Zuma? That’s as much as Zuma’s goons were stealing every 16 minutes.
Again, I understand that pointing this out seems to diminish the alleged crimes of the Bosasa gangsters. But it only looks that way if you see them as different crimes.
That urge to differentiate between them is already playing out on social media, where private citizens and pundits alike are reacting as if something new has happened. The Guptas were terrible, they say, but this is just ridiculous! It’s an understandable impulse, but it is ultimately dangerous because by drawing distinctions between the Guptas and Gavin Watson, we shift Watson into the spotlight and, inevitably, shunt the Guptas out of it. Each apparently new crime subtly replaces an older one, and as the older ones get moved further and further back in our memory and emotions, we struggle to keep the big picture in view.
I see it in my own response to the past few years. Bosasa’s alleged mafia manoeuvring seems more brazen than the robbery of VBS bank, which seems more outrageous than the Guptas buying the Zuma presidency, which seems more sleazy than the arms deal, and so on, and so on. By the time you get to Sarafina 2, all that’s left is nostalgia for a simpler time.
All of which is why I think it’s useful to step back and see, instead of dozens of incidents, each flaring up and dying down, one single story: thousands of shitty South Africans, taking what they can for as long as they can, so that they can drink expensive whisky and drive a German SUV and pretend that they aren’t just pickpockets. Whether it was the godfathers of apartheid shovelling Armscor wealth offshore or Joe Modise’s filthy arms deal or Zuma and the Guptas or Bosasa and Gavin Watson, it’s all the same story.
But before things get too grim, let me bring in the second number; the very small one.
That number is three, which is the number of commissions of inquiry happening in SA.
Given the first number, you might be forgiven for dismissing the second as window dressing or worse.
And yet just as it is a fact that the ANC oversaw the theft from us of R100bn, it is also a fact that Cyril Ramaphosa has set up at least one judicial inquiry that is accusing senior ANC members of corruption. It wasn’t the press or an NGO that created the Zondo commission. It was the president of the ANC. As cover-ups go, it’s pretty inept.
So where do the two numbers leave us? What are these co-ordinates at which we now find ourselves?
Well, the first number confirms that the majority of our leaders are simply well-dressed muggers. The second reminds us that a small minority are more sophisticated. They understand that we must be bled slowly if we are going to last; that sustainable corruption must replace the Roman orgy of the past decade.
Unfortunately, knowing where we are doesn’t help us figure out where we’re going. For that we need a third number: one.
One trial. One conviction. One orange overall and one cell. Just one state captor put away, even just for one year.
When that happens, we’ll know that three can overcome 100 billion and that 57 million people can matter as much as Number 1. But until then, it still just looks like a numbers racket...

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