• Ivor Chipkin

HOW SA LITERATURE ON CORRUPTION GETS IT WRONG

"Work on corruption "tends to be moralising and normative.The problem with such an approach is that even when it pretends to historical accuracy, it flattens out the present. [...] This is not so much history as it is chronology – one damn thing after another"


Below is an excerpt of a new essay appearing in the SA Journal 'Transformation' in 2020.


Late on the night of the 13th of February 2018 Jacob Zuma resigned as President of South Africa. Dressed in a dark suit and red tie, he appeared relaxed and convivial as he addressed journalists. ‘Why do you look so serious,’ he laughed, chastizing them for not greeting him, and giggling in his characteristic way. He was stepping down, he announced, in the interests of the unity of his party.

His friendly demeanour, however, gave no indication of the day’s high drama. Earlier in the afternoon, a casually dressed Zuma had given an interview on national television where he flatly refused to resign. ‘No-one in the leadership of the A.N.C. could tell me what I have done wrong. Why should I resign?’ he asked (cited in Goba, 14 February 2018). Just the day before some commentators worried that a State of Emergency was on the cards (Swilling, 2018).

There are today dozens of articles and reports describing what Jacob Zuma did during his Presidency and why it was necessary for him to go (to prison preferably, many people would add). He presided over a system of ‘state capture’. Typically, one report notes about that “in the context of a stagnant economy and static tax revenues, […] money for essential social spending [was] diverted to pay for decades of greed and mismanagement […]” (Open Secretrs, p.75). This is generally the tone of such work. It tends to be moralising and normative. The problem with such an approach is that even when it pretends to historical accuracy, it flattens out the present. State Capture is situated in a longer history of corruption, seamlessly joining Apartheid era flouting of arms and oil embargos, the Arms Deal fiasco of the 1990s and the ‘looting’ of state resources from 2012. This is not so much history as it is chronology – one damn thing after another. The dazzling light of the term corruption, however, risks blinding us to the important discontinuities between these periods. Most importantly, the glaze of the term obscures state capture’s relationship to democracy.


This paper will argue that the corruption and the looting of the period from 2012 to 2018 were the outcomes of a certain kind of democratic practice. It will take seriously, in other words, the idea that Zuma genuinely believed that he had, indeed, done nothing wrong – at least politically. State capture emerged in the context of various projects of radical transformation, underpinned by a concept of democracy that rejected the conceptual and practical delineation between politics and administration.


We will see, however, that the Zuma period also interrupted and foreclosed on an another concept and practice of democracy, one that was been incipient. In order properly to appreciate this struggle within democracy, some theoretical and historical work has to be done.

This paper will argue that the modern conception of democracy needs to broadened to include a concept of the bureaucracy, rather than simply a concept of the political system. I will argue that one of the features of a democratic state is its mode of administrative organisation. Democratic states make a distinction between the ‘administrative’ and the ‘political’ spheres of the state and seek to establish and maintain the autonomy between them.

I will conclude by arguing that state capture in South Africa constituted a major democratic reversal because the Jacob Zuma government actively undermined the autonomy of state administrations.

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