Our Poisoned Land: Living in the Shadows of Zuma’s Keepers

Jacques Pauw, Our Poisoned Land: Living in the Shadows of Zuma’s Keepers (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2022)


CRIMINALITY in high political and public places amounts to treason directly enabled by the toxic culture of the ANC. Our Poisoned Land is the sequel to The President’s Keepers, which sold a staggering 220 000 copies and dealt with state capture under the administration of Jacob Zuma. That book, vindicated by the Zondo Commission, drew threats of prosecution for publishing confidential information (so, the facts were indeed correct); various trumped-up charges laid by crooked police friends of corrupt businessmen; and a warning from the Inspector-General of Intelligence that he had personally heard a death threat against the author. Jacques Pauw weathered that storm, much of it characterised by laughable ineptitude, and after a personal crisis has come back with more.

He does not mince his words: Zuma he accuses of ‘weapons-grade thiefdom of mass looting’; and Richard Mdluli, former head of police crime intelligence, he describes as ‘a noxious spider at the top of Jacob Zuma’s septic web of deceit, delinquency and depravity.’ Mdluli’s department was a ‘maximum-security nuthouse’. Irreverence abounds: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is more mortuary keeper than doctor; Shaun Abrahams a ‘legal nincompoop’. He also has a penchant for creating lurid terms for the dire South African condition; and occasionally his literary enthusiasm goes overboard.

Pauw concludes that South Africa is not yet a failed state nor controlled by a mafia, although much supportive evidence lies in this book. He uses Prasa with its over-sized locomotives and dwindling railway network as an in-depth case study of capture of state-owned enterprises. Then he scrutinises security organisations such as the police, intelligence services and SARS to chronicle the ways in which they were deliberately hollowed out to enable criminality. The master strategist was of course Jacob Zuma, the don of the mafia state, who created his own private army out of the secret security budget. Much is unaccounted for.

As a former intelligence operative, Zuma understood all too well that these matters boil down simply to individual character. So key departments were purged of staff of competence, diligence and above all integrity using every dirty trick available and conceivable. Lackeys, often sporting supreme incompetence, replaced them at inflated salaries. The object was to protect corrupt politicians and crooked businessmen. So, while fictitious stories were concocted about SARS rogue units, police hit squads and exaggerated rendition claims, real crimes such as the Estina farm scandal were neglected.

Some of the greatest reprobates in recent South African history such as Berning Ntlemeza, Tom Moyane, Lucky Montana, Dudu Myeni and Brian Molefe ran riot. The lives and careers of effective and honest public servants such as Shadrack Sibiya, Johann van Loggerenberg, Ivan Pillay, Anwar Dramat and Johan Booysen were shattered. The state capture period of South Africa’s history demonstrated outrageous villainy and remarkable courage, but caught in between were thousands of people too fearful, or cynical, to act correctly.

Shell companies were set up without employees or websites, VAT registration numbers or tax clearance. Deals were signed off without treasury or ministerial approval to the benefit of political cronies; often using confinement contracts that evaded standard procedures. The looting was massive but above all brazen, and must have involved scores of people complicit in some way, if only through fear-induced silence. State capture is measured in financial terms – billions of rands – but the damage done to the nation’s moral fibre and psyche cannot be quantified or easily repaired. And another indispensable part of democracy, the fourth estate, was badly degraded when some media houses became propaganda outlets for fabrication, lies and subversion of the constitution.

Mdluli was just a gangster in uniform. Among other outrages he employed a Durban drug dealing family, the Marimuthus, and bestowed police ranks in order to legitimise payments. (When new broom Peter Jacobs demanded they present themselves for work they declined, ludicrously claiming to be undercover.) While miscreant police such as Mdluli and Ntlemeza are gone their acolytes are still to be found in the shadows of key departments. For example, the circumstances of the death of Charl Kinnear suggest deliberate negligence from within the force regarding his security.

State capture continued to benefit the capturers. Thus, when the insurrection of July 2021 erupted, crime intelligence was still in chaos without funds for informers and apparently unable to keep a close eye on the MKMVA (‘a mercenary outfit of Zuma zombies’) and the ATDF (‘a xenophobic and criminal enterprise’) or freelance delinquents. In storage were thirteen cell phone grabbers worth R102 million, which would have proved invaluable, but they were unlicensed. Pauw points out this indicates ineptitude or negligence on the part of Bheki Cele and Khehla Sitole. Ineffectual police were simply observers to widespread murder and general lawlessness.

At Prasa when Popo Molefe and a new board eventually arrived, the dire situation was drawn to the attention of the ANC national executive and government. Nothing was done while crucial information was destroyed and looters flaunted their ill-gotten gains. One inevitable conclusion is that corruption had become so entrenched in the ANC that it was regarded as the norm and impossible to uproot.

During the latter years of state capture, the nation’s vice-president was Cyril Ramaphosa the man of whom a new dawn was expected as president. While some notorious ANC cadres have been charged, convictions have been few and there is an enormous backlog in spite of the sterling work of the Zondo Commission. White collar crime is notoriously hard to prosecute and the state lacks resources, human and financial. Then there is a pervasive fear of retribution. Turnaround strategies come and go and familiar emollient phrases are routinely aired. Grand corruption flourished under the pandemic and legions of state capture enablers who should have been dismissed still lurk in the system. Some of the worst were despatched to distant embassies.

This book concludes by turning to the corruption of the Economic Freedom Fighters. In a couple of years, they might well be part of government, but they are led by fraudsters who looted a poor people’s bank to fund lives of outrageous luxury. It is they who are trying to get this book withdrawn, an attempt doomed to failure as it would lead to a process of legal discovery and the expiry of Julius Malema’s multiple legal lives.

Pauw’s contribution to the chronicling of the South African condition is the broad sweep that draws together the work of multiple journalists and inserts his own investigations and nuances. It is a magnificent effort – a sort of person-in-the-street’s Zondo Commission report. And it leads to the thought that under apartheid, the government deliberately deployed lawlessness; while under democracy the state has wilfully encouraged criminality. The parallels are uncomfortably close. What hope for South Africa?

Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld