Ramaphosa and the Hydra of State Capture

Ramaphosa and the Hydra of State Capture

On February 14, 2018, Jacob Zuma resigned as president of South Africa, much to the joy and relief of the opposition, civil society, and even many in his own partythe African National Congress (ANC). During Zuma’s muddled resignation speech, South Africans took to Twitter and other social networks to spread #Zexit memes and to poke fun at the fact that their president had broken up with them on Valentine’s Day. All jokes aside, the long and tumultuous relationship between South Africa and Jacob Zuma has left lasting damage. Now, Cyril Ramaphosa, the nation’s new president, has the monumental challenge of getting South Africa back on track.

As President Ramaphosa sets himself to the task of repairing the South African state after nine devastating years under Zuma, a dizzying array of options lies before him. In his February 16th State of the Nation address, Ramaphosa detailed a litany of priorities that were well-received by many. From radical economic transformation to land expropriation, his proposed policies displayed ambition and his rhetoric, hope.

Despite the sprawling aspirations in his speech, the business-minded Ramaphosa will undoubtedly remain focused on jump-starting the stagnant economy and remedying the high unemployment rate.  Ramphosa’s “New Dawn” may very well usher in a prosperous period for South Africa, but job growth alone cannot produce these changes. State capturea distinct feature of the Zuma yearsstill looms large and links many of South Africa’s woes to Ramaphosa’s priorities. The future for South Africa must include dismantling the widespread system of corruption and undue influence that flourished under Ramaphosa’s predecessor.

Though he may be gone, the patronage machine and criminal networks that enabled Zuma’s personal enrichment – and that of his cronies – are still standing. To safeguard against future corruption, Ramaphosa must set a forceful precedent through prosecution and reform. Of all the Herculean labors that lay before him, the Hydra of state capture may be President Ramaphosa’s most consequential test.

State capture and its day-to-day effects

With all of the international media coverage on state capture, few stories have addressed how this corruption network affects South Africans on a daily basis or what South African leaders can do to stop it. The crisis at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) is a perfect case study on both fronts. It also serves as a strong argument for why any anti-state capture efforts must specifically address state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and procurement policy reform.

In Cape Town, more than half of all commuters use trains every day to get to work. These commuters, mostly working-class people, have struggled under the complete collapse of PRASA, an SOE that many believe to be captured by corrupt business interests associated with former president Zuma and other ANC officials.

In the past few months alone, mass outages, severe delays, and even deaths from train derailments have plagued PRASA. In late December 2017, the company suspended Central Line service, Cape Town’s busiest route connecting the Khayelitsha township with the city’s central business district, without providing alternative transport. The line remained shuttered after a security guard was killed in mid-January at a station along the route until  PRASA finally announced its reopening in mid-February.  

Activists associated with an organization called Unite Behind issued a letter on January 5 protesting the recent appointment of PRASA’s acting CEO, Mthuthuzeli Swartz, over corruption and sexual assault allegations. The group’s #FixOurTrains campaign also claims that billions of much needed rand have been looted from PRASA through corrupt tenders. Beyond deaths and high-profile scandals, the pernicious capture of PRASA threatens livelihoods every single day through delays and outages. The familiar story of state capture has repeated in many other sectors of the country, choking development and exaggerating inequality. 

Cleaning house

The situation at PRASA is a troubling reminder of the realities of state capturewhen politicians fill their pockets illicitly, people suffer. Former president Zuma and his associates executed state capture through a combination of illegal and legal activities. Because of the scope of the corruption, a comprehensive solution must take the form of both criminal prosecution and policy reform. In short, Ramaphosa and the ANC must clean house, then rebuild it. 

On the matter of cleaning house, Unite Behind offers several recommendations for PRASA, which could also apply to crises at other SOE’s like South Africa’s electricity public utility, Eskom. The activist organization supports the investigation and prosecution of all people and companies involved in corrupt activities by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, empowered by the South African Police Service Act. High on that list is former PRASA CEO Lucky Montana, who was the subject of several damning allegations in a report called “Derailed” by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. Since the report’s 2015 release, Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi, who denies any crisis at the rail agency, and others at PRASA have halted investigations into the allegations of Montana’s irregular appointments and shady procurement deals.

The tide of political will to hold these corrupt individuals accountable may now have shifted to action with President Ramaphosa’s rise to power. During his February speech, Ramaphosa reassured the country that “criminal justice institutions have been taking initiatives that will enable us to deal effectively with corruption.” To this end, he also  acknowledged a newly established commission on state capture headed by the Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.


Though removing corrupt individuals  from their posts is important both materially and psychologically for South Africa, President Ramaphosa must also rebuild the system that had enabled state capture in the first place. This is where the rubber of bureaucracy meets the road of public service delivery. Procurement policies, SOE board appointments, and the role of the auditor-general all play an important part.

In a landmark research report titled “Betrayal of the Promise,” researchers describe how Zuma’s criminal networks wielded the ideology of radical economic transformation to mask their wrongdoing and get rich in the process. A major feature of this strategy involved the “redirection of the procurement-spend of the SOE’s to favor those prepared to deal with the Gupta-Zuma network of brokers,” often resulting in a breakdown of service delivery.

Fortunately, Ramaphosa’s administration has already sketched out some ways to address this system, pledging to “change the way that boards [of SOEs] are appointed so that only people with…experience and integrity serve in these vital positions,” as well as to “remove board members from any role in procurement and work with the Auditor-General to strengthen external audit processes.” This is a strong start, but SOE procurement reform should also include strides toward extreme accountability through public access to all procurement documentation. State capture relies heavily on a lack of publically available information and the absence of government oversight. Public access to contract details, including amounts of money and companies involved, would go a long way toward increasing oversight by the public and government.   

Only by fully cleaning out the rot and fortifying the foundation against future corruption will South Africa be able to get its house in order.


Tyler McBrien is currently a research associate with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Previously, he served as the 2015-16 Princeton in Africa Fellow with Equal Education in King William’s Town, South Africa and has written for Foreign Policy, The National Interest, Africa is a Country, CFR.org, Sunday Times, and elsewhere. Follow his updates on Twitter @tylermcbrien.