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Zuma:‘No’ State Capture! Satire, Farce or Tragedy played for laughs?

“There is no state that is captured”, this was the much-reported remark of Jacob Zuma as he addressed university students at Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape earlier this week. Anthony Egan, moral theologian, ethicist and Jesuit priest looks at the outrageous claim put forward by the former president and assesses whether it has any merit. 

“I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain't bad,” says the incompetent, self-serving President smugly.

No. I am not misquoting former president Jacob Zuma’s bizarre remarks on Wednesday.

I am quoting a line from Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton’s 1996 satire of ‘end of the world’ science fiction B-movies. Jack Nicholson plays United States’ President Dale, a moron in love with his own popularity [a case of art anticipating life?] surrounded by fawning flunkeys, whose sense of self-importance blind themselves to the imminent alien invasion. In their first assault, the ‘Martians’ destroy the US Congress. Ever trying to save face and in denial of the situation Dale makes this absurd remark.

Though in many ways one of Burton’s more forgettable films, I could not but remember it on reading Zuma’s remarks:

“There is no state that is captured‚ the judiciary is not captured‚ Parliament is not captured? So where is the state capture?”

Is the former president serious? Is he so tragically in denial or is he mocking the law, turning due process into a farce?

The evidence that Jacob Zuma and his friends misused his position as president seems overwhelming. I say ‘seems’ in deference to our judicial system, thankfully – even Zuma admits – not captured.

Successive witnesses have declared that he and his allies both within and outside the government and ruling party used public office for personal gain. They took over or attempted to take over key state institution like the SA Revenue Service, and allegedly used parts of the state security apparatus to consolidate their personal power.

Many point the finger directly at the Gupta family, stating that they tried to shape and influence governance through private payments to public officials, even allegedly offering MPs cabinet posts – a prerogative of the President in consultation with the Cabinet.

Though foiled by the combined efforts of honourable and courageous members of the ANC, by opposition parties and by civil society before all organs of governance could be taken, by any reasonable definition what was attempted – and partly achieved – was state capture.

On closer examination that the crime of state capture is de facto the attempt by such persons or groups to quietly overthrow a legitimate government for personal gain. (You may well also place it under the category of treason – if it sounds like treason, looks like treason, smells like treason, one might well assume…

Is it significant, moreover, that nowhere in his reported statement Zuma actually denied that the office of the Presidency was in fact ‘captured’? One branch of government down, two – one and half perhaps if one examines Parliament more closely – to go.

To deny, to feign shock, to protest one’s innocence, may be a natural reaction rooted in fear. It is certainly an attempt to garner sympathy which no doubt will lead to attempts to bargain one’s way out of prison. If as the process unfolds it goes badly for Zuma be prepared to see a flurry of protestations. He is old! He has a family! He is a struggle hero! Let’s all just reconcile and let it pass!

Or, perhaps, to return to Mars Attacks! :

“Why can't we work out our differences? Why can't we work things out? Little people, why can't we all just get along?” says President Dale later in the film, shortly before the ‘Martians’ vaporise him. (And the audience, I suspect, are expected to laugh with grim glee at this).

No, we don’t need any ‘Martians’ in this case. Just due process of law: justice done and seen to be done.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Anthony Egan SJ
Anthony Egan is a Jesuit priest who works at the Jesuit Institute South Africa. He teaches at Steve Biko Ethics Centre Faculty of Health Sciences at WITS University. He also teaches in the Ubuntu Programme for Fordham University at the University of Pretoria. He writes for various journals and publications and regularly offers analysis and comment on politics and the Catholic Church.

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