The Rogues’ Gallery – 350 years of corruption in South Africa

If you reckon corruption in South Africa began with Zuma or even with apartheid, it’s time to catch a wake-up call. As this new book by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall shows.

Nick (left) and Matthew grappling with Rhodes's immense and brooding spirit of corruption.

It is hard not to consider the current state of South African political and economic affairs as being the worst of times. The dreadful daily news of corruption is so familiar that most of us simply shrug and go about our daily deeds. One regularly hears statements like, “Almost every single Department under this government is in a state of total incompetence,” and the, “Audit office is a perfect farce.” And it is certainly not unusual to find a journalist saying, “I believe great irregularity to have prevailed in the payment of the expenses.”

What might be a surprise to some is that these are not the words of a modern journalist or contemporary politician but rather those from a letter written in 1825. The author of the letter was the colonial auditor Richard Plasket who had been sent out to the Cape Colony to try to sort out the corrupt and dysfunctional mess Lord Charles Somerset had made of the Cape.

In our research for our book Rogues’ Gallery, we discovered that there were very few eras in South African history where our politicians did not have their hands in the cookie jar.

Corruption proper began in South Africa with Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel, a man who used state funds, manpower and raw materials to build his massive fiefdom at Vergelegen, before selling Vergelegen’s produce to the company he controlled at vastly inflated prices. And when the locals complained of his corrupt acts, he threw them into dingy dungeons and presided over kangaroo courts which got them to recant their accusations. Remarkably, justice was done, and he was booted back to Holland in disgrace.

Vergelegen. As depicted by the complaining burghers.

Perhaps the least well-known of all the British governors of the Cape was Sir George Yonge, an entitled British buffoon with a serious spending habit. Yonge, at taxpayers’ expense, adorned his official residence with Moroccan leather and doubled the tax on brandy. He also helped to run an illegal and evil slave-smuggling racket.

But he was certainly not the only British governor to engage in illegal and corrupt acts. Lord Charles Somerset went about ruling the colony as if government money was his own. He also had a habit of imprisoning or banishing whistleblowers. Lord Charles even had his own Nkandla scandal. A scandal in which he was told to pay back the money. And his rule came to an end with an all-too-familiar commission of inquiry.

But the king of the castle of corruption in South Africa was almost certainly that dirty rascal Cecil John Rhodes. As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out, Rhodes was one of the world’s most malignant political forces in the 19th century. Rhodes wasn’t just an immensely powerful businessman; he was also the second-longest serving prime minister of the Cape Colony. And his terms of office were riddled with tender fraud, bribery, corruption and war. He also secretly bought out newspapers to spread fake news and in 1898 attempted to buy an entire election.

And then of course, there was Oom Paul Kruger. Although he was perhaps less corrupt than some of the other rogues in the book, Kruger did preside over a rotten-to-the-core concessions policy which is sadly familiar. And he would certainly not be the last Afrikaner politician to engage in corruption. Apartheid was, arguably, corruption’s finest hour in South Africa. The Broederbond could certainly rival those other broeders, the Guptas, in acts of malfeasance. The Broederbond set up a network of companies that benefited from government business, handing out Eskom coal-mining contracts to their tjommies.

[Pic: 1st Executive council (1918) Afrikaner Brodederbond. Standing L to R: D.H.C. du Plessis, J Combrink, H. le R. Jooste. Sitting: L.J. Erasmus (sec.) H.J. Klopper (chair) Rev, Wm Nicol (V. chair) J.E. Reeler (treasurer)]

But for the whole corrupt structure of apartheid to be exposed we would have to wait until the 1970s and the Information Scandal. In the biggest scandal to rock apartheid, we had all the hallmarks of modernity: fake news, misappropriation of government funds, commissions of inquiry and a group of hardnosed muckraking journalists. The stranger-than-fiction machinations of Eschel Rhoodie’s Department of Information were finally exposed when a whistleblower and a judge fought back.

As for the homelands during apartheid, they were simply awash with corruption, which drew every kind of crook and chancer to their flame. The Matanzima brothers’ spectacular pillaging of the Transkei state’s coffers was not unlike what we see today. Add Sol Kerzner into the mix and you have a perfect pudding of corruption and bribery. Kerzner was also of course heavily involved with Lucas Mangope’s long reign in the “independent” Bophuthatswana. In Bop, bribery, self-enrichment and state wastage were performed on a truly epic scale.

Corruption in South Africa is certainly nothing new, although Jacob Zuma and the ANC have certainly attempted to make a perfect art of it. But still we cling onto some hope. South Africa has (and always has had) some decent and committed whistleblowers, judges, journalists and politicians. The last decade has in many ways been the worst of times with regards corruption.

Could the next decade be the best of times?

Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa, from the VOC to the ANC is available in all leading bookshops and online.