State Capture is a symptom, not a cause

The testimony of the former Minister of Communications, Yunus Carrim, at the Zondo Commission this week has foregrounded an oft overlooked but vital aspect of the ‘State Capture’ narrative that fills so many column inches for our daily media outlets.

Carrim, when referring to the influence and lobbying of Koos Bekker and DSTV regarding diversification of pay-TV players in South Africa, talked of ‘regulatory or policy capture’, the preferred MO of big capital and their lobbyists.

But by using the word ‘capture’, such a practice is framed as if unique to this present moment and the actors under specific scrutiny by the Zondo Commission.

The inconvenient truth is that regulatory/policy capture is the done deal in modern democracies guided by neoliberal principles. It is not specific to South Africa, nor to the Zupta-conglomerate. It is business as usual.

Rarely have political decision makers, whether those ostensibly elected by democratic referendum or bestowed power by divine right, ignored or resisted the preferences and interests of those with economic clout. Whether through the courts of kings or the hob-nobbing at Davos, influence is bartered, bought and sold, away from the scrutiny of the common human whose life gets caught up in the currents. As the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, wrote in Firing back against the tyranny of the market, it is deeply ironic that modern states bemoan their inability to reign in powerful private actors when they have themselves handed over the keys to the car willingly.

How is the policy influence through structural adjustment of the World Bank not ‘state capture’? Or that of those totally unelected, unaccountable bookies of the rich, the ratings agencies? How is Jeff Bezos’ ability to negotiate tax regulations so in his favour as to barely pay any at all on a multi-billion dollar company like Amazon not ‘state capture’? To be forthright, the major mistakes of the Zuma-Gupta-conglomerate was that they sought to break the law to enrich themselves, instead of making the law as so many have done before them. Rookie error.

To fail to notice that the State Capture episode is making a strawman out of one regime that did it badly is to ignore the rot that has set into constitutional democracy worldwide. The alignment of political power to corporate elites, billionaires and anyone else who can afford full time influencers (aka lobbyists) has, at least in living memory, been a hallmark of the last 40 years of increasing inequality, hollowing out the public good and privatizing social benefits while losses are socialised. The ideal social contract wherein governments protect the vulnerable from those with power, rather than get in bed with them, has long since faded since the optimistic moments such as the New Deal, the Pink Tide… or the rise of South African democracy.  

As Arundhati Roy wrote of her visit to Edward Snowden in Moscow:

…the conversation around whistleblowing is a thrilling one—it’s realpolitik—busy, important, and full of legalese. It has spies and spy-hunters, escapades, secrets, and secret-leakers. It’s a very adult and absorbing universe of its own. However, if it becomes, as it sometimes threatens to, a substitute for broader, more radical political thinking, then the conversation that Daniel Berrigan wanted to have when he said, “Every nation-state tends towards the imperial—that is the point” becomes a little inconvenient.

The 2020 Budget Speech delivered in Parliament this week is saturated with policy decisions that attempt to appease the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable. To focus narrowly on the Zuma-Gupta episode is dangerous. Not only does it create martyrs out of those who do not deserve such glory, it eclipses the far more important question of what is wrong with modern constitutional democracy in the twenty-first century, and how we can begin to construct political, social and economic relations between each other that are premised on human flourishing, not greed.