Rehad Desai is one of South Africa’s most prolific filmmakers. His signature ability is to quickly respond to historical moments that are still ongoing or whose consequences have not yet been felt. His most recent films, Miners Shot Down (2014) and Everything Must Fall (2018), portray arguably the two most significant political events of South Africa’s democratic era: the Marikana massacre of 2012, when police shot 34 miners protesting working and wage conditions at a platinum mine in Northwest Province, and the Fallist student movements on South Africa’s university campuses between 2105 and 2017. His latest film, How to Steal a Country, stars Jacob Zuma, the man who was president while these events occurred. This time, Desai has a co-director, Mark Kaplan. The latter has a reputation dating back to the 1980s anti-apartheid struggle; his most well-known film, Between Joyce and Remembrance (2005), explored the politics of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission through the story of a man murdered by apartheid police and whose killer asked to meet his victim’s son.
How to Steal a Country begins by telling the story of the notorious Gupta family. Originally from India, they migrated to South Africa in the early 1990s. They quickly rose from trading shoes from the trunks of their cars to running a business empire that ultimately, they decided, was not large enough. During this time, Jacob Zuma was a rising political force in the ruling African National Congress (the party came to power in 1994), and the Guptas, described as having a sharp eye for others sharing their relentless ambition, saw Zuma as their man. What becomes of these bedfellows is well known to South Africans and the world. Lesser known are the accounts of those who exposed these stories.
The film is threaded using commentary from the investigative journalists who uncovered the extent of public and private corruption emanating from these men. Their blow-by-blow descriptions, along with personal accounts of threats from public officials and social media abuse, are interspersed with shots of the newsrooms where they worked—at the Daily Maverick (South Africa’s first online-only daily newspaper) or Sunday Times (a mainstream newspaper that developed a reputation for investigative journalism, though its reporting standards have sometimes let it down). In this way, Desai and Kaplan aim to recreate the suspenseful conditions under which journalists operated, making the film feel like South Africa’s answer to the American political thriller The Post, which depicts the efforts of journalists in the 1970s to release the infamous “Pentagon Papers,” classified documents that revealed the bankruptcy of US involvement in the Vietnam War.
In an age where access to information is seamless, traditional journalism strikes many as being largely irrelevant. After all, most news can be accessed via first-hand reporting of events on social media, and analysis of these events is seemingly democratized to anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account. Everything else is distrusted as fake news, promotional content, or news agencies advancing their own agendas.
In South Africa, the cohort of journalists exposing state capture was widely dismissed by Zuma supporters as the modern iteration of Stratcom, a group that during apartheid was tasked with carrying out disinformation campaigns. A questionable alliance formed between loyalists to the ANC’s patronage faction and the racial-populist Economic Freedom Fighters to discredit investigative journalists as stooges of “white monopoly capital.” Zuma and the Guptas, according to the former’s supporters, were engaged in “radical economic transformation.” As a politics of faux radicalism, it advocates a united front of the black tender-based capitalist class allied with the working class against the white dominated private sector (despite multinational firms like McKinsey and KPMG also participating in state capture). All this would later be exposed as an orchestrated public relations farce to positively spin allegations of corruption against Zuma and his associates. (This propaganda scandal itself is the subject of another film, Influence, co-directed by Richard Poplak, a Daily Maverick writer. Poplak is also an interlocutor in How to Steal a Country.)
The role that investigative journalism has played in South Africa’s politics is summarized best in the film by Susan Comrie, a journalist at amaBhungane, the organization that published the #GuptaLeaks. Comrie describes it as “one of the few things that held democracy together” during a time when most state institutions were captured by private interests, including crucial bodies like the National Prosecuting Authority. Journalism had become a kind of fourth branch of government, a final line of defense against the powerful when the others were compromised or hollowed out.
As much as this is to be celebrated, it is also a fact to be horrified at—an indictment against the processes that liberal democracy holds as smoothly functioning to check and constrain power: if the systems could so easily be captured, maybe they weren’t running so smoothly to begin with. The documentary arrives at a time when the State Capture Commission of Inquiry (headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo), into the corruption of the Zuma presidency, is ongoing. The film features some of Zuma’s testimony, in which he claims that he is actually the victim, and that allegations of state capture were all part of a longstanding plot to oust him as president. (Zuma’s testimony in front of the commission was highly anticipated, but his wild claims and obstructions defeated the purpose.) After watching this, and revelations that US$1 trillion in state revenue was lost, as well as that whistleblower and farmer Philemon Ngwenya was murdered in 2018, the film concludes with this grim sentence: “To date, there have been no successful prosecutions of people involved in state capture.”
At some point in the film, Barbara Creecy, an ANC veteran and former government minister, explains the greed that overtook her colleagues: “People came to be absorbed by a very wealthy … may I use the word bourgeoisie?” She is referring to the emergence of a new black elite, the liberators who Chris Hani in the 1990s had already warned would “drive around in Mercedes Benzes and use the resources of this country … to live in palaces and gather riches.” There’s a long tradition of thought and popular mobilization in South Africa that stands as critical to this class, and the democratic institutions that apparently allow it to get away with theft—whether it’s by exceptional cases of outright corruption, or the “normal” corruption of an economy centered on maximizing profits. However, rather than eschewing democracy, its project remains unfinished in South Africa, and must expand to give the masses real ownership and control of the economy as well.
In the midst of a global pandemic escalating pre-existing socio-economic crises, up-to date research has emerged showing the staggering extent of wealth inequality in South Africa—where the wealthiest 3,500 South Africans own more than the most impoverished 32 million people. The fact that widespread poverty and deprivation persist beyond one instantiation of incompetent and corrupt governance is something that the film actually doesn’t meaningfully engage with. Instead, by focusing on the supposedly wicked characters in the state capture narrative, opposed valiantly by mostly white interlocutors, it not only plays into the hands of those still cynically bent on discrediting South Africa’s media, but misses one ultimate truth about South Africa’s economic structure: you can’t steal what people never really had in the first place.