A country falls into the hands of kleptocrats, a state is taken over. This happens again and again, all over the world. Including in South Africa, of all places, where the fight for democracy against a brutal apartheid regime was so hard-won.
For years, a small group of investigative journalists in South Africa had been on the trail of a gigantic corruption scandal. When they discovered signs of far-reaching corruption involving Jacob Zuma, then president of South Africa, a pernicious disinformation campaign was mounted against the integrity of the journalists.
Then one day in early 2017, the journalists unexpectedly received a hard drive containing thousands of photos, emails and videos – evidence that laid bare the way the South African state had been taken over by private individuals, with the help of politicians.
The so-called Gupta Leaks not only proved that the journalists had been right in their suspicions, but showed that the situation was much worse than they thought. Since taking office as president, Jacob Zuma had systematically awarded lucrative government contracts to three brothers from India, the Guptas.
Thanks to their good friend Zuma, members of the Gupta family were able to use the proceeds of an entire nation for their own gain, acquiring holdings in coal mines, media and IT companies, and even government positions.
The plundering of the state had been shamelessly supported by a group of elite international advisors. As criticism from the media grew louder, the British PR firm Bell Pottinger was hired. The journalists were defamed as agents of “white monopoly capital,” and the Guptas stylized as victims of a racist press. But after the publication of the Gupta Leaks, the graft stopped. The Zuma clan and the Guptas lost their power.
When a Judicial Commission of Inquiry is finally ordered, Zuma himself testifies. His defense: it’s all lies and fake news. In interviews, investigative journalists express their concerns about the global drift toward an ever-increasing entanglement between business and government, and the polarization it causes. Presidents and multinationals live unassailably in their own bubble. As a journalist, all you can do is make life in the bubble a little less comfortable. Is there still room for justice in South Africa’s hard-won fledgling democracy? What lessons can be learned for the rest of the world?