An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2018

Corruption & State Capture: What Can Citizens Do?

Sarah Bracking

Given South Africa’s recent history of corrupt state capture, the country faces two possible futures: a further decline into spoils politics or a return to an improved constitutional democracy. This essay argues that the latter is more likely in the long run, but is by no means guaranteed. Achieving such a future requires public administrators, citizens, the private sector, and top lawmakers to insist on a public-focused social order. This essay suggests that a coalition of anticorruption agents must be built across the public and private sectors, and that this effort will be successful to the extent that it can link people across traditional class and race divides.

SARAH BRACKING is Professor in the School of Global Affairs at King’s College London. She is the author of The Financialisation of Power: How Financiers Rule Africa (2016) and Money and Power: Great Predators in the Political Economy of Development (2009).

The Machiavellian behavior of political elites in modern Africa, as elsewhere, often attracts little prosecutorial response due to the widespread practice of granting immunity to current and former officeholders. Former President Jacob Zuma of South Africa is no exception: he was able to secure his first term in office despite previous charges of rape and 783 counts of fraud, corruption, and racketeering. After this inauspicious start, Zuma continued throughout his tenure (from 2009 to 2018) to accrue more corruption accusations while continuing to evade prosecution.1  While political corruption is not new in postapartheid South Africa, the ten-year Zuma administration marked a shift from political corruption in the form of kickbacks and contracts for relatives to a more structural pattern of systematic state capture pursued with impunity. Since Zuma’s forced resignation in February 2018, his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, has served as president. However, the degree to which the deeper “shadow state” will persist remains to be seen. The corrupt clique run by Zuma (and the Gupta family, Zuma’s close associates) is essentially defunct, but weak and porous state structures governing . . .


  • 1Jacob Zuma was president of South Africa from February 9, 2009, to February 14, 2018, when his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa took over. Since resigning the presidency under pressure from the ANC, the national director of public prosecutions, alongside a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, decided in March 2018 that prosecution of the former president would move forward beginning with a summons to the KwaZulu-Natal High Court on April 6, 2018. However, with multiple appeals processes and remaining political support, this course could be extremely lengthy or eventually aborted.
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