An irreverent history of corruption in SA from VOC to ANC

Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall have whipped together a wonderful history of South Africa taking a look at corruption, crooks, and a spread of over 370 years of shenanigans that – shocking revelation –  did not start with former President Jacob Zuma and his cohort of wheeler dealer associates.


by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall - (Penguin)


As the authors point out, you really need look no further than the Dutch East India company’s first man on the job at the Cape to start a history of a country beleaguered in its growth by graft. Jacob Zuma has a point when he declares: “The problem began when Jan van Riebeeck came here.”

The various iterations of our history did not place a premium on the fact that Van Riebeeck wasn’t sent to the Cape in 1652 as a glorious promotion, but rather because he had been accused of graft at the VOC’s station in Tonkin, their trading post in Vietnam.

Poor Jan wasn’t terribly good at graft, according to the witty account  of Blackman and Dall; he shipped out of Vietnam before cashing in on his loot, and the Cape Colony offered slim pickings in those early days. Followers of corruption will be thrilled to know that while his successor, Simon van der Stel certainly knew how to look after Number One – it was his son, Willem Adriaan, who raised crookery disguised as governance to a fine art. On a palatial scale.

Their successors, the British governors were all decent blue-blooded gentlemen, Sir this and Lord that, you say? Entitled, yes, but if they were better at anything, it was at self-indulgent misappropriation and plain thievery. A stint at the Cape was treated as a paid holiday.

Rhodes? Read and gasp: how bad can you get? Oom Paul? Yup, he with family and friends were on the take.

The authors both have backgrounds in journalism, Blackman has written widely on corruption and has a PhD in Creative and Critical writing from the University of East Anglia, and Dall holds an MA in Creative Writing from UCT.

Together they have created a book so well-written and resourced that one can read it in a sitting, or swoop into when you feel the need for cynical laughter, with a bit of  horror thrown in. Off course none of it should be funny, but quite frankly some of it just is – if for no other reason than it becomes so ridiculously predictable.

Given its scope – from the VOC to the ANC –  it’s hard to know what to highlight as lessons that will be remembered. Except maybe this one: they prove beyond any argument that corruption is unique to no race and no period of history. Power corrupts. With the assistance of the archives of Martin Welz (your editor) and Noseweek among many other publications, peruse and shake your head.

One of my favourite vignettes is the story of how opposition leader Sir De Villiers Graaff called on Prime Minister HF Verwoerd to hold an inquiry into the dark doings of the Broederbond. At issue was the ease with which the secretive powerbase of Afrikaner nationalism was able to use organs of the state to enrich its members, and keep the country where they wanted it. Verwoerd and the Leader of the Opposition battled it out on the benches and there is a wonderful passage that describes how Verwoerd seemed to be about to agree to such an enquiry when he used some sleight of hand: and told Sir Div that he would agree if the Freemasons, and a little known organisation The Sons of England, and a very well-known organisation indeed, Anglo American were up to be investigated.

The upshot was that in the end a secret committee was set to investigate a secret society. Deja vous?

Lest we forget the ‘Homelands Leaders’ who were put in power to keep South Africa’s black population controlled. Cultivating links with international crime figures, and self-enrichment left little time for that.

It seems as though the stories often cited are about enrichment of previous political leaders by means of land grabs: nothing like having inside knowledge of where a university or airbase is going to be built and buying the land cheaply before the announcement is made.  And then there’s the curious rumour of a huge secret Swiss Bank Account dating from the apartheid era …

It’s all a wonderful read, and a cautionary tale: few in power are likely to survive close public scrutiny to this day. The authors are careful to stick to history and apportion blame where it is due, while taking down the theory that it is only in the last decades that South Africa has been mugged by some of its leaders. Truth is, since Willem Adriaan van der Stel dealt in slaves, our rulers have been an interesting lot.

A great read and resource.

- Jennifer Crocker


by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall 

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