How to steal a country by Robin Renwick is published by Jacana and dubbed a ‘thriller’. Robin, now Lord Renwick, is no stranger to South Africa – having served here as British Ambassador at the time of the release from jail of Nelson Mandela. He has returned on many occasions and has written two other books – one on the end of Apartheid and the other on his great friend, Helen Suzman.
Renwick has an easy writing style making the concise book – it is only 200 pages – difficult to put down, especially when he gets into finer details of state capture. My reaction, when I had finished reading the book was to sit back and, while contemplating the nine years of unheard of kleptocracy, ponder the damage done and ask myself how the ANC allowed this to happen when they must have known what Jacob Zuma is like, having spent all those years with him in exile.
Renwick’s style is succinct and clear, causing the mind to boggle at the open and bare-faced cheek of those such as the Guptas, who quite openly and brazenly went about looting the SOEs, which turned out to be sitting ducks made easier by some of Zuma’s appointments of supine lackeys to the Section 9 institutions meant to protect the constitution and the citizens of this country.
Renwick begins his tale with the Mandela presidency, followed by his uneasy relationship with Mbeki when he was President. He describes Zuma’s fall as Deputy President, and how he fought back to defeat Mbeki at Polokwane and be elected President of the ANC. The show was on the road and those in the inner-circle were able to act with ‘ingenuity, audacity and impunity’ as they set about looting the public purse. It was at about this time the Gupta brothers arrived and were quickly sucked into the system, showing they were not slouches when it came to tenders and the lining of pockets or the appointment of pliant members of cabinet.
An incident at OR Tambo airport illustrates the point. The Guptas, who were beginning to feel the heat, decided to make their base in Dubai and, it is reported, attempted to export a suitcase filled with diamonds through the Oppenheimer-owned private terminal at Tambo airport.
A bright customs official declined to load the suitcase, and shortly after that the Oppenheimers found their licence application to continue operating a terminal for private jets was being held up by the then Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, following pressure from Gupta-aligned operators.
After a while, senior figures both in the ANC and in civil society were beginning to feel uneasy about what was happening and quietly expressed their concern.
They questioned how a large section of the party could change from being would-be liberators, prepared to make great personal sacrifices for the cause, and had become predators. This is not the party of Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu, said they. Renwick pays tribute to the Press, the fourth estate, and the judiciary for keeping the values of the constitution alive during this time.
Of course it all ended in tears. Zuma has been removed from office and the Guptas are either in Dubai or in India. There is a major job of reconstruction to be done and Renwick puts his money on Cyril Ramaphosa, whom he believes will be able to save South Africa.
Renwick’s fascinating book takes us all the way through the nightmare we lived – and is recommended.
Peter Soal is a former Member of Parliament and he was a DJ on FMR 101.3.