Ramaphosa should beware SA's Michael Cohens, toadies who put up a firewall between Zuma and accountability
US president Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen this week provided fascinating insight into the workings of the Trump machinery in his testimony to the House of Representatives oversight committee.
"Everybody's job at the Trump Organization is to protect Mr Trump. Every day, most of us knew we were coming in and we were going to lie for him on something, and that became the norm," Cohen said under heavy grilling from pro-Trump committee members.
"And that's exactly what's happening right now in this country," he said. "That's exactly what's happening here in government, sir."
Cohen is no paragon of virtue. He has been disbarred and sentenced to three years in jail for fraud, tax evasion, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. He is, however, exactly the kind of slippery character Trump needed to mop up his sexual and financial misdemeanours.
Former president Jacob Zuma also needed an unusual skills set around him. He required ministers, key officials in the state, political allies and body men who were blindly faithful, who would readily implement the instructions of the Guptas, and who would defend him to the hilt even when he violated the constitution.
Evidence being reeled out at the Zondo commission shows how the state was "repurposed" and institutions paralysed so that Zuma's various benefactors could plunder at will. Judge Raymond Zondo asked former finance minister Trevor Manuel on Thursday who could have stopped state capture and when the ANC national executive committee (NEC) became aware of it.
Manuel said members of parliament and the NEC might not have the knowledge and capacity to interrogate such things. He suggested training to better equip MPs to perform their oversight role.
Manuel said crucial appointments in the state were a gamble. Some people believed he was not qualified to be finance minister, yet he was retained for 13 years. It might not have made sense to appoint a pharmacist as the commissioner of the South African Revenue Service but Pravin Gordhan had an "impeccable record" in that position, Manuel said.
But appointing people "who have no competence and even less interest in the positions they occupy" was part of the recipe for a failed, captured state.
What Manuel was too polite to say directly was that too many of his comrades in high-flying positions were incompetent, malleable or themselves on the take, and therefore did not stand up against state capture when they should have.
Former minister and chief of the South African National Defence Force Gen Siphiwe Nyanda told Zondo in his testimony that senior ANC members like him were "remiss" not to demand answers from Zuma about the influence of the Guptas when evidence of their improper involvement in state affairs first came to light.
Nyanda and Manuel testified about Fikile Mbalula's emotional revelation to an ANC NEC meeting in August 2011 that one of the Gupta brothers had informed him of his appointment as sports minister the year before.
Only five years later, after Mcebisi Jonas publicly revealed the Gupta bribe offer to him, did they realise things had gone too far, Nyanda said. He disclosed that the commanders of the ANC'snow disbanded military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, went to meet the party's top leaders, including Zuma, and told the president to step down.
Six months before the release of Thuli Madonsela's state capture report, the military chiefs demanded that an inquiry be set up to investigate the Guptas' hold on the state.
This was in effect a mutiny. Yet, Zuma survived two more years in office because of the protection force around him.
Zondo should not be the only one concerned with safeguards to prevent the state from being captured by corrupt business interests again.
If President Cyril Ramaphosa is serious about building an efficient state that repels corruption, he needs to ensure that the people in his core team share his perspective and commitment.
The disgraced people and deadwood he retained in cabinet to keep the peace in the ANC need to be put out to pasture.
Ramaphosa's business and family connections are being red-flagged as threats to the credibility of his restructuring and cleanup operations. He needs safeguards to ensure no conflict of interest arises as business people will always exploit their access to power.
The president cannot assume that because people are his political allies, they will act in the best interests of the state.
Independent Police Investigative Directorate head Robert McBride has been on a resolute mission to clean out the South African Police Service but has been torpedoed by police minister Bheki Cele, with the backing of the ANC.
The only reason to remove an effective watchdog is to cover up skulduggery. It is a slippery slide when rot is protected.
It is a huge temptation for presidents to assemble a gallery of toadies. Ramaphosa does not need praise singers. He needs people who will always tell him the truth, not those who think they are protecting him by covering it up.
And when the alarm bells ring, let's hope he listens.