ON Sunday 20 December last year, a telling two-part cameo played itself out in Pietermaritzburg. Residents of Northdale gathered at a primary sub-station that had exploded the previous Thursday leaving hundreds without electricity in an area already plagued by outages, not to mention water supply disruption. Noting the glaring absence of the mayor, a local councillor predicted demonstrations outside city hall if the situation were not soon resolved; prescient as by the following Wednesday major roads were being blocked in protest at the continuing darkness.

Municipal officials blamed the sub-station fire and the knock-on effect at feeder units on storms. (The city had a third of its average rainfall in the six weeks from 1 December.) Qualified electricians found this questionable and pointed to a lack of periodic equipment upgrades and routine maintenance of trip switches. When the fire brigade arrived at the conflagration it lacked sufficient chemical powder to put out it.

Back to Sunday. On the other side of town at Harry Gwala Stadium, elections for the ANC’s Moses Mabhida region committee were taking place in a marathon session reported as ‘hotly contested’. The successful candidate as chairperson was Msunduzi (and Pietermaritzburg) mayor Mzimkhulu Thebolla. He had not been expected to win let alone get 90% of the votes but as he helpfully and mysteriously explained, ‘ANC processes have their own way of unfolding’. Not that it mattered because ‘there are no winners or losers at the ANC; we are all just equal members.’ Needless to say, he was ‘very humbled’ by his elevation and would rebuild the ANC by putting the people first.

Just another day in South African politics: intense frustration as people see their lives crumbling in the face of non-functional infrastructure; and the hypocrisy and machinations of the ANC as it pursues its programme of self-enrichment. Who knows what processes unfolded for Thebolla? Elsewhere in KwaZulu-Natal they have ranged from fat brown envelopes and contract and job promises, to assassination.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about all this, although in a democracy there should be, because it is enacted over and over again throughout the country leading to that South African staple, the service delivery protest. ANC politicians thrive, ordinary people do not. But it does have meaning in relation to release of part one of the report of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.

This has been long awaited and received much publicity. An immensely long document without a summary, most people will depend on journalists to unpack it for them. This first volume highlights the capture of SARS and SAA by cronies of Jacob Zuma and some heavyweight commentators have weighed in already. Another former president, Thabo Mbeki, has justifiably labelled Tom Moyane, the ex-SARS commissioner, as a counter-revolutionary; and Peter Hain has called for the American-based multinational management consultants Bain, also implicated in the destruction of SARS, to face global consequences.

This is all very heartening and there is optimism abroad that some capturers of the state might be a little closer to donning the famous orange overalls. But the drama in Pietermaritzburg throws up a cautionary note because it depicts not aberration, but system in which the principles, nuances and practice of democracy were long ago subordinated to crude patronage.

Judging by four years of testimony the Zondo Commission report will present many episodes and many names ripe for prosecution. The most obvious question is whether the NPA has the capacity and will to act. It, too, was hollowed out during state capture and there are doubts about its abilities. The picture of Raymond Zondo handing over his report to Cyril Ramaphosa is an uplifting one. Hain pointed out that it is to South Africa’s great credit that this investigation has happened at all. (Perhaps the admirable Zondo with evidence leaders like Paul Pretorius and Kate Hofmeyr should be sent on loan to Britain to dig into Conservative Party sleaze.) But what does Ramaphosa’s acceptance of the report actually mean?

In a country in which governing party and state are largely indistinguishable, and have been now for several decades, Zondo’s report presents a particular challenge. While it names and shames individuals and companies, what it actually fingers is the political culture of the ANC. So, an ANC government now has to endorse and encourage prosecution of its own culture to which every one of its members and voters is party in some form or another. The bad apple theory will not work.

Mayor Thebolla’s cosy depiction of the ANC could not be more misleading. It is riven by factionalism, jealousies, ambition and plots of byzantine dimensions. Thus, any attempt to nail even the more egregious crooks named by Zondo will be met by accusations, threats and political jockeying. And to cap it all this is the year of the ANC elective conference where Ramaphosa’s bid for a second term as president will be severely tested. A significant part of the ANC including some national leaders is prone to intemperate attacks on the rule of law and the very concept of constitutionalism, which does not bode well for the idea of a party looking honestly at itself, seeing that justice is done, and engaging in internal reform.

From a government perspective the Zondo Commission is likely to prove a damp squib. Too many factors point to inaction. If Ramaphosa survives, it is likely to be by a small margin and he has shown for four years that he is not a bold or decisive leader. If the RET faction triumphs, then the entire future of constitutionalism is in jeopardy and the Zondo commission report might just as well be used for toilet paper.

What the ANC is required to do as implied by the Zondo Commission is purge itself of scores of officials who are enemies of democracy and thousands of criminals. Judging by the hullabaloo caused by the simple rule demanding that those charged with criminal offences be suspended (or step aside in party jargon) this is unlikely. And, indeed, the historic practice of the ANC is to redeploy its failures and fraudsters. Cadre redeployment is a fancy term for finding new jobs for non-performers who wield power in the party.

Leninist conflation of party and state is another form of capture; one that has bedevilled South Africa throughout its history whether colonial, apartheid or post-apartheid. But the Zondo Commission and its explosive report need not have been in vain. Information about outrageous criminality and incompetence in the name of the ANC is no longer the preserve of investigative reporters and the media, but a matter of public record. In the final analysis it may have to be civil society rather than the NPA that calls the significant shots.