South Africa’s former President, Jacob Zuma, is giving evidence this week at a commission set up to investigate corruption allegations during his time in office.
The inquiry takes its name from an academic term, “state capture”, that has become a buzzword – shorthand for the multiple scandals that plagued the Zuma administration and eventually brought it down.
State capture describes a form of corruption in which businesses and politicians conspire to influence a country’s decision-making process to advance their own interests. As most democracies have laws to make sure this does not happen, state capture also involves weakening those laws, and neutralising any agencies that enforce them.
“State capture is not just about biasing public policy so that it systematically favours some corporations over others,” Abby Innes, assistant professor of political economy at the London School of Economics, told the BBC.
“It’s also about strategically weakening that part of the state’s law enforcement mechanism that might crack down on corruption.”
“Classic corruption involves individual politicians taking side-payments for preferential treatment in outsourcing contracts, a small deal here, a license payment there,” Dr Innes said.
“Full-on state capture is where corporations can influence the nature of the legislative process, and political actors allow them to do so for private gain. The whole policy-making structure of the state becomes commodified – something that politicians are willing to sell.”
If traditional corruption means slipping a bribe to every police officer that catches you speeding, state capture means paying to have your car fitted with police lights so that no officer dare stop you from speeding again. Rather than paying to get away with breaking the law, you pay to make the law work for you.
The concept of state capture was defined in a 2003 World Bank report on corruption in eastern Europe and central Asia.
Joel Hellman, a report co-author who now serves as Dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, said a new term was needed to describe the extraordinary tactics that certain firms, owned by oligarchs, were using to maintain their dominance of the market.
“We noticed that these firms were active players not just in lobbying, which goes on everywhere, but also in using private payments to public officials to shape the laws of institutions in their favour,” Mr Hellman told the BBC. –BBC