In his densely intimidating book, Zondo at Your Fingertips, Paul Holden captures the monumental breadth and scale of the Zondo Commission.
As a historian and seasoned investigator of grand corruption, Holden is uniquely equipped to pen this extraordinary book. In the years to come, we will undoubtedly be grateful for his remarkable skills and knowledge, which have breathed life into a work that does justice to the important findings of the commission.
Holden’s authorship has been bookended thus far by two significant works: The Zondo Commission and his previous book, Arms Deal in Your Pocket. Both books share a common purpose — to consolidate scattered information about pivotal moments in our country’s history into comprehensive volumes.
Through its form and language, Zondo at Your Fingertips triumphs in achieving its objective. It goes beyond merely summarising the commission’s reports and places the crucial findings in their proper contexts. This approach grants readers a deeper understanding of the commission’s investigative journey and its ultimate conclusions.
It plays a vital role in illustrating the variables necessary for state corruption to flourish within the halls of power.
The Zondo Commission, spanning four years, stands as a pioneering national inquiry that left no stone unturned in its relentless pursuit of corruption. This unwavering dedication resulted in 19 volumes and 4,750 pages of consolidated findings.
In digital format, the testimony, evidence, recordings and hearings amassed an astonishing one petabyte of data, equivalent to a staggering 8km of information.
This vast amount of evidence, like much vital public information, is often inaccessible to the public, preventing understanding and engagement.
Holden’s book recognises the potential tragedy of the commission’s findings going uninterrogated and presents itself as a bridge between civil society and the detailed reports.
The book is divided into distinct sections, each dedicated to a specific theme explored by the commission.
Holden clarifies the commission’s terms of reference and provides vivid accounts of the incidents under investigation. With a focus on unravelling the tentacles of the Gupta Enterprise, the book meticulously outlines the state capture project’s reach across state-owned enterprises, the Free State municipalities, state ministries, and notable ministers, as well as the involvement of private sector players.
One of the book’s strengths lies in weaving the complexities of corruption into the fabric of a compelling narrative.
It introduces a cast of villains and heroes, defeats, and triumphs, breathing life into a convoluted web of crime, shaping it into an epic tale of our nation.
For this reviewer, the pages turned relentlessly, unveiling a twisted ensemble of power abuses and misappropriated funds, demanding close attention. Despite this challenging task, the book excels in demonstrating the patterns underlying the abuse of power.
After several chapters, readers will subconsciously recognise a checklist: a captured minister, a corrupt board, unscrupulous contracts, and the ousting of skilled and ethical professionals — all crucial steps in the process of abuse.
Throughout various state institutions, those tasked with safeguarding the public’s interests willingly aligned themselves with the select few, co-opting their offices for personal gain. Holden’s book provides a comprehensive account of how this pattern unfolded in institutions such as Transnet, SARS, SSA, Eskom, Denel, SABC, Alexkor, PRASA, and the Free State municipalities.
By adding essential context, it offers a lens through which we can better comprehend the vulnerability of state institutions to corruption.
Another notable strength of the book is its design, allowing for intermittent reading and navigation in any desired order. Each section focuses on a specific theme, enabling readers to return to the book or skip ahead to their area of interest.
Despite Holden’s commendable efforts, the story of state capture, as depicted in his book, remains a murky pool to wade through. Most South Africans find themselves outside the centres of power, lacking access to vital knowledge concerning procurement, tenders, boards, and shell companies.
As a result, they struggle to connect the dots of state plundering. However, this limitation is not the fault of Holden’s book. Discussing corruption on a scale of billions is inherently challenging for most people to grasp. Investigative journalism continues to grapple with finding effective means of presenting corruption and fraud to readers.
Holden’s book acknowledges these difficulties and takes great care to express its own limitations, urging readers to consult additional resources.
Holden even provides a dedicated website for the book, featuring helpful reading guides, a chapter-by-chapter timeline, and an extensive list of characters. A further critique of the book is its limited analysis of the commission’s findings and their implications.
The discussion surrounding the changes the commission recommends for procurement processes and legislation related to corruption is relatively brief. Similarly, there is little exploration of the impact that looting totaling R57bn has on the lives of ordinary South Africans seeking employment, reliable service delivery, and a liveable wage. This reviewer would have appreciated deeper insights into these areas. However, it is worth noting that delving extensively into these topics would have resulted in a book rivalling the thousands of pages produced by the commission — an outcome Holden aimed to avoid.
Undoubtedly, in the years to come, Holden’s work will serve as a catalyst for further investigation, inspiring writers, researchers, and journalists as the country endeavours to pursue justice and stabilise state enterprises and ministries.
Holden’s book stands as an invaluable national resource, laying the foundation for more insightful books that will shed light on the tumultuous last decade of SA history.
This reviewer fervently hopes for a future where a multitude of books grapple with the complexities of corruption, empowering the nation to forge a brighter path forward.
Zondo at your Fingertips by Paul Holden’s is published by Jacana Media and retails for R380.