Fierce journalism takes on the mafia state

Lansky and Zuma

Where do gangsters go when the law comes after them and they run out of options? American mobster Meyer Lansky tried to flee to Israel. President Jacob Zuma, after turning South Africa into a mafia state, may look northwards to Dubai

IS ESCAPE possible for President Jacob Zuma from the mafia state he has created with the Guptas in South Africa? If he flees to the Dubai mansion he reportedly owns to evade prosecution for corruption – as some people predict – he will probably be allowed in. But high-profile crooks don’t always find refuge. A famous case is American Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky who tried immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return.

Lansky and ‘Bugsy’ Siegel were central 20th century Jewish mobsters, involved in bootlegging, extortion, murder and gambling. They helped build the National Crime Syndicate in the 1930s and ‘40s, a partnership between Italian and Jewish organised crime. Founding members included Al Capone, Frank Costello and Dutch Schultz. As a Jew, Lansky couldn’t be part of the Italian-American Mafia, but worked with members such as Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Police and government officials were routinely bribed.

During World War Two, in 1941, Luciano was imprisoned for racketeering. Lansky helped free him through a deal with the government: The New York Mafia, which controlled docks and shipyards, would report and thwart suspected Nazi sabotage.

In 1970 the government charged Lansky for tax evasion. In 1972, he sought to immigrate to Israel under its Law of Return, but his application was denied because of his criminal past. Israel said the Law of Return doesn’t apply to Jews with criminal histories.

It might seem extreme to compare Zuma and the Guptas to American mobsters. But excellent investigative journalism by amaBhungane and Daily Maverick’s new unit Scorpio, which has exposed South Africa’s mafia state through 100 000 to 200 000 leaked emails, shows the Guptas run the country at the highest level. The harm done to the population and economy by their looting is just as criminal, even if blood is not spilt in quite the same way.

The journalists say they have carefully protected whistle-blowers, stressing: “This information is both too dangerous and too important not to share.”

This South African mafia may yet act against journalists through intimidation and violence. They have attempted control of media. In January 2016 the Guptas considered buying the Mail & Guardian, an avid critic, to add to their puppet outlets, television channel ANN7 and The New Age paper. Former chief executive of Gupta company Oakbay, Nazeem Howa, said in an email to one of the Guptas, “[The M&G claims that Zuma] is corrupt and should be relieved of his responsibility” and that the family has become “pawns in their strategy to unseat the President.”

South Africa’s strong civil society is increasingly opposing state capture, but is fragmented. The Zuma-Gupta mafia state, however – just like Lansky’s erstwhile American mobster network – is sharply focused. Zuma is like a wounded animal and his fightback will be dirty. “You don’t want to see the real Jacob Zuma” he reportedly said during an outburst at the recent NEC meeting of the ANC, threatening members not to “push me too far”.

Real journalism – the hard slog of uncovering and checking facts, and balanced reporting – is a craft, not a science. Skillful as its practitioners may be, crooks will exploit rough edges to protect themselves. Zuma already claims to be victim to a media campaign.

We are justified in being despondent about South Africa’s situation. But we must celebrate its independent, aggressive media.

Veteran Italian journalist Vittorio Zucconi of the Italian newspaper La Republica wrote about how Italy’s government tried in vain to sanitise the media for its nefarious ends after World War Two. But information is like water, he said: “You can try and channel and contain it as much as you want, but unless you find a way to dry it up entirely, it will find its way through the cracks.”

The South African mafia can’t plug those cracks. Dubai may be their only escape.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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