South African President Jacob Zuma resigned in February over the biggest corruption scandal since the end of apartheid, which involved both the president and his son. Zuma’s exit became inevitable last June, after the publication of thousands of confidential documents revealing that the Gupta family, owners of a major business empire in South Africa, wielded influence at the highest levels of government—even over the appointment of ministers—in return for favors.
Just before Zuma stepped down, when the media were speculating how the African National Congress (ANC) would respond, I met Bianca Goodson, 32, and Mosilo Mothepu, 39, in Johannesburg. They belong to the multiracial middle class that once believed economic growth and democracy would solve their country’s problems. Both were at university in Johannesburg, their careers progressed rapidly, and by 2014 they were, respectively, the CEOs of Trillian Management Consulting and Trillian Financial Advisory, subsidiaries of Trillian Capital, a consulting group then owned by Salim Essa, a close associate of the Guptas.
Goodson and Mothepu discovered separately that their firms were part of a network of influence peddling, with members of the Gupta family, politicians, and directors of major state-owned enterprises involved in illegal acquisition of businesses, contracts awarded without tenders, illicit transfers of funds, and nepotism in key appointments. Goodson said: “I alerted the directors, several times. But when they failed to respond, or even told me to look the other way, I felt I had to take action.” In 2016 both women decided to resign and go public on part of what they had uncovered.
As they labored to collect evidence, hire lawyers, and pay legal bills, they faced accusations of libel, threats, pressure from their superiors in the group, and criticism from friends and family. They also had to manage relations with the media and deal with unwelcome publicity, with no guarantee that the courts would ever validate their allegations. Later in 2016, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela received documents relating to the cases, and, despite pressure from the highest levels of government, published a harshly critical document that came to be known as the “state capture” report. The media were quick to adopt this name to describe the distortion of public-service missions and misappropriation of public funds for private profit.
“I have to go on, and it’s not easy”
National and foreign media hailed the women’s courage and public spirit, but they paid a heavy price. They sounded weary: “My whole professional and personal life was destroyed,” said Mothepu. “I have to go on, and it’s not easy. All I did was tell the truth, but now I can’t hope for a job with any real responsibility in a big company.” Goodson said: “The hardest thing is to see everything I believed in go up in smoke—fairness and honesty, or at least integrity and transparency in business.” In October 2017, as the “Gupta leaks” began to appear in the media, Mothepu agreed to testify before parliament. It was the beginning of the end for Zuma.