Final Word

Zupta capture in dictionary


South Africa’s word of the year, state capture, is setting some records. For one, it has not even made it in to any reputable English dictionary yet.

Yes, that’s right, if you pull your latest edition of the Oxford- Webster-, or South African Pharos dictionary off the shelf (or visit its website), hoping to find a definition, or a translation of state capture, you are going to be disappointed.

The dictionaries have not yet caught up with the term launched by ex-Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, in her report on the corrupt relationship between President Jacob’s administration and the Gupta family. The report was titled “State of capture.

State capture was last week announced by the South African Language Board (PanSALB) as the country’s word of the year for 2017, beating both White Monopoly Capital and Blesser, which both also made it to the word of the year short list.  

The winning word/term, state capture, was used more than 20 000 times in over 11 000 South African newspapers.

When we did some research on the phrase after the announcement was made, very few reference to it was to be found on the websites of reputable Dictionaries. We found it, for instance on the Collins website only as a “New Word Suggestion” for describing “the efforts of a small number of firms (or such actors as the military, ethnic groups, and kleptocratic politicians) to use the state to their advantage through illicit, non-transparent provision of private gains to public officials.”

First use?

According to Wikipedia the word/term was first used by the World Bank in 2 000 “to describe the situation in central Asian countries making the transition from Soviet communism. Specifically, it was applied to situations where small corrupt groups used their influence over government officials to appropriate government decision making in order to strengthen their own economic positions; these groups would later become known as oligarchs.”

However, we could not find collaborating information that, that was indeed the first time the term was used. And, the notion or concept of what we now call state capture, goes back at least half a century, or more.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, during the “second half of the 20th century, the concept of state capture was used in the early critique of “the pluralist theoretical framework in political science.” According to pluralism, a multiplicity of interest groups prevents any particular group from being dominant.

"However, the counterargument was that interest groups are not equally endowed with resources. Many commentators argued that business represents a very strong power system – far stronger than any other social group or institution – that challenges and threatens to dominate public power.”

The particular Britannica article states that the term capture “describes how public bureaucracies had become dominated by strong and powerful interest groups. In a context characterized by a complex multitude of interest groups, the bureaucrats tend to deal with the best-organized groups as a way of reducing complexity.”

South African version

However, in an IMF research paper published in late 2001, dealing with “the challenge of state capture in transition economies, highlights that big corporations are not necessarily the ones to watch. In what looks very much the Gupta-type South African experience, the researchers amongst other, write: “Surprisingly, captor firms are more likely to be new entrants to the market (of economies in transition). Indeed, the data suggest an interesting and counterintuitive answer to the question of why firms engage in state capture”; and

“In high-capture economies, some types of foreign investors—those with local partners and domestic headquarters – are nearly twice as likely to engage in state capture as domestically owned firms.”

Root of capture

The word capture, on its own, made its way into English toward the middle of the 16th century from Middle French (capture, meaning ‘a taking’) from the Latin word captūra, also meaning “a taking,” but especially referring to animals, from captus, which is the past participle of capere ("to take, hold or seize").

In our modern dictionaries, capture has become recognised in a number of other contexts, like in the capturing of data, as on computers, and capturing the atmosphere, as in, of a solemn occasion.

Now, on the back of what has been happening in South Africa over the past year, the capture of state capture in dictionaries might become part of the Zupta legacy.

Final word

For some of those protesting the loudest about state capture in South Africa, especially from organised business, and from politics we want to give a quotation from a Vladimir Putin meeting with Russian business leaders in 2000 to ponder: "I only want to draw your attention straightaway to the fact that you have yourselves formed this very state, to a large extent through political and quasi-political structures under your control. So perhaps what one should do, least of all, is blame the mirror."

by Piet Coetzer

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