The rule of law here and everywhere is a fragile instrument. It is capable of capture by ruthless politicians

There is one book every South African, except perhaps Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, should read.
Red Notice — How I became Putin‘s No.1 Enemy by Bill Browder has, as the title suggests, nothing to do with South Africa. But in many ways it is a cautionary tale that every freedom-loving local should turn to as a reminder of what happens when the rule of law is replaced by the rule of men.

Perhaps President Jacob Zuma‘s affection for Russia‘s authoritarian president and his nuclear goodies is another reason to read this incredibly scary real-life thriller.

But should Madonsela pick up a copy, she might have sleepless nights.

She will be disconcerted to discover that, when the rule of law is upended by those in power, innocent people in high positions get bumped off to hide the massive abuses done to the taxpayer.

A report in the latest Sunday Times revealed that Madonsela is “living in fear for her life” since she received credible information that she was the target of a “revenge hit” and that R740 000 had been paid to kill her by way of a motor car “accident”.

On the same weekend, Madonsela was harshly criticised by Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, a convicted criminal in 2006 (she pleaded guilty to fraud involving an amount of R254 000), for “politicising” her office.

Well, since the job of the public protector is to investigate politicians this is, at best, bizarre question-begging. At worst, it suggests something more sinister and plays into a much darker narrative.

State players in this drama include the State Security Agency, which is still investigating whether Madonsela is a “spy”, and the egregious runaway cook-cum- deputy defence minister Kebby Maphatsoe who has already declared that she is in the pay of the CIA.

This noxious brew relates directly to the far worse tale told in breathtaking detail by Browder in his lid-lifting story of the dark arts practised by Putin and his apparatchiks against his enemies.

Browder started off life with all the attributes needed to make a fortune in Russia, which he duly did.

And for 10 years until 2006, his fund — Hermitage Capital Management — was the largest foreign investor in the country and he personally pocketed north of £300-million in the process.

In the freewheeling capitalism and mass privatisation that marked Moscow‘s entrance into the global market after the fall of communism in 1990, Browder had three things on his side.

First, he inherited what we would term “struggle credentials”. American-born Browder‘s grandfather Earl was the leader of the US Communist Party and contested elections under its banner for the American presidency in the 1930s.

Though his goal was to be an arch capitalist, Earl had left him with a name that was greatly respected in Communist circles.

Second, he inherited both his father‘s rebellious nature and his smarts (the elder Browder was a mathematical genius).

Third, he understood markets, and, with a Stanford MBA and a background in banking he could read with accuracy, almost alone among his peers, that assets in Russian companies were vastly undervalued and were going for a song.

He went to live in Moscow, put his intuition into practice and hit pay dirt.

But, in 2007, after butting heads with Putin‘s cronies in the companies in which he was heavily invested, it all went wrong.

Because Putin and his circle effectively controlled the police, the judiciary and the tax authorities, it was relatively easy for this vast apparatus to hit Browder hard.

He and his company were accused of acting for foreign agencies, being spies, and for committing “crimes against the state”.

Hermitage and Browder became victims of what he terms “state corporate raiding”: about $230-million paid by his companies in taxes was effectively stolen by state officials and Browder was arrested at the airport and banned from Russia.

But, when he tried to enforce his rights, the real trouble began.

After his lawyers‘ offices were raided, he persuaded all his legal advisers and other company officials to leave Russia for the safety of London.

One of them, a young tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whom Browder describes as “the bravest man I‘ve ever known” refused to flee.

He declared his faith in the legal system.

Magnitsky was arrested on trumped-up charges and placed in the most horrific conditions of detention.

Though he fell severely ill, the authorities refused him all medical treatment and were determined to turn him against Browder.

Magnitsky refused to lie.

He told his tormentors “I‘m here because I‘ve exposed [how $230-million was] stolen by law-enforcement officials.”

On November 16 2009, he was beaten to death in his cell by eight guards in riot gear, while he was handcuffed to a bedrail.

The state then concocted a fantastic cover-up story until the truth seeped out.

This single horrifying event and the incredible steps leading up to it are the focus of the book.

It also converted multimillionaire Browder into a human-rights crusader.

His achievement in persuading the US Congress and European Parliament to enact legislation targeting the state conspirators who effectively murdered Magnitsky is every bit as enthralling as the state-sponsored theft and cover-ups revealed in the book.

Before you breathe a sigh of relief and say it couldn‘t happen here or correctly infer that “state capture” in South Africa as it currently stands is an amateur affair compared to Russia, think again.

The rule of law here and everywhere is a fragile instrument. It is capable of capture anywhere by ruthless politicians determined to use the state and its resources for personal gain rather than community upliftment.

We obviously do not know who is behind the alleged hit ordered on the public protector. It might be the stuff of fantasy by an unreliable whistle-blower.

Or, as Lord Denning, the former top judicial officer in Britain once remarked, you might think that “the arm of coincidence is long but it does not stretch unto infinity”.

Liberty and the freedom of the individual against the will of the most powerful is one of the key instruments of our own constitution whose enactment 20 years ago we marked on the weekend.

Worth reminding ourselves, then, of its oft-quoted price: eternal vigilance.

This article first appeared in The Times