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Towards understanding ANC corruption in South Africa

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Towards understanding ANC corruption in South Africa

Ebrahim Harvey

17th August 2020

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Polity

What has really happened to account for Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the reigning but fatally troubled and compromised ruling party in South Africa, the African National Congress, rapidly sliding into arguably one of the most corrupt regimes in both Africa and the wider world? Just to pose this key and critical question in this stark manner I had never thought - as strongly critical as I have always been of the ANC after it took office in 1994 in our then much-heralded ‘miracle’ democracy, the last country in Africa to win its freedom from decades and in fact centuries of white racist brutality, domination, oppression and exploitation - I would one day do.

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But that is the measure of how bad, debilitating and damaging the current allegations of corruption are that stalk a country that was already in a deep, multifaceted and growing crisis before the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, whose impact has, like never before, both reflected and amplified the entrenched historical cleavages of race, class and gender. In other words, the utterly devastating socioeconomic impact of what is known as Covid-19 has tragically served to deepen and exacerbate every major division that has for very long existed in this country, especially from the time of the mineral revolution of the 19th century.

I argue that at no previous dire moment in post-apartheid history, of which there have most unfortunately been a few since 1994, has the ANC been more graphically and tragically exposed for corruption than now, at arguably the most crisis-ridden time in our entire history. A distinguishing feature of the current situation, triggered by this global pandemic, is the simultaneous convergence of several major crises which have been brewing for the last few years, namely the economic, social, environmental and political crises.  The current devastating magnitude of corruption must be seen against that background.

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At the specific political level, I trace the avalanche of current corruption cases mainly, but not only, to the consequences of the 8-year rule of former president, Jacob Zuma, and his links to the notoriously corrupt Gupta family. It is against this background that the current corruption cases and allegations ravaging the ANC-led government and all spheres of the state and public sector in South Africa are thrown into sharp relief and I argue must be seen.  

But by far most of the commentaries and analyses of corruption in the media reflect a lack of understanding of what I will call its political economy. In other words, corruption cannot be understood outside of the 1990s democratic transition, the nature of the fundamental compromises the ANC made then, the adoption of the twin policies of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and Affirmative Action, the commercialisation, corporatisation and commodification of basic services in black townships and its long-term consequences for the country and in fact for its own members and supporters, whose interests and needs were in the process sacrificed. In other words, and I could write at great length about this phenomenon, current corruption is, I insist, systemic.  

That is why we have seen an increase in corruption cases over the past decade, in almost inverse proportion to the enrichment of the ruling elite, both economic and political, on the one hand, and on the other the perpetuation and in some respects worsening of the social and material conditions of the ANC’s own historical constituency, the black working-class majority, such as in the crucial area of water and sanitation services, in black townships.

Those existing social cleavages have been deepened, worsened and multiplied by the devastating impact of Covid-19, now graphically and tragically manifest in black townships across South Africa. Tragic because it is within that already worsening socioeconomic crisis of the past decade, largely the consequences of the neoliberal polices the ANC adopted, that the current round of corruption allegations linked to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic has occurred, at the centre of which are presidential spokesperson, Khusela Diko, and Gauteng Health MEC, Bandile Masuku. Both of them have been suspended pending the outcome of investigations. There have also been allegations against two of the sons of ANC secretary-general, Ace Magashule. This is not the first time that family members of ANC leaders have been implicated in allegations of corruption. There have been many such stories in the media over the years.

But the systemic corruption I refer to has not just happened over the past few years. No, I argue that a detailed investigation since 1994 will unmistakably show that corruption has been endemic and growing at the heart of the ANC-led and controlled state since then and that the notorious and still unresolved ‘Arms Deal’ of 1999 was where it first raised its ugly head. This background is essential not only to an understanding of post-apartheid corruption but also thereby to the kind of changes that will be required to combat and eliminate it in our society. This is not in the least to suggest or imply that there was no corruption under apartheid. No, there was much but that is I argue of a wholly different order.   

However, what is crucial to understanding both the nature and gravity of present corruption is that which is directly linked to combatting Covid-19, such as the tenders for the procurement of personal protection equipment (PPE). As a result, President Cyril Ramaphosa is under huge pressure to answer the increasing corruption allegations of funds allocated to combat the epidemic. This comes hot on the heels of the evident corruption that has struck the R500-billion Covid-19 stimulus package he announced in April in order to assist in job creation in the aftermath of the 3-million reported job losses over the past few months and to assist small and medium enterprises which have been hardest hit by the impact of the pandemic and the stringent Covid-19 regulations to combat it. 

In his weekly newsletter last week Ramaphosa said that attempts ‘’to profit from a disaster that is claiming the lives of our people every day is the action of scavengers. It is like a pack of hyenas circling wounded prey.’’ Importantly, he furthermore asserted, but with a cynical irony, that “They have opened up the wounds of the state capture era, where senior figures in society seemed to get away with corruption on a grand scale.’’ But this is precisely what many in the media have sharply pointed out for years: that senior ANC officials in government and the state-owned enterprises who were evidently involved in corruption were not charged and in fact that many of them continue to hold high office in Ramaphosa’s cabinet, elsewhere in government or in state-owned enterprises.  

It is this situation which has led many to seriously question what had happened to the very strong anti-corruption moral crusade with which Ramaphosa took over from the corruption-ravaged administration of former president, Jacob Zuma, in February 2019. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, his biggest supporter for the presidency of the ANC and the country last week argued that ‘’the dysfunction and feebleness of his administration in the face of this crisis is alarming.’’ They added: ‘’The ANC under his leadership continues to be seen as a rent-seeking, unaccountable caste. The president needs to act decisively and prove that his administration is not a powerless scarecrow with rubber teeth.’’

But it is much easier to point to this irrefutable fact than to recognise and understand why it is that Ramaphosa’s commitment has been eroded where it in the final analysis matters most: taking firm and irreconcilable steps against serious allegations corruption inside the ANC government. The most plausible and in fact obvious reason for this apparent paralysis of Ramaphosa to act decisively against corruption is the ANC’s patronage-wrecked cadre deployment policy. This is the real source I believe of most of the corruption in the ANC government.

The central problem is that Ramaphosa’s narrow presidential electoral victory in 2017 came at a high price: the ANC-led state he leads is very delicately balanced between his supporters and those who worked hard for the victory of his opponent, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. So delicately balanced is power in the ANC that he is afraid that to act decisively will jeopardise his presidency of both the ANC and the country and lead to his loss of power. But until he translates the strong anti-corruption principles he came to office with into firm and decisive action against corruption inside the ANC he will justifiably be accused not only of betraying his pledges but of dilly-dallying in the face of it. Further, he is in fact strengthening those forces, said widely to be represented by Ace Magashule, ANC secretary-general, who it is known has a close relationship with Zuma, and who probably are eager to see Ramaphosa replaced as president of the ANC and country. The point however is that by not acting against those forces he is effectively not only strengthening their hand and weakening his own and that of his supporters but weakening objectively the fight against corruption in the state.         

However, most commentators are underestimating the seriously systemic nature of the corruption problems Ramaphosa and the country are facing now, the most important example of which is the undeniable fact that BEE-related businesses have for long been the vehicle for most of the unearthed corruption over the past decade. Besides, the tentacles of corruption have virtually stretched into every nook and cranny of the South African state, in fact including the criminal justice system itself. Only last week the head of the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions, Shamila Batohi, argued that she was faced with dilatory tactics in the prosecution of credible cases of corruption. I have absolutely no doubt that it is the ANC ultimately behind these tactics.  

We are sitting with a very serious situation in this country and in this regard, I concur with Carol Paton who last week painted a very bleak picture of corruption in the ANC: "The state is drowning in corruption at present. The ANC has institutionalised corruption in so many ways it will be impossible to eradicate it" and "It is built into the system in both the state and the ANC and Ramaphosa is helpless when it comes to reforming either of those." She argued, correctly I believe, that ‘’corruption has even seeped into the criminal justice system’’ and has ‘’permeated the state in many ways.’’

In fact, if we look at what has happened to the R500-billion earmarked in April to stimulate an economy in its deepest crisis in decades, much of which is unaccounted for, and the clear corruption involved in the specific allocation of Covid-19 funds to combat the virus it is clear that not only are Paton’s fears justified but we must be anxiously concerned with what’s going to happen to the R70-billion SA has borrowed from the IMF for Covid19 relief recently.  

The unprecedented gravity of the multifaceted crisis today and the deplorable lack of the most elementary social justice demands that we both pose and find answers to what has happened in this country since 1994. In this regard, what message did the fact some prominent ANC leaders, such as  Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale, who became multibillionaires in a short space of time thanks to the elitist nature of both BEE policies and the political settlement in the 1990s, send to ANC members lower down the hierarchy of leadership, such as township councillors, and the rest of its impoverished members and supporters in the townships?

And what message did the late Smuts Ngonyama, then spokesperson for the ANC, send to ANC members when he said "I did not struggle to be poor" when he was asked about the many millions he made in a Telkom BEE share scheme after the sale of the government’s shares? I argue that there are plausible links between the corruption that has become rampant in the state and that earlier history.

Written by Ebrahim Harvey, political writer, author and commentator

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