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On a coalition course? South Africa’s lament: Corruption & maladministration look set to outlast coronavirus

31 July 2020 Gareth Stokes

The proof that a constitutional democracy can fail its citizenry is all around us. South Africa circa 2020 is an unruly mess; overseen by a cohort of cabinet ministers who typically place narrow self-interests and party political agendas ahead of the people they serve (sic). For long-suffering voters, the central themes of corruption and rule-by-decree are stronger today, in the middle of arguably the worst socioeconomic crisis the world has experienced, than ever. Those blindly praising the kingpins in our inappropriately-named National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) should take a moment to reflect.

A stretcher-case economy

My weekly musings tend to focus on economic matters rather than politics; but my attention was recently drawn to the world of cabinet, opposition parties, and the public sector by the latest instalment in PSG Group’s ‘Think Big’ webinar series. This episode, which was broadcast on 28 July 2020, featured businessman-turned-politician, Herman Mashaba, in conversation with financial journalist Bruce Whitfield. It was an unstructured debate that delved into business, history, politics, and society against the backdrop of the broken country we live in. “The South African economy was already on a stretcher, waiting to be rolled into the ICU, when we were hit by coronavirus,” lamented Mashaba, who offered some frank assessments of how we reached that point. 

We can add some context to this piece by reflecting on the clear biases displayed by Mashaba during the open discussion. First off, he hates the ruling African National Party (ANC) for what it has delivered to the people of South Africa over 26 years. Second, he hates crime, corruption, and the criminal elements behind these ills. Third, he holds not lover for his previous political home, the Democratic Alliance (DA). And fourth, he speaks no ill of the country’s second largest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Before you accuse me of sensationalism, consider Mashaba’s opening remark. “When I signed up for the job [as mayor of Johannesburg] my number one priority was to unseat the ANC,” he said. “You do not need a mind like Albert Einstein’s to know the ANC will collapse South Africa”. 

Undone by patronage networks

Mashaba told Whitfield that he was unprepared for the extent to which incumbents in public office would go to protect corruption and maladministration within their ranks. “I took over an administration that was dominated by a patronage network, where people occupied senior positions not because of what they knew; but rather because of who they knew,” said Mashaba. There is nothing new in his accusation, with similar observations contained in virtually every newspaper exposé or commission of inquiry into failings in the public sector, whether at local or national government departments or at state owned entities (SOEs). Mashaba further suggested that the ANC had masterfully leveraged the regulatory environment, we assume he meant the instruments of Parliament, to infiltrate important institutions and organisations countrywide. 

It was one of these crazy pro-patronage moves, made by then-president Jacob Zuma, that finally convinced Mashaba to throw his hat in with the DA’s City of Johannesburg mayoral bid. “The firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was the final blow; that is when I said to Michael Moriarty and the DA that I was ready,” he said. Late 2015 South Africa made international news for the bizarre ‘three finance ministers in four days’ power struggle that played out between powerful ANC NEC members, with input from high-powered business interests. To refresh your memories: We lived through the shock 9 December 2015 substitution of Nene for a relative unknown, David (Des) van Rooyen, and his rapid removal and replacement by Pravin Gordhan on 13 December. 

“Going to work, was like going to war”

With hindsight, Mashaba must be wishing he had never accepted the role. He conceded that stepping up as mayor of Johannesburg was the most punishing job he had ever taken on. No surprise there; because he stepped blindly into the snake pit of coalition politics, with the walls dripping with a range of toxic side issues, whether imagined or true. Administering a complex city took a back seat to issues such as crime, corruption, inequality, labour law, patronage, race, and transformation, to name a few. South Africans are quite familiar with these side issues; but we have yet to realise that our narrow obsession with them is part of what prevents us from reaching our full potential. 

It became clear, early on, that the various participants in Johannesburg’s coalition government were more concerned with political point-scoring than serving the people of the city. This observation warrants a discussion of its own; but it is worth noting that Mashaba was hamstrung by the DA’s tenuous grip on control, whether he admits it or not. “The EFF were not easy partners; but they were supportive,” he said. “The ANC were determined, on a daily basis, to get rid of me by any means”. There is some irony in the fact that Mashaba’s fallout with his party, the DA, developed from its inability to separate party from state. He alleges that certain DA constituencies were unhappy with the pro-poor policies being implemented ‘on the ground’. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

Clawing back from the abyss

Whitfield tried enthusiastically to get Mashaba to share some thoughts on rebuilding South Africa Inc to better serve its 57 million citizens. “Business operates within a framework designed by government,” said Mashaba, suggesting that the private sector’s hands were tied by the current NCCC and its regulatory decree: “It is time for business to remind the president that we need commercial activity … if you are not going to open the economy, you risk killing more people [and] the daily coronavirus stats will pale in comparison to the children [who’s lives] are being destroyed on a daily basis”. If PSG and Whitfield were hoping for some words of encouragement, a suggestion of a roadmap to pull the country from the current socioeconomic abyss, they were no doubt sorely disappointed. 

An ill thought that took hold while listening to this webinar was that the billions of dollars in international funding secured by government to assist South Africa through pandemic will be misspent. There are countless allegations already surfacing of outrageous overpricing on PPE tenders. And even if the money is appropriately spent, it is unlikely to stretch beyond the three to six months during which the economy is locked down. What happens afterwards is anyone’s guess. Mashaba, perhaps, has a better grasp of the situation than we hope. “Our economy is like a patient already in the ICU; but we do not have the surgeons to keep us alive,” he concluded. “The country needs a medical team supported by economists, because it is all well and good to leave ICU only to find that there is no food, and face death by starvation”.

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