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Up sh*t creek without a paddle: Cuffing all of the corrupt could leave South Africans adrift in a rudderless ship

28 August 2020 Gareth Stokes

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 23 August 2020 letter to his comrades in the African National Congress (ANC) could be a harbinger of change in domestic politics; but it might not be the change that South Africa needs. Imagine, if you will, the outcome of the corruption debate that is likely to dominate the ANC’s next National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting, scheduled for Saturday, 29 August. One might predict the outcome of this meeting with a coin toss: Heads, those present give the President their half-hearted support to stamp out corruption within the party and public sector; tails, they embark on the process of another presidential substitution.

A human tragedy curveball

In the opening paragraphs of his letter, Ramaphosa observed that the scourge of corruption was the greatest challenge faced by the ANC and the country since democracy. The people, he wrote, are full of “anger and disillusionment” at reports of corruption linked to government projects in response to the coronavirus pandemic. He appealed to individual ANC members to acknowledge that the ANC was “deeply implicated in South Africa’s corruption problem”. There is some sadness that it took the human tragedy associated with pandemic to move someone in leadership to finally take a stance against the flagrant abuses that have become a part of our lives. 

What message should ordinary citizens take from the sudden condemnation of fraud, jobs for pals, kickbacks, patronage, price gouging, tender fixing and blatant theft? Are we to understand that corruption is tolerated as long as you do not snatch the money from a sickly adult or starving child? The outrage, wrote our President, is with the fact that perpetrators “exploited a grave medical, social and economic crisis to wrongfully enrich themselves”. He is correct about the outrage; but he does not realise that this outrage has been bubbling below the surface for decades. It took the ugliness of pilfering of funds that were purposed towards saving lives for this outrage to become visible. 

The social consequences of corruption

The people, and we include all South Africans under this descriptor, have long understood that all corrupt activities have social consequences; we appreciate that such consequences are magnified hundredfold when state expenditure is diverted; and are painfully aware of how much money has been diverted over the years. Ramaphosa shared his thoughts on the extent of the problem during a question and answer session at the Financial Times Africa Summit held in London late 2019. He was quoted on the SABC: “The money that was siphoned from the coffers of the State through corrupt means runs way beyond, in my view, R500 billion; some have even suggested that it could be a R1 trillion”. Assuming you put in a corrupt tender for an RDP house, and charge government R200 000 for each one, you could build 5 million structures for his higher estimate. 

The extent of corruption has been neatly described in countless articles and books, published by a handful of dedicated investigative journalists over the past decades. Long suffering taxpayers have been subject to one scandal after the next, from the arms deal, to Nkandla, to PRASA locomotives, and dozens of state capture incidents. Allegations have been levelled at hundreds of high profile businesspersons and politicians, whose names have been mentioned during testimonies at state-funded commissions of enquiry and inked into the pages of hundreds of special investigation reports. 

This carnage was quite expected, explained Ramaphosa: “For more than 26 years, the ANC has been in government at a national level and in most provinces and municipalities; leadership positions in the ANC have been seen by some as the most direct route to, in the first instance, employment and, in the second instance, to influence in the award of tenders and the distribution of other government resources”.  He added that to fix the mess required that “every cadre accused of, or reported to be involved in, corrupt practices account to the Integrity Commission or face disciplinary processes” and that those “who failed to give an acceptable explanation, or to voluntarily step down while they face disciplinary, investigative or prosecutorial procedures, be summarily suspended”. The people, again maligned, would prefer that these processes unfold in the country’s judicial system. 

Who will be left to steer the ship?

Which brings us to a question that few have wrestled with, namely: What happens if the ANC NEC seriously considers calls for all corruption accused to be removed in one go? Readers who have some spare time may enjoy poring over a group photo of the country’s 400 members of Parliament, and then scribble over any faces that have had allegations of corruption levelled against them. Given the ANC’s penchant for reappointing those who are tainted by such accusations, you might keep a spare pen handy. A similar experience awaits when considering the beaming boards and senior executives at government departments, SOEs, and a wide range of chapter nine institutions. It will be impossible to follow through on a threat to dismiss or suspend all corruption accused on the basis that management structures countrywide will be left inoperative. 

The question is probably moot given the composition of the NEC. In fact, we recently perused a Zapiro cartoon that addressed exactly this issue. His cartoon depicts a pair of hyenas chewing down on a carcass labelled ‘the body politic’. The first hyena asks: “Seriously, the party is probing wrongdoing by members?” And the second responds: “Relax, guess who has been tasked with deciding who to investigate”. Off to the right we find a third hyena, ace in pocket and steak in hand, pointing a telescope away from the feasting. Which reintroduces our opening concern that the incumbent President may have overstepped. 

An analysis by Carien du Plessis, published by Daily Maverick under the headline ‘Anti-corruption campaign could backfire at NEC gathering’, echoes this concern. Du Plessis’ explains that Ramaphosa, who was elected by the narrowest of margins during the party’s 2017 elective conference, cannot count on all within the NEC to see things his way. She writes that he and Ace Magashule “have been at odds since 2017, [especially] on policy resolutions about matters like land redistribution and the status of the Reserve Bank”. Some shots have already been fired by ex-ANC Youth League leader, Andile Lungisa, who has called for ANC officials to investigate Ramaphosa ahead of NEC meeting. This call, which centres on the President’s ANC election fundraising efforts, was echoed by others. There is some irony in the fact Lungisa, who faces a possible jail sentence for the assault of a fellow councillor, is presently suspended. 

Be careful what you wish for

Ramaphosa pulled few punches in his scathing letter. “The progress that our nation has made in improving the lives of our people in the last quarter century is being eroded by corruption and patronage”, he wrote. “The ANC may not stand alone in the dock; but it does stand as Accused No. 1”. But Magashule may yet have the last laugh. According to Du Plessis he recently identified those who should step aside from their positions to include “those accused of corruption and other serious crimes against the people, including those charged in courts”. If the NEC proceeds on this basis then Ramaphosa may find himself on the long list of ANC members who have been accused, internally or externally, of having something to hide.

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