Apartheid depravities are no excuse for current corruption - Business Day 7 April 2014

One reason why financial corruption under African National Congress (ANC) rule has become systemic is that it was not strangled at birth. And we won't stop it by deploying the red herring that current problems are merely hangovers from the apartheid past, as some commentators do.

By John Kane-Berman

Although it is 15 years since the $4 billion arms deal was announced, the chances we will get the truth about it are now a mirage. Presumptions of innocence must apply, of course. But there was nothing innocent about the artillery deployed to thwart the investigation launched by the parliamentary standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) under the leadership of Gavin Woods and Andrew Feinstein.

President Thabo Mbeki and his deputy, Jacob Zuma, six cabinet ministers, and the Speaker weighed in to block the proposed probe. Three official watchdogs - auditor general, public protector, and national director of public prosecutions – were then deployed to a "joint investigating team" which produced what Dr Woods called "a seriously incomplete" report, which the Cabinet doctored.

The kind of character assassination that has been launched against the present public protector, Thuli Madonsela, was also launched against Willem Heath, the judge who headed a special unit Scopa wanted as part of the investigation it sought.

Mr Mbeki branded arms deal critics as racists trying to "entrench the stereotype of a corrupt African government". This is the same Mr Mbeki who now says he is worried about Ms Madonsela's findings on Nkandla and the "quality of leadership" in the country.

He had his chance to shine light on the arms deal but his own "quality of leadership" took Parliament and his party away from the light. So another presumption must apply: if the arms deal was so innocent, why the cover-up?

Kill the messenger, trash independent institutions, destroy accountability: this is part of the Mbeki legacy. It is embedded in our body politic. Mr Zuma and his cohorts are merely acting in terms of this culture. 

Laughably, the stigmatisation tactics Mr Mbeki used against arms deal critics are now being used against those who say financial corruption is now "systemic". As for the view that using this term is evidence of a "deeply insensitive strain of liberalism", this is just Mr Mbeki's accusation about entrenching stereotypes in different words.

But it raises a question about "strains of liberalism". Too often in the past there has been a strain of liberals who condoned corruption in Africa, along with other hideous things that happened on the continent after colonial rule ended.

The British, German, French, Belgian, and Portuguese governments were lambasted for their gross and sometimes murderous behaviour in colonial days. The moment black governments replaced these white ones, liberals around the world quietly put away all their yardsticks for human rights and the rule of law - even though some of those black governments were worse than their colonial predecessors.

Such criticism as was voiced against governments in Africa was reserved for the white one in Pretoria. The United Nations was able to detect "crimes against humanity" only in South Africa and Israel, never mind what was going on under communist rule.

Black governments were judged according to a lower standard than white ones. Liberal institutions around the world were not alone in applying this moral and intellectual colour bar. Many governments had all sorts of Cold War reasons for their double standards. But liberals did not have to worry about such considerations. In a way, their failure was worse than that of the cynics, because they claimed to know better. Some don't know better even now.

Corruption was not nipped in the bud. What can still be nipped in the bud is the politically correct "strain of liberalism" that would hold black South African politicians to lower standards than the ones to which the Nats were held - what George Bush called the soft racism of low expectations.

* Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations.