How Cyril deals with corruption will determine his legacy - Daily Dispatch

With prospects for substantive policy reform and economic take-off dimming rapidly, along with President Ramaphosa’s claim to champion either, whatever positive legacy comes from his incumbency will likely hinge on his record regarding corruption.

Terence Corrigan

With prospects for substantive policy reform and economic take-off dimming rapidly, along with President Ramaphosa’s claim to champion either, whatever positive legacy comes from his incumbency will likely hinge on his record regarding corruption.

A recent edition of the President’s newsletter is headlined ‘Building Strong, Independent Institutions is Vital to the Fight Against Corruption.’ The points it makes are both obvious and contentious. 

Strong and independent institutions are indeed vital. Institutions are platforms for society’s issues to be processed. They enable knowledge and skills to be aggregated and nurtured. They are essential for managing the conflicts that will inevitably arise among competing or disputed interests.

South Africa post-1994 was fortified with institutions meant to safeguard the public, to promote justice and to ensure efficient state functioning. Several are tasked directly with combating corruption.

Yet corruption is a debilitating feature of South African life; indeed, it’s eminently arguable that it has become a far more prominent concern now that it was back in the 1990s.

Polling underlines the extent of public concern around corruption. In the Institute of Race Relations’ 2020 poll, corruption was mentioned as one of the two most pressing issues confronting the country by 18.2% of respondents (along with 3.6% who identified ‘corrupt leadership’) – coming behind only unemployment and crime as a priority.

Afrobarometer found that 19.8% of respondents identified corruption among the top three problems confronting South Africa. Afrobarometer also found that in 2021 a majority of people believed that the President and officials in his office, members of Parliament, local councillors and the police were involved in corruption.

Disturbingly, there is a dearth of confidence in those institutions underpinning South Africa’s constitutional order – and its ‘fight against corruption’. Political parties, local councils, police, the President and Parliament all register less than 30% trust; the President, electoral commission and traditional leaders less than 40%; and the courts, Public Protector and the South African Revenue Service less than 50%. And more than three quarters feel that speaking out against corruption creates risks of retaliation.

This is all quite understandable in view of the progression of scandals that have rolled through the country. The (unresolved) arms deal, Oilgate, ‘State Capture’ – plus soft-touch treatment for the politically favoured who have been convicted – could hardly produce anything else.

South Africa has seen an institutional failure in dealing with corruption. Herein lies the contentious part of the President’s comments. He argues for the best possible institutional approach – while simultaneously acting to undermine it. Strong institutions are difficult to maintain when they are politically manipulated; independent ones are by definition impossible to maintain.

Yet manipulation has been the practice of the African National Congress since the 1990s, when it formally and purposely embraced the politicisation of the state via ‘cadre deployment’. This was ‘transformation’.

As it said at the time: ‘Transformation of the state entails, first and foremost, extending the power of the National Liberation Movement over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on.’

(Unconvincing) protestations aside, if ever there had been an expectation of a professional, meritocratic state, this statement should have sunk it.

The party would ‘deploy’ its favourites to do its will. While a formal appointment process would be necessary to place people in positions, the ultimate source of authority would be the party. Carl Niehaus some years ago – while still in good standing with the party – described ‘an expectation that the party line and leadership should be followed blindly, and that the judicial and democratic institutions of the state should merely be instruments to carry out ANC policy.’

Where party imperatives dominated, the public good was shunted aside. This was the original, unabashed state capture: not by a family of merchants, but by a political organisation chasing ‘hegemony’. It was corruption by definition. And with the lure of material rewards, it could only encourage the trough-feeding corruption so familiar today. And so dangerous to our society. The Zondo Commission was unambiguous in its condemnation.

Cadre deployment must go root-and-branch. The question is whether the ANC can step back from this, to provide space for those strong and independent institutions to emerge. It would mean that the party would surrender a major part of its ideological and patronage strategy, a major concession. That the ANC and the President continue to defend the practice, both in rhetoric and in court, suggest we are a long way from this.

But with corruption a national obsession and a visible signifier of what has gone wrong, disavowing cadre deployment may well be the one possibility that President Ramaphosa has to be remembered kindly in future.

Terence Corrigan is the project manager at the Institute of Race Relations