SAIRR Today: Chasing the Rainbow: South Africa’s Move from Mandela to Zuma - 4th June 2010

Earlier this week the Institute’s head of special research, Dr Anthea Jeffery, launched her latest book, Chasing the Rainbow: South Africa’s Move from Mandela to Zuma, at a function in Johannesburg. Her speech follows below. All Institute members and subscribers will receive the book in the post. Non-members/subscribers can purchase copies from the Institute.

The book covers the period from May 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, to April 2009, when the Zuma administration came to power. It deals with key events in those 15 years in ten different policy areas, dubbed by the Institute the ten pillars of democracy because all are vital in providing the foundation for a strong democracy and a prosperous and stable society.

Summarising what has happened over 15 years over so many policy issues in a single book is a challenge.  Summarising what’s in the book is still more of a challenge and this evening all I can do is tell you some of the stories covered in the book as regards some of the pillars. These stories don’t begin to provide the whole picture on any of the pillars, but they do provide insights and that’s why I offer them. 

Let’s begin with democratic governance and a story about the Travelgate scandal. The Scorpions began investigating this in about 2001. By 2004 the list of MPs implicated in the scandal ran to 136 and the sums involved were put as high as R100m. Included on the list of suspects were various cabinet ministers, along with the speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, and the ANC’s chief whip, Mbulelo Goniwe. Opposition parties wanted the list of suspects recorded in Hansard, but Goniwe refused this, saying the list ‘belonged in the dustbin’. In 2005, when the Scorpions planned to arrest some MPs, Goniwe objected. He demanded that the investigation be stopped, saying the Scorpions were trying to undermine Parliament and to ‘create the impression that MPs are cowboys and crooks’. 

The planned arrests were deferred and in the end only a small number of MPs, mostly ANC backbenchers, were held to account. However, all escaped significant sanction by entering into plea bargains with the state which gave them the option of paying fines instead of serving time in jail. 

The last of these plea bargains was concluded in September 2009 by another former ANC chief whip, Nyami Booi. He pleaded guilty to theft and was sentenced to a fine of R50 000 or five years in prison. Having opted to pay the fine, he was given until January 2014 to do so in monthly instalments of R1 000. Though he had defrauded Parliament of R112 000, his plea bargain claimed that he had made a ‘full restitution’ to the legislature. 

The story points not only to corruption but also to a lack of accountability within the ruling party and an abuse of power.  

Within the sphere of democratic governance, there have also been various positive developments, of course. The elections held after 1994 have largely been free and fair and the ANC has rarely used its majority to amend the constitution in damaging ways. But democratic governance has often been weak and the country’s score here is thus 51% for the first 15 years of ANC rule.  

Take next the rule of law (another key pillar of democracy) and the story of Mokotedi Mpshe.  He was appointed acting national director of public prosecutions in September 2007, when Vusi Pikoli was suspended by President Thabo Mbeki, seemingly for his determination to bring national police commissioner Jackie Selebi to book.  

Mpshe initially did well. Despite what had happened to Pikoli, he persisted with the prosecution of Selebi. He also acted on the strong prima facie case that lay against Jacob Zuma by bringing 18 charges of corruption and other crimes against Zuma in December 2007, despite the furore he knew would result. By April 2009, however, Mpshe’s courage seemed to fail him, for we all know the sorry saga of how he withdrew all charges against Zuma on spurious grounds, so paving the way for Zuma to become president. 

Despite having demonstrated his political pliability – and hence his unsuitability for judicial office – Mpshe was later appointed an acting judge. To make matters much worse, he was then a civil servant employed by the National Prosecuting Authority, to which he was to return once his stint on the bench was over.

In making this appointment, justice minister Jeff Radebe seemed impervious to the clear breach of the separation-of-powers principle in issue. When the General Council of the Bar and other organisations (including the Institute) objected, Mpshe resigned from the NPA but Radebe remained unfazed. He accused his critics of waging a ‘politically motivated campaign’ and added that ‘regardless of whether or not [Mpshe] had left the NPA’, he would still have appointed him an acting judge.

Commented Paul Hoffman SC: ‘Radebe has, in effect, declared “open season” for the appointment of employees in public administration (part of the executive branch of government) to the High Court Bench (a part of the Judiciary)…  Radebe is constitutionally obliged to…protect…the independence of the courts… He shows, with stark clarity, that he does not have the slightest intention of doing so.’ 

Again, there are, of course, also various positive elements in the overall picture regarding the rule of law. In particular, as Judge Carole Lewis of the Supreme Court of Appeal told an Institute briefing in 2008, the country still has a strong judiciary – and any weak rulings that might be handed down are generally corrected on appeal. In addition, judgments are mostly enforced by the executive, though there have also been some disturbing aberrations here.  

Overall, there have been various weaknesses in the country’s performance on the rule of law, which thus merits a score of 48% for the period from 1994 to 2009.   

As regards a vigilant media and civil society, performance has again been generally sound.  However, there are also warning signals in the air, mainly in the form of various draft bills the government has put forward but has yet to adopt. Here, the story of the mooted media appeals tribunal is relevant.  

At its Polokwane conference in 2007, the ANC said the media should ‘vigorously communicate the ANC’s outlook and values’ and thus help the ruling party win the battle of ideas. The conference resolved to ‘take practical steps to influence the output of the media’. It also urged that self-regulation of the press be replaced by a statutory media appeals tribunal to investigate complaints.  

ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte added that the press ombudsman was ‘toothless’, and that the ANC needed to find a way to hold the print media accountable for publishing untruths. The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef)  responded that self-regulation was internationally accepted as the best mechanism, and warned against attempts by the government to reduce the exposure of incompetence and corruption. 

As criticism mounted, ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe accused the press ombudsman of failing even to reply to letters of complaint. But when he was asked by Sanef to provide examples of this, he failed to reply. Pressed by Sanef, he spoke of ‘a dossier of unanswered mail’. But this ‘dossier’  turned out to contain only one case which had in fact been adequately dealt with in 2005. 

However, in a further positive development, the ANC then changed its mind about a media tribunal. Duarte said that this was ‘not the time or the place’ to proceed and the proposal would have to be taken back to a policy conference. This implies a reprieve until at least 2012. 

Despite pressures from the ANC, the press has also become increasingly outspoken in its condemnation of corruption and abuse of power.  This counteracts the threats which seem to lie ahead, and gives the country a score of 64% for the period under review. 

Turning now to racial goodwill, there is much that is positive here in the ordinary interaction of ordinary South Africans. Integration of schools, universities, and suburbs has generally proceeded well. Incidents of raw racism have long been rare. However, when such incidents occur, they are naturally extremely damaging. They have sometimes also been made more damaging still by the flawed way that the press has reported them.

Take the well-known story of the racist farmer who threw a farm worker into a lion enclosure to suffer an appalling death by being eaten alive. This is an account that rightly evokes enormous outrage, but it is also inaccurate.

Mark Scott-Crossley, the perpetrator, was in fact a building contractor and the victim, Nelson Chisale, was a construction worker he had fired. Moreover, Chisale was seemingly killed by two of his former colleagues, while forensic evidence suggests that Scott-Crossley simply helped dispose of his dead body by throwing it to the lions. This was clearly an evil deed, but it was also a lesser crime and less of a racial outrage. Yet many press reports continue to reflect the initial inaccurate account that is so profoundly damaging to racial goodwill.

Racial goodwill has also been undermined by racially-based policies of affirmative action and black economic empowerment (BEE). The major gain from these policies – that they have helped to build a black middle class – is also less solid than it might seem. As Moeletsi Mbeki has written, BEE ‘strikes a fatal blow against black entrepreneurship by creating a small class of unproductive but wealthy black crony capitalists made up of ANC politicians’. It thus robs South Africa of the key to economic and industrial development: an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. These are the businessmen, industrialists, risk-takers and private investors who alone can create a developed, modern state, Mbeki writes.

Adds journalist Tim Cohen: ‘Mbeki puts his finger precisely on the problem. Empowerment is not creating a genuine middle class. It is creating a faux middle class whose wealth is entirely a function of government fiat. There is no struggle involved here, no business acumen, no real skills. Nothing that makes a real middle class.’ 

The negative impact of racial laws and the way in which the press and politicians have often whipped up racial animosities detracts from the country’s performance on racial goodwill, making for a score of 52%. 

Another key pillar of democracy is effective governance, and South Africa has done badly here. Its performance has been poor in a host of spheres: in combating crime, generating enough electricity to meet demand, keeping piped water clean, repairing the road network, running efficient railways and ports, ousting corruption from home affairs, and policing the borders.

Take crime, for example. The government has succeeded in bringing down the murder rate since 1994: an achievement which needs to be acknowledged. But the murder rate is still higher than in most other countries, while armed robberies at homes and businesses have recently increased sharply, making for great fear.  

Why does the government battle so much to get on top of crime? A story told by Antony Altbeker, one of the country’s foremost crime experts, may help to explain. When the new ANC government took power in 1994, it believed that policing had been too reactive in the past – and that the focus should instead be put on proactively addressing the root causes of crime, which it identified, in particular, as including poverty and inequality. The government was thus impatient with traditional policing methods, which it dismissed as ‘bandit catching’.   

As part of this new focus, the police downgraded the detective service (for this was reactive by definition) and made detectives answerable to station commanders rather than a separate chain of command. This reversed decades of institutional autonomy and suggested that detective work was subordinate to patrol and response work. This in turn fuelled an exodus of detectives from the police and helped create a shortage of detectives (recently put by Altbeker at some

30 000), which has never been overcome. 

This shortage of detectives has also helped generate what Altbeker now identifies as a crucial factor behind high crime: the copy-cat effect. A perception has grown that ‘everyone is doing crime’ and that nearly everyone is getting away with it. This encourages more people to become involved and makes it ever harder to bring crime rates down. 

Given failures on crime, and in all the other spheres identified above, the overall effectiveness of governance has been so poor as to give South Africa a score of 29%. 

I turn now to growth-focused policies, another key pillar of democracy. Here, I’d like to talk about the international ‘commission on growth and development’  which was established in 2006 to identify the factors making for rapid and sustainable economic growth. The 19-member commission consisted primarily of political decision-makers from developing countries –  and one of them was South Africa’s then finance minister, Trevor Manuel. 

The commission’s report, published in 2008 as The Growth Report, identified 13 countries which had attained an annual economic growth rate of 7% or more for 25 years or longer. It also found that these high-growth countries had all essentially followed the same formula for success. This formula has five key elements, all of which are vital. Perhaps the most important, however, is the need for a committed and capable government which consciously chooses growth as its priority.

However, the ANC has at best flirted with the idea of making growth its priority. This was the thrust of the 1996 Gear document, but Gear was never properly implemented or even tried. This is largely because the ANC’s priority is not to stimulate growth but rather to bring about redistribution, which is in keeping with its commitment to a continuing national democratic revolution.  

At the same time, the ANC has succeeded in notching up one great achievement here. It faithfully applied one aspect of the Gear strategy, thereby succeeding in bringing down the budget deficit, the government’s interest payments, and the ratio of public debt to GDP. That ratio now stands at less than 30%: a very positive situation compared to the debt crises currently confronting Greece, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and many other Western nations.  

Despite this major success, growth has generally remained pedestrian over the first 15 years of ANC rule. It rose to 5% a year at one point, but this was only for a brief period from 2005 to 2007 and was largely a function of the global commodities super-cycle, coupled with increased domestic consumer spending. Neither factor proved sustainable, however.  

Performance as regards GDP per capita has been even worse, for it took South Africa until 2005 to get back to the level of GDP per capita (some R33 000 a year) it had last enjoyed in 1980. A quarter of a century to get back to your starting point is simply not good enough. By contrast, if South Africa could achieve a GDP growth rate of 7% for 20 years, GDP per capita would rise more than three-fold from around its current level of about R36 000 a year to more than

R130 000 a year –  and the benefit to all South Africans would be enormous.   

The reality, however, is that South Africa has done badly in promoting economic growth and its score here is 35%. 

I turn now to the crucial question of what can be done to help liberate the poor, for this is one of the most important of the pillars of democracy.  Since 1994 the government has rightly put much of its emphasis on helping the poor, which is an urgent need.  It has done much to alleviate poverty, most notably through social grants and the provision of free houses. But government largesse has also built dependency, rather than self-reliance.  

It is also becoming unsustainable, for in February 2009 (ie before the child-support grant was extended to cover all children under the age of 18) the country had some 13m people on social welfare, but only about 5.3m income taxpayers. By February 2010, when Pravin Gordhan delivered his first budget, there were roughly 14m people on welfare and this number is projected to rise to some 16.5m within three years. The number of income taxpayers will not, however, expand in the same way. 

The government’s approach is thus flawed. What the poor need instead is to be helped to stand on their own feet by earning their own income. This requires liberating them from poor skills and the impact of disease and helping them to enter labour and other markets. Instead, however:

  • unemployment has grown while the government has failed to liberalise labour laws and may tighten them instead;
  • basic schooling is often seen as worse than Bantu Education, if only because outcomes-based education (OBE) has undermined the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic; while
  • public health care has deteriorated and is incapable of coping with the growing burden of AIDS and TB, in particular.

Overall, the country’s performance in liberating the poor has been so inadequate as to merit a score of 25%. 

In the first 15 years of ANC rule, many important gains have, of course, been made and these must fully be acknowledged. However, despite these advances, the picture that emerges is often worrying, especially as many of the failures could have been avoided. Pragmatic policies based on international best practice could have been pursued, while all the country’s strengths and skills could have been harnessed to the full to help overcome apartheid legacies and build a prosperous nation.  Instead, the challenge of consolidating democracy and building prosperity has been made more difficult in many ways. However, there is still very much that is positive on which to build if only the ruling party would jettison outdated ideology and allow the flowering of the political and economic freedoms that the ending of apartheid finally ushered in.  

  • Anthea Jeffery