A new South African syndrome - Scandal Fatigue
Another day, another corruption scandal. There was a time when the nation used to be gripped by political scandals as they played out – President Jacob Zuma’s corruption and rape cases were, for years, in a league of their own in drawing public interest. But in recent years, as corruption scandals collide into one another, consuming the news agenda, the South African public is gradually less and less shocked. Or horrified. Or outraged. And when indifference to corruption and acceptance of scandal-plagued reality as a norm sets in, it is a sure sign of a society in serious decline. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
There is a pattern to how government scandals generally unfold in South Africa. The media breaks the story after a lengthy investigation. The Democratic Alliance issues a media statement, shrieking with disapproval and vowing to turn Parliament upside down to get answers. Other opposition parties join the chorus.
The ANC and its allies ignore the allegations but attack the opposition for milking the scandal for publicity. They also attack the media and accuse it of having dubious intentions by chasing such stories – the most popular range from hatred of President Jacob Zuma and the ANC, neo-liberal, anti-majoritarian tendencies or that old favourite, a racist agenda. And all this before even accusing the newspaper of muckraking to boost copy sales.
At the same time, government’s default position is to remain silent. Evidence mounts, the media and opposition parties hound government for answers, all of which usually culminates in an obfuscation-laced question session in Parliament. By this time, public interest is already flagging but the opposition tries to keep the matter alive. The Public Protector and/or Auditor General is called in to investigate. Months later the findings are released, by which time the nature and seriousness of the transgression is a vague memory in the public mind. In any event, during that time a series of new scandals is being managed in much the same manner.
If the matters end up in court, they takes years to reach finality. Very few people can tell you off the top of their heads the nature of the allegations against Northern Cape ANC chairman John Block because his case has been dragging on for years. In a related case in KwaZulu-Natal involving high- profile ANC leaders Mike Mabuyakhulu and Peggy Nkonyeni, the charges were surreptitiously withdrawn by the National Prosecuting Authority after it came under political pressure.
If political heavyweights happen to get punished either by losing their jobs or through the justice system, they wait it out until they can return to politics or get released from jail, as was the case with former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi. He followed the exact modus operandi used to get Zuma’s former benefactor, Schabir Shaik, released on medical parole.
Former national police commissioner Bheki Cele and former Gauteng housing and local government MEC Humphrey Mmemezi were both elected onto the ANC national executive committee at Mangaung in December, after losing their jobs due to huge corruption scandals. But these scandals meant nothing to ANC members who thought that they belonged among the top 80 leaders in the ruling party, making decisions that define the future of South Africa.
On Tuesday, the Daily Maverick and Eyewitness News revealed a corruption scandal around a R30-million project management tender won by the Mvula Trust, which is chaired by the deputy water and environmental affairs minister, Rejoice Mabudafhasi.
The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, which awarded the tender for a job creation project, is already following the routine of government crisis management by not commenting on the story. So the matter is destined to fall off the agenda without anybody being held accountable.
In most first world countries, such a story would stop traffic and those involved would be immediately forced to make public statements and step down. But in South Africa, it has become of the norm for government ministers and officials to respond to such stories with “no comment”.
It still beggars belief that the minister of state security has maintained his silence on his now ex wife’s conviction and imprisonment for drug dealing. It is difficult to fathom how a man who presides over the state’s intelligence agencies could not know that his wife was involved in such serious crime and could get away without even an explanation to the people who pay his salary.
It is not as if the South African public is deliberately impervious to this latest scandal involving the Mvula Trust, or that it does not mind that a R30 million state tender was manipulated to benefit the politically connected, it’s just that the story broke in a fortnight during which the public has been bombarded with shocking information.
This included the information that R65 million spent on renovations at the homes of ministers and deputy ministers. Renovations to just one of the homes, that of Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti, cost R15 million.
In the first few months of the Zuma administration, there was a flurry of exposés about exorbitant spending on new cars, houses and hotel stays by Cabinet ministers. It would be expected that after such embarrassing revelations, there would be caution by both the Department of Public Works and members of Cabinet about going wild with taxpayers’ money to fund the high life. But the prospect of being shamed in the media appears not to be a deterrent for members of Cabinet, one of whom had the audacity to buy Christian Louboutin shoes with sponsorship money for the ICT Indaba.
So flagrant is the abuse of public office that it is difficult for ordinary members of the public to even know how to react or protest. It is, perhaps, beyond the belief of normal human beings that political office bearers can be so crass in abusing the state and spitting in the faces of the taxpayers.
It was also revealed last week that three of the country’s biggest state-owned companies spent R25 million to bankroll business breakfasts hosted by The New Age, owned by the Gupta family, close friends of the president. Despite further allegations that the Department of Public Enterprises leaned heavily on some parastatals to enter into financial agreements with The New Age, government saw fit to issue a simple denial and offer no further explanation. In this way, it bats away the controversy as if it is no big deal.
The cherry on the cake has been the developing narrative around the upgrade of Zuma’s private home at Nkandla and government’s attempts to shield the president from responsibility for the extraordinary state expenditure, in excess of R200 million, allegedly for security arrangements. The charade presented by four Cabinet ministers on Sunday in the form of a task team investigation report was designed to whitewash the scandal and deflect blame to low ranking government officials, who may or may not be punished, one day in distant future, when the entire country will no doubt have a hundred more new scandals to deal with. Nkandla irregularities will be but a distant memory.
In doing this, the Zuma administration is following the example of the Mbeki government when it tried to fight off allegations of corruption in the arms deal scandal. While initially denying corruption, the Mbeki administration eventually conceded that there were flaws in the sub-contracting phase of the deal and tried to argue that this did not taint the entire procurement. Even now that a commission of inquiry has been appointed to investigate the arms deal, there are serious doubts about its integrity as there has been so much political pressure and obfuscation around the matter.
In such an environment where political accountability is secondary to issues like politicians’ privacy and security, the public is continuously treated with disdain, despite the fact that splurges are funded by the taxpayer.
There is only so much outrage that can be vented at the occasional protest march or by calling into radio stations. But the fact is that the public is helpless to fight the tide of corruption and abuse in the state and therefore the tolerance threshold for outrageous scandal is increasing. South Africa is being forced to put up with kleptocratic behaviour, and the mechanisms for accountability and recourse are being undermined by the disdainful reaction of those implicated.
The ordinary public is fatigued by the litany of scandals, the investigating authorities are politically compromised, the independent bodies are overwhelmed by the volume of investigations, the opposition has very few powers, the guardians are demonised and threatened and the looters have free rein. It is a dangerous territory and is neither normal nor good for the country.
Most sentient people would agree that something is rotten in the Republic of South Africa. As in the case of Hamlet’s Denmark, festering with moral and political corruption, such a situation can only breed chaos and peril. It is not too far-fetched to envision how the current maelstrom of scandals and bullying could lead to the erosion of our Constitution and hard-fought democracy.
The stakes are too high and our country is too precious to surrender to plunderers. For South Africa to have a future, the cycle of scandal fatigue must be broken. DM
Photo: Mangaung, Free State, South Africa, 20 December 2012. President Zuma was set to give the closing address at the ANC's Mangaung conference Friday before the power went out. Photo Greg Nicolson/NewsFire