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The ANC and the John Block case: What a difference four days make

The ANC and the John Block case: What a difference four days make

On Sunday President Jacob Zuma gave the final address to the African National Congress's (ANC's) national general council that appeared to be consumed by the problems of corruption and factionalism within the party. Everywhere you went, people were talking about how the Integrity Commission would now be taken seriously, about the dire warnings from the voters about corruption, about how provinces like Gauteng could slip from the ANC's grasp if this issue was not dealt with decisively. In the end, a resolution was adopted that leaders could no longer prolong procedures while bringing the party's name into disrepute. And the idea of "innocent until proven guilty" would no longer hold sway when it came to whether people should step down when charged with corruption. It was heady stuff. For all of the four days that it lasted. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Wednesday the ANC’s Northern Cape leader, John Block, was found guilty of fraud and corruption by the Northern Cape High Court. The case, relating to tenders for the province’s health department, dates back almost five years. And Block wasn’t the only accused. Another former MEC was also found guilty, but she has passed on to face judgment of a different kind. What is slightly amazing about this case is that there really was no doubt about which finding the judge would make. Everyone in politics has known that this was serious, that Block would likely be found guilty, and that there was no other way for this to end.

By the end of the ANC’s Mangaung conference, where the party first formed its Integrity Commission of elders, the Block case was already in the works. Even then, ANC leaders were asked to take action against Block. This issue was, and always has been, the litmus test for whether the ANC really would take action against leaders facing corruption charges. No action was taken, but it was thought, after the national general council (NGC) this weekend, that finally, some music would be heading Block’s way.

Instead, on Wednesday night the ANC released a two-line, three-sentence statement: “The ANC has noted the judgment on the matter of the case of Comrade John Block which has been before the court for some time. We will await the sentencing by the court before we can give a full response on the matter. Until then, the ANC will refrain from commenting.”

The statement is breathtaking in what it leaves out – that just four days before all of this happened the ANC had committed itself, once again, to preventing corrupt leaders from clinging to office. Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi suggested this statement indicated that perhaps the ANC’s top leaders were divided over what to do. The brevity and terseness of the statement would tend to back up that suggestion. Which is strange, because there was no obvious difference in their public postures over the weekend.

All through the NGC, the question was put to ANC leaders: When a person is accused of corruption it is almost always because they have been given a position in government by virtue of the leadership position they occupy in the ANC so how could the party act against them? The perfect example of this is Number One himself. He holds a position in the ANC that makes it impossible to act against him. He has been accused of corruption, firstly through what flowed from the Schabir Shaik trial, and secondly, through the Nkandla scandal (we could add the Waterkloof landings of the Guptas, and others) but no one has acted against him. Presumably then, everyone else is safe too.

It is because of this dynamic that the ANC’s Mangaung resolution, that those accused of corruption should step down to save the party’s image before actually going through a court process, was simply ignored. It was applied in just one case. Otherwise, people just carried on as before. And the party’s leaders can hardly say they have treated the Integrity Commission properly. Even when it was formed, its chairman, Andrew Mlangeni, said he had “only heard it about on the television”. Which is surely not how you treat someone who spent years on Robben Island, no matter what the circumstances.

There are other dynamics to this too. Someone like Block, who heads a province, is able to guarantee votes in any kind of ANC leadership election. As we pointed out nearly five years ago, this makes him virtually untouchable.

And he’s not the only one, David Mabuza has faced corruption claims, not only from the Democratic Alliance in his province of Mpumalanga, but also from his supposed alliance partner, the South African Communist Party. He is, in case there’s any doubt, a big supporter of Zuma.

What the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga have in common are their rural nature, the poverty of their people, the lack of independent media, and the lack of a strong political alternative. As a result, there is very little accountability, the kind of situation in which corruption will thrive. That means any person can take over the province and become a strongman, so long as they keep the votes coming for the ANC.

As a result, it would seem that only the ANC can really stop this kind of behaviour. Corruption, of course, crosses provincial lines. Block has been convicted for his dealings with a company that appears to also have tried to buy politicians in KwaZulu-Natal. Which means that province too could try to protect him.

Strangely, it may not be in the Northern Cape where the ANC pays any political price for this tolerance of corruption. Rather it could be in the big urban areas, where there are enough opposition politicians to use Block as a stick with which to repeatedly beat Luthuli House. This could have the very odd consequence of reducing the power of those urban ANC provinces that lose votes, thus strengthening the relative positions of people like Block and Mabuza. Imagine if the ANC lost Gauteng. Gauteng would find it hard to lecture the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga about anything.

The ANC does say it will discuss the matter publicly after Block has been sentenced. Anyone who has watched a court procedure will tell you that this is when the defendant can lodge an appeal. This Block will almost certainly do. And that will allow the ANC to say it’s awaiting the outcome of the appeal. So another year or so of waiting.

Which will prove that the ANC’s NGC resolution was really a eulogy for its attempts to stamp out corruption. DM

Photo: Northern Cape ANC leader John Block, flanked by his wife, Noluthando (black dress) and under the watchful eye of his mother, Zodwa Bosman (head dress), speaks to a crowd of his supporters outside the Kimberley Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday, 10 November 2010 after he was released on bail of R 100,000 related to fraud charges. Picture: Andre Grobler/SAPA


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