On Friday last week, the African National Congress (ANC) in the Northern Cape announced that its leader, John Block, had resigned from all of his positions in the party. He had also resigned from his position as finance MEC in the province. This came after Block was convicted, earlier in the week, on fraud and corruption charges. The Northern Cape ANC welcomed the news, saying this would allow the province to, essentially, move on. The national ANC said very little, but did say it believed this was "consistent with the conduct of a disciplined cadre". Could this be the long-awaited turning point for the party, in its fight against corruption? By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The John Block case is another lesson in how quickly the politics of this country can move, when necessary. Just after Block was convicted on fraud and corruption charges, the ANC put out a non-statement, saying it would remain silent until after he was sentenced. All of this happened just days after the party had resolved, again, to stop corruption once and for all among its ranks. There had been fancy words and promises and re-resolutions. But it seemed, for a moment, as if nothing was actually going to change. People like Yours Truly came out with op-ed pieces claiming this proved those resolutions were not worth the iPads they were written on.
Well, to take the advice of John Maynard Keynes, this change in the facts must surely suggest Yours Truly needs to change his opinion.
It is almost a complete surprise that Block has acted in this way. He still has the option of appealing, and his supporters may well feel that for him to step down now is an indication of his not-so-clear-anymore innocence. And there is very little in his previous behaviour to suggest this is what he was going to do. This may mean that when the guilty verdict was handed down, he actually realised that the game was finally up, and that there was nothing to gain by clinging to power. He may also realise that his days as a free man could be numbered, and that he has to turn all of his energies to simply staying out of jail.
The convictions are serious, and the National Prosecuting Authority has said it could press for 15 years in jail. Considering that this corruption relating to government tenders, the awarding of which must have affected service delivery, and that some of these were hospital tenders in a very poor part of the country, surely the argument for aggravation of sentence is going to be strong. Arguing in mitigation will be hard: this was a man who at all material times had the political influence to determine the outcome of tender procedures, and used it. And he wasn’t exactly living in poverty himself.
At the same time, those in Luthuli House would surely have known that if Block were to stay on it would make things very difficult for the party. It would mean that publicly proclaiming the resolutions so proudly endorsed just last weekend would be to invite laughter, as was starting to happen. Worse, it would be an open incitement for others; whenever the party tried to call them to order, they would be able to point to Block as an example of how they were being discriminated against.
But with Block’s resignation, things have changed practically overnight. Now, presumably, anyone who finds themselves facing this kind of trouble in the party is going to get a phone call from a member of the Top Six, demanding they follow Block’s example. Suddenly, everything could be different.
That said, there is still plenty of hard work to do in the party on this issue. The idea of people stepping down before actually being convicted was first floated, and then passed, at the 2012 Mangaung conference. Just a few months later, the party asked former Limpopo health MEC Miriam Segabutla to “do the right thing” and resign from party structures when she was arrested on fraud charges. Eventually, she did so. But she was the last person to receive that kind of treatment in public. After that, it appeared to be open season again. Even the mayor of Buffalo City, Zukiswa Ncitha, was not forced to resign for months after she and other city officials were found guilty of making money out of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, a crime that would have surely shocked even the most hardened and calculating of political hearts.
This time around, Luthuli House has to make sure that Block is not the last, but the first. He has to be the precedent that is set, and followed, many times.
There are several things Luthuliu House should do:
First, it simply needs to implement, no matter how painful, the decisions of its Integrity Committee. Both the national executive committee and the national general council have said this must happen, so there is political cover for whoever has to actually do it.
Secondly, that commission needs to be seen to act with energy. While it makes sense for the ANC to use veterans who are politically neutral on this commission, a consequence could be that commission appears to lack energy. If this is the case now, it may be because so much of its work has been underneath the radar, and its recommendations have not been implemented. Now it needs an image change. That can happen quite quickly. A bit of communications machinery here (with a young, dedicated spokesperson), a decision or two announced publicly there, can be seen in a massively positive light.
What is really needed is for the perception that this commission has real teeth, and can’t be argued with, to take hold within the ANC. Members should not so much fear it as respect it. Because of the legitimacy the commission’s members enjoy, their decisions are unlikely to be argued with. That legitimacy must be put to good use.
And then there is the real problem:
Its decisions must be acted upon, no matter who it rules against.
Imagine that back in 2007, when Jacob Zuma was running against Thabo Mbeki, an institution like this in the ANC had found against Zuma over the conviction of Schabir Shaik. Would it really have been able to fight back against his supporters? Or would it have been accused of being a factional tool in the hands of Mbeki? Obviously the latter. What if this happens again with someone else?
This is the scale of the problem. It always comes down to this: what do you do when the person who is facing corruption charges is also incredibly powerful politically? It is a problem that many parties face anywhere in the world. If they overcome it, they continue to keep the trust and support of their voters. If they don’t, they start to lose elections.
In the end, the resignation of Block is perhaps another indication that accountability is entering our politics. The fear of losing elections is beginning to loom. And that means the ANC really cannot just talk about corruption. If it wants to stay in power, it has to act. 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. Picture: Andre Grobler/SAPA.