Analysis

Agrizzi’s Bosasa corruption testimony – an opportunity for real change in South Africa’s politics

By Stephen Grootes 20 January 2019

Former president Jacob Zuma taking pictures during the 54th National Conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre on December 18, 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier)

Will the Bosasa’s Angelo Agrizzi testimony at the Zondo Commission change the balance of power in the ANC and could it have an impact on the number of people who turn out to vote for the party in the elections? Probably not, but it could become a major milestone in the battle to right the listing ship that is South Africa today.

The revelations coming out of the testimony of former Bosasa Chief Operating Officer Angelo Agrizzi at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture have the potential to keep the nation enthralled for some time to come. There has already been a flurry of denials over the weekend from various people who are expected to be implicated as Agrizzi continues with his testimony.

Again, it appears that this commission will have a political impact just through the hearing of evidence under oath, and long before it presents any kind of report. The question right now is what kind of impact that will be?

In a country where it is hard to keep political secrets, much effort must have been made in keeping the fact that Agrizzi would testify under wraps. This is especially so given that the testimony of the previous witnesses at the commission have been revealed in Sunday newspapers before they have even taken the oath, forcing commission head, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, to remind the media that reporting on testimony in document form before it was given verbally was an offence.

And so the arrival of Agrizzi at the commission was probably a shock to the country’s political class, as very few people would have known that this was about to happen. As a result, it has taken some time for the reactions to come through.

Now, as both the Sunday Times and the City Press have caught their breath, they have reported on what evidence will come and who will be named. People like Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane have already denied wrongdoing, as has suspended deputy National Prosecuting Authority head Nomgcobo Jiba. And there are others too.

For those who say they want to fight corruption and clean up the state, Agrizzi’s arrival at the commission was almost too good to be true. He dropped bombs about the corruption that has been gripping the country for years. This means the commission now has a real chance to examine malfeasance that goes back long before Jacob Zuma became president and the Guptas were powerful enough to start appointing Cabinet ministers.

It must be remembered that the ANC in government has had a long track record of problems with corruption. Famously, in 2007, then ANC secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe said, before the Polokwane Conference:

The rot is across the board. It’s not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every single project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money.”

The problem was already so deep-seated that it was reasonable to talk about a culture of corruption.

It is well known how difficult it is to change the political culture of a body; it is not as simple as changing the party in government, although that is obviously important. Officials at every level can get used to receiving money over and above their salaries just for doing their job. And others, including those who complain about corruption, will pay for it, whether to get a job as a teacher or to get out of a speeding fine in the middle of the night.

It could be incredibly important that those in leadership positions grasp this moment, this perhaps unique opportunity, to actually try to reform the state and the way it operates. It has been known for years that Bosasa has been paying bribes. Adriaan Basson, first at the Mail and Guardian and then at News24 reported in detail about how it was done, and who benefited. At the same time, the country was aware of the problems at the NPA and the Hawks.

In other words, those with access to media knew what was happening. The problem is, the reports were simply ignored. Nothing was done. The Hawks gave every appearance of sitting on their hands, the NPA the same. This was a very similar situation to what was happening around the Guptas during 2016 and 2017. Many people knew, after the removal of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December 2015, that the Guptas possessed the power they should not have had and that it was being exercised through then president Jacob Zuma. But no one could prove it. Then the #GuptaLeaks were released and suddenly the evidence, the smoking gun was in the public domain.

Agrizzi appears to be providing that smoking gun for the Bosasa corruption claims. It is, therefore, an opportunity too good to be wasted.

But can the Zondo Commission provide the opportunity to clean up the state, and can those who have the responsibility to do so, in fact, do it?

The commission itself, and the public evidence for which it is the conduit, are hard to ignore. Millions of people are following it live. Those in charge have to do something and cannot ignore it in the way the previous reporting was ignored. However, if it is true that so many institutions themselves are so riddled with corruption it is difficult to know if they can, in fact, do their work.

Key to taking action, as always, are the Hawks and the NPA. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership appointments to these institutions show the willingness to make them more of a crime-busting tool than ever before. However, just changing a leader doesn’t change an institution. It takes time, effort, and the right people in the right places throughout the organisation.

It is also possible for ambushes to be laid and roadblocks to be erected — those who have something to fear from this process won’t sit idle. They will try to use what power they still have, sometimes within these institutions, to stop the clean-up process. Once again, transparency helps those who are trying to clean up.

It is in the interests of Ramaphosa and many of those around him to lead a clean-up. They will want to show that the ANC is changing, that the “new dawn” is not just about shining a light on the Guptas’ misdeeds but on all of those who are corrupt.

But what if Motlanthe was right in 2007 — is the rot that was “across the board” still the reality of the ruling party? Every indication is that is still the case and that the endangered players will come together, making it difficult for Ramaphosa to succeed.

The fact that an election is coming should aid Ramaphosa. In 2009 the ANC campaigned almost as a “new ANC”, and against some of the track record of the “old ANC” of Thabo Mbeki. It is likely that the party is preparing to do that again, but this time against Zuma’s track record. A key question now is whether can actually campaign against a track record that goes back much further than just the past five or 10 years. In other words it will need to show that it is really, properly and fundamentally, going to stop corruption in its ranks.

Key to this will be the make-up of its national list of people who will represent it in Parliament. The process of drawing up the list has been shrouded in some secrecy, and lists posted on social media cannot be verified. However, should that final list include most people accused of wrongdoing, it will be an evidence that the ANC is going against its own criteria for people who “will bring integrity” to the 107-year-old movement. This could be used as proof by the ANC’s critics that it is not truly cleaning up, or worse, that it is incapable of it.

It is not simple to predict what impact the Bosasa revelations will have on the result of the elections. While the leaders of the DA and the EFF are probably debating the merits of butter v salt for their popcorn during this time, they may not be able to capitalise on it that much. This is partly because issues around political identities are still important to voters, and likely to remain so for some time. There is also the problem of scandal fatigue. People are so used to scandals and the reporting on them that they simply cannot absorb it any more. This may mean that many voters go for the promise of Ramaphosa than the track record of the ANC.

Many South Africans have become used to the surprises in our politics and that nothing seems to stay the same for long. There will be more twists and turns delivered in the testimony presented at the Zondo Commission. But the question is whether our politicians, and our voters, will change their behaviour as a result of this testimony. If they do, the opportunity the commission offers to really fight corruption could be grasped.

The testimony coming out of the commission may be a crisis for some, but as the saying goes, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. DM

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