Fighting corruption? Really? President Ramaphosa could start today — but he won’t
While our political leaders make a continuous stream of promises to end corruption, the evidence of such action is virtually non-existent. It is as if the ANC of today is defined by its internal fight against its promise of ‘renewal’. Even President Cyril Ramaphosa has admitted that corruption is fundamentally damaging our democracy. He has the constitutional duty and power to act and yet he seems woefully unprepared to do so.
Last week, while speaking at the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council’s national dialogue on building a corruption-free South Africa (many “corruptions” in there — Ed), Ramaphosa made an important comment that reveals how damaging corruption has been to our society.
“Corruption,” the President said, “has wounded our democracy and shaken people’s faith in our institutions. If corruption is not arrested, the greatest damage will not be in the funds stolen, the jobs lost or the services not delivered.”
Then he made his major point:
“The greatest damage will be to the belief in democracy itself.”
How right this statement is.
Many people contributing to our national conversation have suggested that democracy is failing; English-language talk radio is replete with calls from people who believe that a dictatorship may be better, that “democracy has gone too far”, and from black people the horrific (and incorrect) claim, that “apartheid was better than now”.
From time to time, political leaders have come close to making the same point.
The most famous of these examples was then president Jacob Zuma’s claim in 2016 that if he were a dictator for six months, “everything would be in order” afterwards.
There can be no doubt that, as has been demonstrated many times, most South Africans are worse off in every measurable way than they were just five years ago.
For many, the worst aspect of this is the huge increase in violent crime, which has forced them to live in fear.
A society-wide response
During his address at the national dialogue, Ramaphosa also said that corruption is so bad, “It therefore requires a society-wide response that marshals all our resources and capabilities in a concerted effort to end corruption in all its forms.”
Again, this must be correct. Ending corruption involves police officers not asking for bribes and motorists not giving them, along with protection for whistle-blowers and many other measures.
But a “whole-of-society approach” to ending corruption must include the power of living by example.
One of the worst aspects of the Zuma years was that many other people indulged in corruption partly because of the example he set. If he and others in his government could get away with it, why not them too?
Without Zuma, Hlaudi Motsoeneng would not have been able to behave in such a thuggish manner that fundamentally damaged the SABC and many of the journalists working there.
There was an almost direct link between Zuma’s behaviour and that he got away with it publicly, and the fact that so many people were involved in corruption — at driver’s licence centres, the Department of Home Affairs, the SA Police Service, and pretty much everywhere there was a chance to make a quick buck.
By setting an example, Ramaphosa has a chance to initiate the reversal of this plague.
He is able to address the entire nation, has the highest level of public political power and is the most famous person in South Africa.
This places upon him a unique obligation to live as he wants society to live. He cannot hide behind legalese, practising passive-aggression (he must wait for “findings” or for someone to be formally charged).
A ridiculous extreme
In the ANC-directed language, his refusal to tell the truth extends to the point of ridiculous extreme, where as long as someone has not exhausted the last instance of appeal, that person cannot be seen as a criminal. (This extends to obvious criminals who are often freed on technicalities — and even end up serving in our Parliament.)
This, coupled with the chaos in our prosecuting authorities and the use of Stalingrad tactics — which are, in turn, fuelled and paid for by money from corruption — renders many a powerful person an untouchable person.
Ramaphosa can step in here. He can say that in his view, this person is a crook, or cannot be trusted. This is how most of us live; if you see someone on video stealing something, you don’t need a judge to tell you they are a thief, you can decide immediately to have nothing to do with them.
If someone repeatedly lies to you or others, or assaults people, or steals money, or damages a company, they develop a reputation for doing this.
No one needs a final finding, with all appeals exhausted, against someone for them to decide not to work with, associate or employ that person because they have a bad reputation and can’t be trusted.
There are extensive press reports and investigations about corruption and criminality within the government and the ANC, and Ramaphosa does not have to wait for years to react. The most obvious case in which he is failing to set the example he claims people must follow is in the appointments he has made.
But he has not explained why he has retained in his government someone against whom there is overwhelming evidence of corruption, such as Deputy Water Affairs Minister David Mahlobo.
“The Commission finds therefore that Mr Mahlobo did indeed involve himself in operational matters at the State Security Agency (SSA), and further that large amounts of cash were delivered to him on several occasions.”
He was receiving bags of cash from the State Security Agency and handing them to Zuma.
By employing Mahlobo in this way, Ramaphosa sends the signal, every day that Mahlobo is in office, that he trusts a person whom the Chief Justice believes may have been stealing cash or giving it to someone to steal. (And that’s before organising the SSA to serve as Zuma’s personal apparatus. — Ed)
There is no way of knowing if Mahlobo is still doing such a thing in a ministry which deals in huge amounts of money. (Earlier this year, with a critical water shortage in Nelson Mandela Bay, he famously declared in Parliament that there was no major water crisis in South Africa. — Ed)
If any CEO in any corporation were to employ such a person, there would be a huge outcry and it would be the major discussion point in every broadcast news outlet. The board would be expected to remove the CEO.
Instead, Ramaphosa is happy to say, standing up in public, in Parliament that he will not act against members of his executive despite the Zondo findings, and that only, “Once charges are preferred against anyone, we are then able to follow through.”
This is nonsense.
There is nothing stopping him from removing Mahlobo (and others), right now. There is no legal reason (a President can appoint whoever they want from the National Assembly to their Cabinet) and no moral reason.
What can one understand from this?
It can only be that when Ramaphosa claims he needs all of society to fight corruption, he does not see himself as part of “society”. And that fighting corruption is something for other people to do, while he can happily appoint a person to whom “large amounts of cash were delivered” for which no explanation has been given.
When Ramaphosa says “the greatest damage will be to the belief in democracy itself”, it is time for him and his party to look in the mirror. DM