We beat conventional wisdom with a stick
22 November 2017 16:54 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The myth of the incompetent black government

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

The recent realisation that corruption in government has grown to levels that can be described as “state capture” by private interests has led many old-fashioned white racists to feel vindicated, and many black people to feel embarrassed and defensive. Both sentiments corrode social cohesion, and neither is justified.

At the recent Knysna Literary Festival, I had the pleasure of hosting a discussion on the Fate of the Nation, with authors Songezo Zibi, the former editor of Business Day, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, an investigative journalist for the Sunday Times, and RW Johnson, an anti-apartheid activist, Rhodes Scholar and former Oxford Don. It was a wide-ranging discussion, but one of the most important realisations came early on.

The allegation that the Gupta family offered Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas the position of Finance Minister had just surfaced, an approach Jonas had publicly confirmed. Days earlier, ANC MP Vytjie Mentor had said that she had been offered the post of Minister of Public Enterprises by the Guptas when Barbara Hogan was sacked in 2010, on condition that she’d instruct SAA to drop its flights to India in favour of the Guptas’ airline.

The extent of the corruption in the Zuma administration, in which Cabinet appointments, public enterprises and government tenders are influenced by private interests, has been painstakingly documented by the Mail & Guardian’s Amabhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.

Daily Maverick first used the term “treason” in December, when South Africa had three finance ministers in four days, UDM’s Bantu Holomisa repeated it in an editorial on the links between Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta and President Jacob Zuma. Nobody on our stage thought that this term went too far.

A recent political analysis on “South Africa’s racial mania”, by RW Johnson, is a thoughtful piece, well worth reading and digesting. One point, however, stood out for me. The rising tide of corruption, and simultaneous erosion of state enterprises and economic vitality, has led to increased racial animus in South Africa.

Since this was South Africa’s first African government its imminent failure was seen as an enormous symbolic defeat for the black race by certain black intellectuals – first and foremost in their own eyes,” Johnson wrote.

This in itself was almost unbearably painful, as can be seen in innumerable letters to the editor from black readers saying how personally humiliated and let down they feel by the government’s failure. Second, many black intellectuals were quick to imagine whites sitting on their verandahs of an evening, gin and tonic in hand, saying ‘I told you so’ – an almost unbearable image.

Julius Malema, with his usual unerring instinct, taunted the ANC with the thought that some whites were actually enjoying the prospect of a black government failing.”

Johnson refers to Malema’s celebrated speech to the Oxford Union in February, in which he eloquently puts his finger on many valid grievances (even if his Marxist economic policies won’t redress them). Malema said: “We want to restore the dignity of African people.”

He’s right to say that the Zuma administration is an embarrassment for the struggle for African liberation, and he is also right to say that society has yet to complete its transformation to one in which all citizens are equal in both principle and practice.

However, it is important to recognise that corruption and incompetence are not exclusively the domain of black or African governments. South Africa’s corruption and slide into the economic abyss are a failure of government, independent of whether that government is black or white.

A few years ago, I wrote a column attempting to debunk the notion, popular among old-fashioned whites of a racist bent, that the apartheid government was more competent or less corrupt than the present ANC government. That it was competent at all was a myth, I argued, even if your view of that government was skewed by the fact that you were in the minority of the population to which it devoted the majority of its resources, while millions of black South Africans were removed to remote homelands without resources, budgets, or service delivery. The National Party regime was also substantially corrupt, with government contracts, public sector appointments, state-owned enterprises, political policy, and entire companies controlled by the Afrikaner elite in the Broederbond.

The ANC’s failure, therefore, is not unique in South Africa’s history. In fact, Johnson’s latest book, How Long Will South Africa Survive?, which concludes that South Africa can either have an ANC government or a modern industrial economy, but not both, is a reprise of a title he first used in 1977, predicting the fall of the apartheid government for very similar reasons.

The 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index*, published by Transparency International, underscores the fact that corruption is not necessarily associated with black or African governments. South Africa ranks a lowly 61st on the table with a score of 44%. Many African countries do rank lower. However, below South Africa, one cannot ignore the other Brics countries: Brazil, ranking 154th out of 167 countries with a score of 18%, Russia, at 119th with a score of 29%, China, at 83rd with a score of 37% and India, at 76th with a score of 38%.

Iran ranks 130th, with North Korea in the second-to-last position. Vietnam is 112th, the Philippines is 95th, Colombia is 83rd, and the socialist paradise of Venezuela comes in 158th place, just above Iraq. Lebanon is 123rd, Argentina 76th, Serbia 71st, Bulgaria 69th, and Turkey and Macedonia are both 66th. Italy ranks level with South Africa, at 61st, and Greece is only slightly better, at 58th.

All of these countries score below 50%, and yet none can be described as black or African. Ghana outperforms South Africa. Namibia, Mauritius and Rwanda all score above 50%. Botswana ranks right up there among Estonia, France, the UAE, Portugal, Poland, and Taiwan, in 28th place.

The apparent correlation between the “blackness” of a government and a country’s corruption or economic failure does not explain anything. Race is an irrelevant variable.

In the US, the most corrupt states are New York and California, although Chicago has long been its most corrupt city, with Houston following close behind. Per capita, Washington DC, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, and North and South Dakota are more corrupt than Illinois. If there is racial bias in those rankings, I fail to see any. (Although if you want confirmation bias, you could point out that Barack Obama is a product of Chicago politics.)

A notable finding in the Corruption Perceptions Index is that northern European countries, which occupy seven of the top 10 positions, might be fairly transparent at home, but are often implicated in corruption overseas.

Race explains nothing about corruption. Instead, corruption has a strong correlation with an “overabundance of regulation or unnecessary restriction of business activity”, according to a paper in the Journal of Business Ethics. The more powerful and intrusive the state, the more opportunity there is for corruption. Corruption and over-regulation are also correlated with black market activity.

A powerful ruling party is often a feature of postcolonial countries, because of the appeal of socialist economic ideas and loyalty to political parties that are credited with having won a liberation struggle. These are political and economic factors, not determined by race.

As Johnson points out, it is true that although the overwhelming majority of whites want their country to succeed, the ANC’s failures have hardened racist views among some whites. It is equally understandable that many black South Africans think it humiliating to admit that the party of liberation has failed as a party of governance, as racist whites and gloating émigrés predicted.

This has provided a strong incentive for ANC voters to see problems addressed within the party, instead of switching votes to an alternative that cannot credibly carry the torch of liberation. The emergence of Julius Malema’s perversely named Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) promises an outlet on the ANC’s left for disillusioned voters, although the ANC will probably stop the bleeding by simply echoing the EFF’s political rhetoric about land and economic redress.

A solution to South Africa’s endemic corruption will involve several important factors. For example, the panellists at the Knysna Literary Festival discussion all endorsed the idea of holding Members of Parliament accountable to their constituencies, instead of being answerable to their parties for inclusion on party lists. The evidence from local government, which unlike national government is constituency-based, proves that this isn’t a panacea, however.

The key to thinking about corruption is to realise that it is not a function of race. Even if some whites would exploit government failures for racist reasons of their own, denouncing corruption should not be seen as an attack on black politicians, democratic equality, or the liberation struggle. There is no reason to believe that white politicians are any less susceptible to temptation, or that private interests will suddenly cease efforts to capture state resources should any other party come to power. Corruption is a pervasive human failure, which can only be fought by means of healthy, independent institutions of governance.

Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but a united stand against corruption could go a long way towards reconciling a country that has emerged from the Rainbow Nation afterglow with persistent divisions along racial fault lines. After all, whether you want a successful country with a thriving economy and an honest government is not a function of race. DM

* Because Transparency International’s website was down at the time of writing, I referenced the Wikipedia page for the Corruption Perceptions Index to find the scores and rankings cited in this column.

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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