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Anti-corruptionism could become the ideology of the day


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

The depth and variation in corruption contagion in state, government and political parties in South Africa raise questions of how political parties will argue their way out of the morass come Election 2019. South Africans’ innate (and legitimate) hankering after ideological radicalism provides a hint.

So far, South Africa’s ideologically charged present promises to bring some easy political shelter to the parties … or could a new ideology of anti-corruptionism eclipse previous ideological foundations?

In several instances in southern Africa – for example, in Zambia and Malawi – new parties and coalitions formed to fight corruption, rather than conduct a grand ideological war. They attempted to bring vigorous action against corruption, rather than pursue new substantive policy directions. The parties cohered on action to get public funds to be spent on the public, in whichever ideological configuration, as long as the money gets to the people without being hijacked by the politicians.

In light of South Africa’s cumulative corruption monster growing and growling, could this be the new future? There are indeed a few signs that South Africans are embarking on a national unity project of forsaking conventional ideological difference in exchange for “anti-corruptionism”. There is a chance that this could become a new and uniting national consensus. It is worth taking stock of the ideological threads that continue to run through the national psyche, however, and consider where the current upper hand is: in anti-corruptionism or in the bigger ideological matter?

Many ideological permutations drove the ANC’s policy and governance interventions in the nearly two-and-a-half decades of democracy. This happened while South Africa regressed from the corruption of the arms deal, to Nkandla, to capture and collapse of the Presidency and state-owned entities (and many strategic state institutions in between), to the saga of VBS and the Venda billions, which also crosses both party political and intra-ANC factions.

At the heart of South Africa’s de facto “ideological character” is the desire for radicalism amid liberalism, neoliberalism and a multitude of less than radical, often nationalist and Africanist-inspired, everyday choices and practices. The latent radicalism and overt Africanism are mobilised frequently.

This unfolds either for the sake of fostering national identity among core electoral constituencies, or is used opportunistically by political leaders for outmanoeuvring political opponents, within South Africa’s dominant party system that hosts multiparty democracy. Such was the case with radical economic transformation – and a few of the policy matters that accompanied the basic thrust, such as land and the Reserve Bank.

The radicalism sits uncomfortably – but this is South Africa – next to macroeconomic and fiscal discipline, actions to appease mine owners, markets, and all that help grow an economy that tries to nest in a conservative international financial order. New international partners, like BRICS and the CCP of China, on behalf of the massive Chinese economic state-giant, play ideologically big, but comply with dictates of trade and global finance.

Anti-colonialism could with good justification be seen as key to South Africa’s ideological mix. Much of the dominant ideological base is about countering historical and contemporary colonialism and coloniality. The fundamental frustration and anger about the limitations of the financial order are related to these roots. Except that it comes with a proviso: welcome the West as economic investors in South Africa, and tolerate, particularly well, the high-end luxury products and labels (including on consumables) that come with the colonial powers.

The contradictions continue. The national ideological culture hosts a potent belief in liberal multiparty democracy and associated elections. So far, South African citizens have loved their electoral events. They are ideological; they signify the basic political right of choosing a government, while embodying the symbolism of having conquered the racist apartheid order.

Simultaneously, populist direct action (often nowadays through the medium of fire) is accepted, simultaneously, as integral to our democracy – it works.

South Africa’s start of multiparty democracy was paired with the democratic settlement cum economic compromise, but also coupled with the continuous hope that the ideological content would shift, incrementally, towards more economic justice than what was possible at that clichéd “dawn of democracy”. There was the persistent expectation that South Africa could be more just, redistributive (hence, more radical).

When Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as president he cast the expectation that radicalism would follow – more justice after the Mandela honeymoon. Conveniently, South Africans disregarded that Mandela’s compromises were systemic, not simply personal. Mbeki became synonymous with “the 1996 class project” and a new managerialism – and legitimated ideological abrogation a-la-Zuma. The ANC and much of South Africa wanted to give Jacob Zuma a chance to bring a smarter connection to the people, more development, and in effect more radicalism, or, at least, to spend the country out of the 2008 economic doldrums.

Some Mbeki-ists tried to caution against the corruption pull of the Zumaists who were hankering after a drink from the trough, but the anti-Mbeki surge emasculated that option. There was a belief that Zuma, corruption baggage and all, would ring in a more just political reality.

Instead, the spectacle of uncontrolled drinking took hold. The presumed Zuma radicalism was reserved for the occasion of Zuma needing a hook to help him retain power. The dark cunning of the Bell Pottinger London-colonial arm of the erstwhile Gupta empire ruled. They brought on ideological rhetoric to rhyme with the South Africans’ hankering after that elusive radicalism of economic justice. This Zuma-Gupta nexus diffused the rhetoric to capture (legitimate) radical longings on the ground.

The rhetoric of “radical economic transformation” was embedded; the sham ideological project became the signature to the ANC’s Nasrec, December 2017, policy resolutions.

In the aftermath, the new Ramaphosa regime rebases the radical rhetoric and select conference resolutions in the not-going-away international economic ideological framework (of restraint, market-friendliness; essentially, neoliberalism). It was evident when Ramaphosa delivered land restitution to seal a successful case of land reclamation in KwaMkhwanazi, KwaZulu-Natal. His words:

The Mkhwanazi land restitution settlement responds unequivocally to those who have raised questions about the intent or impact of our programme to return people to the land. Mkhwanazi also addresses those who seek to perpetuate exclusive privilege by preaching stability at the expense of justice.”

Hence, a demonstration of the new “radical intent”, in the absence of the words “expropriation” or “compensation”.

Multiple other iterations suggest, equally, that pussyfooting is an ideological position of the day. The ANC, ideologically, is playing economic constraint and market-compliant conservatism, within the limits imposed by renewed longing for African authenticity and the inescapable popular insistence on getting that “better life for all” that marked the ANC campaign 25 years ago.

This brings the circle back to the point of real radical ideological debate (not in captured iterations) being eclipsed by non-corruptionism as the only alternative that matters: South Africa might be approaching such a “post-ideological” position, where political parties will be judged more on what is clean and testifies to anti-corruption than on what is ideologically substantive.

Even with political parties deeply entrapped in corruption (the ANC and EFF in particular; the DA and some of the micro-parties to a lesser extent), South Africans’ benchmarks for assessing their political parties are not shifting definitively towards non-corruptionism above all.

Race and class – and gross injustices enacted historically and in recent times – remain in place for political parties to activate, and activate them they will, come the campaigns for Election 2019.

Voters will, however, this time around extract more anti-corruption promises than in any election from 1994 on. Flimsy defences of capitalist enemy classes wanting to discredit the EFF through VBS revelations, or the ANC referring VBS transgressions into the labyrinthian legal treadmill of innocent until proven guilty, will not go far in persuading voters that the parties are clean.

The serious game of playing voter perceptions is on, and the ideological duel unfolds. DM


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