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The Zondo commission is more than the sum of its parts — give it time


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

With the Zondo commission, the most vigilant and courageous media on the continent, a Constitution second to none, and what is starting to become an increasingly grounded presidency, South Africa is doing at the age of 25 what African states have been attempting since Ghana’s independence in 1957.

If the Zondo commission and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) get things right — and we are rid of those implicated in the worst of crimes against the state and citizens — the country will have achieved something that more than 50 African countries have wrestled with since at least the 1950s.

Aided to a significant extent by the Constitution and a judicial system which, at the highest level, has deep integrity. Under the leadership of what appears to be an astute presidency with its eyes “fixed on the prize”, as it were.

If the Zondo commission and the NPA do what most citizens expect of them, South Africa will have avoided the political-economic collapse, retrogression, civil wars and the ethno-linguistic fractionalisation which has had a negative impact on societies across the continent, and the somewhat minimal secessionist and irredentist claims on the continent.

It’s probably inordinately Panglossian, but if the Zondo commission and NPA get results (we’re talking prosecutions ) we may produce a generation of public servants and civilians who have acquired a renewed sense of confidence and trust in the state and country.

Without being hysterical, let us reflect, briefly, on some of the worst decisions, policies and political catastrophes that have plagued most African states since the end of World War II, especially since Ghana gained independence in 1957.

A huge set of caveats is needed here. We should be careful with generalisations, remember the great diversity of people and politics on the continent, bear in mind that countries such as Kenya were never Marxist, Liberia was not colonised by Europeans, and the Cold War played an important role in driving individual states into specific ideological (read political-economic) camps.

Nonetheless, there should be no barriers on what we may think or discuss — even if our analyses have shortcomings or fail to capture all relevant details, in particular, because of the scarcity of reliable statistical data on Africa.

The end of euphoria and everything that goes with it

Because of space constraints, it is not possible to produce a rundown of each African country’s political-economic choices. There are entire books dedicated to this topic. But a distinctive pattern has been a period of initial formal political entry, where indigenous politicians with little or no administrative, bureaucratic or technical skills took over from former colonists. In that early stage, there have been very few successes.

In the case of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah made himself president for life and presided over a government that had little to no knowledge of how to run a country. South Africa’s Constitution prevents that. As it goes, Nkrumah was ousted in a coup in 1966 and died in exile in 1972. In South Africa’s first 25 years, the country has avoided a coup.

Nkrumah’s son Gamal told the BBC, that the “euphoria of independence” soon wore off, and pan-Africanism lost its appeal because countries were more interested in retaining their own sovereignty:

The main goal of the ruling cliques — many of which were military — was to preserve and concentrate power… the seeds of the problems we now associate with the continent — poverty, corruption, the breakdown of public services — were sown in those times.”

It’s probably worth inserting here that across the continent elected leaders have manipulated elections and secured tenure for more than 30 years in some countries. Most people seem to have a view on the late Robert Mugabe’s decades of rule, but further north Paul Biya has virtually made Cameroon his own property for the better part of 33 years. Until very recently, he was outdone by José Eduardo dos Santos who ruled Angola for 36 years.

Getting back to the way the euphoria of independence petered out in Ghana, and the consequences: while whatever euphoria South Africans may have of 1994, there remain people who consider the political settlement of the early 1990s as unnecessary and insufficient. For now, however, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has remained in its barracks, and our past presidents went into retirement without causing too much of a stink — except for those who stank during their presidency anyway.

The toppling of Nkrumah was not an isolated incident. By one account, Africa underwent 3.2 coups a year during the Cold War, 54% of which were successful. After the Cold War, the average dropped to 2.6 a year with a success rate of 40%.

Corruption is corrosive and as old as capitalism

When I slink into Twitter-banter, I like to remind people that corruption did not emerge as part of social relations in 1994. More seriously, though, there is evidence that corruption became rife during the Industrial Revolution (it is not unique to Africa or Africans).

When considering the finer details, it seems clear that the Industrial Revolution gave birth to “a complex economy characterised by increasing dependence on finance and investment together with an increase of professionals such as lawyers and financiers that facilitated the expansion and potential for white-collar crime. Corruption increased progressively from one historical era to another with the complex nature of corruption involving finances being introduced in Africa through colonialism”.

The main corrosion occurs in society, and poor political-economic choices make things a whole lot worse for the public. In general — never mind the Africa rising meme — Africa continues to lag behind other continents. For almost four decades — 1960 to 2000 — other regions increased per capita income, improved literacy rates and healthcare.

Such was the extent of the underperformance that per capita income in Africa was roughly the same in the late 1990s as it was at independence in the 1960s. Africa’s development has stagnated and declined significantly over the years. Almost half of the continent’s population live on less than $1 a day and thereby have represented 30% of the world’s poorest for most of the two decades of the 2000s. Africa persistently ranks on or near the bottom in global comparisons of social indicators.

This state of affairs” according to Patrick Loch Otiendo Lumumba, a former director of Kenya’s Anti-Corruption Commission, “is mainly attributable to the culture of impunity, corruption and bad governance”.

Towards some kind of summation: with the Zondo commission, the most vigilant and courageous media on the continent, a Constitution second to none, and what is starting to become an increasingly grounded presidency, South Africa is doing at the age of 25 what African states have been attempting since Ghana’s independence in 1957. But let us give the last word on this matter to the National Black Chamber of Commerce in the United States:

In 1957, Ghana was the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa with a per capita income of $490. That was nearly the same as South Korea which had a per capita income of $491. By the early 1980s, Ghana’s per capita income had been reduced to $400 while South Korea’s per capita income had grown to a whopping $2,000. By 1990 South Korea’s per capita income was 10 times larger than Ghana’s — $4,832 versus $481.”

There are, of course, disagreements that would remind us of slavery, colonisation and the role of the US in South Korean development. But they are barely able to conceal the differences in the life of Ghanaians and South Koreans in the 1950s and the early 2000s.

The point of this essay, then, is that there really is no need for South Africa to follow the path set by Ghana, or Zimbabwe for that matter. The historical record shows that for much of the post-war period, Africa’s problems were, as Lumumba explained, “mainly attributable to the culture of impunity, corruption and bad governance”. This is precisely what the Zondo commission is attempting to expose and bring to an end.

If South Africa does stick to the path-dependence laid out by most African states, we would have to go through complete collapse (like Liberia, or Somalia), food scarcity (like Zimbabwe), successive coups (Mali, Sudan, Niger, Chad or Sudan which, between them may have had about 100 attempted coups or coups among them), lifelong presidents (as Nkrumah set out to be), and masses of probably illicit, and dangerous, mining.

South Africa does not have four or five decades to wait. Sixty years after independence, Ghana is finally considered the fastest-growing economy on the continent.

The Zondo commission and the NPA should, in the coming months, help with cleaning up the state and its agencies. The Achilles heel of future prosperity and stability remains the ruling party’s fear of its left flank — which will not allow the ANC to once and for all abandon the public enterprises, especially Eskom, Spoornet and South African Airways, which are a drain on the fiscus.

And so, as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s team of economic advisers get together to start their work, they might be well advised to remember the country’s “economic” problems as social and political. In the meantime, the Zondo commission and NPA need as much support as they can get. DM


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