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2019 was Annus Horribilis – and yet, we shall overcome


Mavuso Msimang is a former senior member of the African National Congress who served on the Military High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe. He returned to South Africa in 1993 and served as Executive Director of SA Tourism, CEO of SANParks and CEO of the State Information Technology Agency. He currently chairs Corruption Watch and serves on various boards, including WWF South Africa. He was one of the original founders of African Parks.

South Africa is in dire straits these days. Many years of corruption and incompetence have exhausted the country’s reserves and we’re now close to the edge. Still, I believe the people of this country are better than this.

At the end of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview in Ottawa in 1985, Oliver Tambo was asked by a journalist if he was optimistic about his people in South Africa achieving freedom in his lifetime. A pregnant silence ensued, and then came Tambo’s terse response: “Yes, I am confident, definitely they will!” 

By any measure, it was an audacious statement.

In a mocking reaction to Tambo’s professed optimism, a man standing nearby asked me if I was familiar with the meaning of the word, ‘optimist’. Before I could rustle up an answer, he volunteered a definition: “An optimist, my friend, is a person who is not familiar with reality.”  Ouch! But then Tambo did have the last laugh. He triumphantly returned to South Africa in 1990, ending 30 years of an exacting exile existence as the leader of the African National Congress (ANC). 

The formalisation of the processes that led to the definitive transfer of political power to ‘his people’ on 27 April 1994 was left to Nelson Mandela, his ANC comrades, and negotiators from other political parties. Tambo departed our shores on 24 April 1993, two weeks after the assassination of his protégé and most respected revolutionary, Chris Hani. 

By any account, 2019 has been a very difficult year for South Africa, a veritable annus horribilis. With 2020 barely a week away, the key economic, social, political indicators depict a nation tottering at the brink of a catastrophe. Stats SA reported that the economy grew 0,1% year-on-year during the third quarter of this year. Nationwide blackouts during the fourth quarter hit utilities, manufacturing, mining, agriculture and construction. It is projected that South Africa will need to borrow R335,3 billion in 2019/2020 and the economy itself is expected to grow by a paltry 0,7%. 

The unemployment rate stood at 29,1% in the 3rd quarter of 2019. Youth unemployment at 58,2%, was exactly double this already astronomical national rate. The most vulnerable youth are said to be in the 15-24 age range. Substance abuse, according to 2011 Central Drug Authority research, is “twice the global average” and South Africa is rated “amongst the top ten nations in alcohol consumption.” 

A World Bank (WB) Report rates South Africa as the most unequal country in the world. It says 1% of the population owns 71% of South Africa’s wealth; that the bottom 60% owns a measly 7% of the country’s assets. Black South Africans are worst hit by poverty, as are the unemployed, the less educated, female-headed households and children. 

Poverty, the WB report continues, remains concentrated in historically disadvantaged areas, such as the former Bantustans. Unfortunately, the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Bill supported by ANC and United Democratic Movement MPs and signed into law by the President last month, will not do anything to alleviate the plight of the rural poor. To paraphrase Gloria Patri, for the poor it will be as it was in Bantustan days, is now and ever shall be. No blasphemy intended!

Social cohesion is an important ingredient in the building of a sustainable democracy and requires the development of synergies for a common destiny. Determined and sustained action by the leaders of society – political, business and civic – is necessary to bring this about. Currently, all signs point to the country experiencing an acute social-cohesion deficit. Nelson Mandela, who gave a lot of thought to building bridges to promote understanding among South Africans of different races and ethnic backgrounds, is sometimes derided and even dismissed as having “sold out”. Tutu’s aspirational rainbow nation is similarly scoffed at. 

There is a huge chasm in wealth disparities, as indicated in the WB Report; generally, white people enjoy a better standard of living relative to black people and this is regarded as a benefit from the apartheid past; the unemployment situation is deteriorating; there is race-indexing of certain jobs, as in affirmative action; levels of poverty mainly within the black community are worsening, signalling what some interpret as the absence of a democracy dividend. These are some of the factors that work against social cohesion. Incidents of random racist behaviour are not uncommon, while the employment of kith and kin is practiced across the board. Clearly, among other reasons, this happens when an economy does not generate enough jobs.  

The political arena is, most unfortunately, not faring any better in the promotion of social cohesion. Democratic Alliance (DA) party leader, Mmusi Maimane’s recent departure and Herman Mashaba’s resignation as Joburg City mayor have been attributed to transformational difficulties within the DA. Top Economic Freedom Front (EFF) leaders seem to take a particular delight in launching racist attacks on political opponents and ‘banning’ journalists whose coverage they detest. Significantly, it is individuals associated with exposing corruption in which EFF leaders have been implicated that have been the object of their most vitriolic attacks. 

The ANC, a preeminent signatory of the Freedom Charter, the document which says something about South Africa belonging to all who live in it, black and white, has also succumbed to the racism bug. Addressing a meeting in Soweto recently, ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte was moved to label her organisation “tribalistic and racist”. She accused it of “marginalising its members who are not black Africans.” Indeed, senior ANC members are sometimes heard in conversation referring to their mixed-race comrades and those of Indian heritage as ‘minorities’. This is despite the fact that members from these communities played second fiddle to no one during the ANC-led struggle for freedom and some paid the supreme sacrifice fighting under the banner of the organisation. 

That people who are presently referred to as Africans – aren’t we all Africans, by the way? – were the object of the most pernicious apartheid repression is incontestable – if the Khoi and the San also agree! As such, it is understandable that they are the prime beneficiaries of government programmes aimed at redressing past injustices. However, this policy requires constant review, lest it becomes prejudicial to the interests and welfare of other deserving citizens. A community in need of water, sanitation, a school, etc. should be assisted purely on the basis of the acuteness of need, irrespective of its ethnic or racial background. 

By all rational assessments, it is rampant corruption, now endemic in the ANC, that has more than anything else pushed the country to the very edge of the abyss. Once regarded by the ordinary people as the leader of society and torchbearer of democratic values, the ANC that emerged from ten years of leadership by a president who was up to his gills in corruption allegations had lost much of the respect it had previously enjoyed. Many of Zuma’s colleagues on the National Executive Committee (NEC) were not rated any better. With the exception of a brave few, many simply sat like tranquilised rhinoceros, unable to raise a limb in defence of the soul of what was once called “the glorious movement”. Politics of hunger, as Kgalema Motlanthe likes to say, or is it the allures of the feeding trough? 

When Zuma finally bowed out of office at the ANC’s 54th conference in December 2017, all of 2360 delegates voted into the position of Secretary-General a man engulfed in a litany of corruption allegations dating back to the time when he was the Premier of the Free State; a man whose leadership of the party in the province was rife with factionalism; a man who had lost two court decisions following complaints citing election irregularities. Here was Ace Magashule, being chosen by the trusted guardians of the ANC’s values to lead the organisation virtually as its Chief Executive Officer. It didn’t matter at all that he was a self-confessed friend of the Guptas or that articles and books had been written, painting him as a clearly corrupt person. Oh, I forget the new ANC credo: one remains innocent until proved otherwise, which means until he has exhausted the last opportunity to appeal. 

What is most tragic about all this is that the ANC happens to be the ruling party. So, the impact of its corruption affects society at large. Through the officials the ANC deploys (ever heard of cadre deployment?), it exercises tremendous influence in the running of government in the national, provincial and municipal spheres; in the police, the army, prosecutorial agencies, Chapter Nine institutions and, of course, in state-owned enterprises. The heads of some of these institutions are appointed by the President. The abuse of this power during the Zuma presidency has led to calls for a drastic curtailment of the powers of the State President. 

Government is mandated by the Constitution to use public funds to provide services in the interests of citizens. The common experience by members of the public is the abuse of this entrusted power through acts of bribery, embezzlement, patronage, nepotism, procurement malpractices, conflicts of interest, etc. BEE fronting, ‘tenderpreneurism’, and state capture have become bywords of public sector corruption. 

The private sector, let it be said, has been the major participant in, and facilitator of, the political corruption that has almost brought South Africa’s economy to its knees. McKinsey, Trillian, Bain, Bank of Baroda, KPMG, SAP and Bosasa, to name but a few, stand accused of complicity in the looting billions of rand in state funds. 

The Capture of the ANC

It is important to distinguish between ordinary corruption, even that of the gigantic ‘Bosasan’ scale, and state capture. The modus operandi for state capture involves influencing the strategic placement of decision-makers in key areas to shape the rules of the game to the capturer’s advantage. The collaborating villains are, of course, handsomely rewarded for the betrayal of their oaths of office. When the Guptas secured the cooperation of Zuma in their state-capture, their enterprise hit the jackpot. It gained access to the highest levels in the hierarchy, starting with the minister and on to a compliant chain-of-command structure put in place to ensure the plan was carrying out to the letter. That is why Eskom, Transnet, Denel, SABC, SAA, etc. were captured with such facility. 

The Guptas also appreciated the importance of capturing the ANC NEC, the organisation’s highest decision-making body between its five-yearly conferences. They went for the leagues as well. The Women’s League was well disposed towards the Guptas and supported the ANC delegation that demanded the reopening of their closed bank accounts. They looked after the financial interests of Youth League’s then President, Collen Maine. He was later to tell mourners at Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s memorial service that he had been introduced to the Guptas by Supra Mahumapelo, the chairperson of the ANC in the Northwest and Premier of the province. 

The Guptas did not find it necessary to approach the Veterans League, which was to all intents and purposes stillborn, having been starved of operational funds by the mother body. Instead, they focused their attention on the MK Military Veterans, which is not part of the ANC organisational structure but retains offices at Luthuli House. However, it had Zuma’s support who appointed its President, Kebby Maphatsoe, Deputy Minister of Defence in charge of Military Veterans. Confirmed reports say the former Deputy Minister lost his arm to a Ugandan sniper while fleeing the armed struggle. The Guptas regarded him as an ally. 

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC President and Snuki Zikalala as Veterans League President has somewhat normalised the situation.

The public must be eternally grateful for the release of the #GuptaLeaks as it got a peep of the goings-on in the Gupta compound in the Saxonwold suburb of Sandton where government ministers attended meetings at the behest of their hosts. It was sad listening to former finance minister Trevor Manuel tell the Zondo Commission how an emotional Fikile Mbalula reported at a 2011NEC meeting how he had been congratulated by Ajay Gupta who told him that he would be made minister of sport and recreation. Mbalula himself had not been made aware by Zuma that he was offering him this appointment. It is the absence of any reaction by the NEC to Mbalula’s plea that shocked the viewers. This is not surprising considering how some of the members were beholden to the Guptas who treated them to holidays at the luxurious Oberoi hotel in Dubai. 

Just so that it doesn’t happen again, it is important for the ANC leadership, veterans included, to reflect on what actually went wrong with the organisation during the past decade. Objectively, we will see a bunch of people who through sheer cowardice, sat back and allowed the Guptas to thoroughly corrupt an ANC President in the person of Jacob Zuma. He should not have been elected to office in the first place, especially after Shabir Shaik’s 15-year conviction on corruption and fraud charges; also, not after his rape case (in which he was acquitted) during which he admitted to having engaged in unprotected sex with one Fezekile “Khwezi” Kuzwayo, a troubled young woman who was HIV positive. Sad to say, she had to go into hiding to flee the wrath of marauding ANC Women’s League and Youth League members who accused her of being a harlot. For a while, she even had to live in Holland as a refugee. Julius Malema, then-incoming President of the ANCYL declared himself satisfied that Khwezi had not been raped as she had asked Zuma for bus fare home in the morning after their congress. Those were the days when he was also willing to kill for Zuma. Malema, who later became Zuma’s nemesis, obviously subscribes to the philosophy that consistency is the virtue of an ass.

Khwezi has since died.

No ANC leader worth the title should have put his name forward for election as President after these highly publicised scandals. Neither should a leader be worth the title. Instead of taking a principled stand, people engaged in dangerous political gamesmanship. A combination of tribalism and misplaced ideological considerations by the South African Communist Party and COSATU, both ANC allies, resulted in a patently unsuitable person being elected president of the ANC and then of the country. Criminality became part and parcel of ANC political makeup. 

Oliver Tambo was no longer around to pull us back. Walter Sisulu, the epitome of integrity, was also gone. Nelson Mandela, old and frail, could only offer moral suasion – not the kind of thing that works with certain ANC types. Desmond Tutu, a liberator of note although not a member of the ANC, did say, to his credit, that he could not bring himself to regard Jacob Zuma as his President.

The ANC’s vulnerability ruthlessly exposed through Zuma’s appointment, the Guptas had a field day. The looting and hollowing out of SOEs went on as if there was no tomorrow. To distract the nation’s attention from the wholesale plunder of its institutions, the Guptas threw the white-monopoly-capital (WMC) red herring across the trail. Remember, it is the Guptas who hired Bell Pottinger and paid them R1.7 million per month (plus costs) to help us discover that “white monopoly capital” was what stood in the way of black people achieving economic advancement. The irony of securing the services of a British multinational to tell us that! But we caught the bait, and the Gupta pillaging proceeded apace. They are better than Oppenheimer and Johann Rupert, we were told. How sad that a corrupt few should so effortlessly exploit the gullibility of so many! 

Let us be clear, we always understood that the struggle for liberation was, in essence, a fight against oppressive and exploitative capital. Surely, the ANC and progressive forces in parliament have the power of legislation to tackle any obstacle to the achievement of the people’s economic emancipation. The question that must be asked and answered honestly is whether this economic emancipation is planned to be achieved through a free enterprise or socialist system. That will determine how we go forward. I suspect it is the former. Why else is the government supporting a Black Industrialist programme? If it’s socialism, what country is our model and worthy of emulation? These are the issues for debate, and we must get on with it. 

Contemplating the future – things ARE looking GOOD

The Guptas have since fled South Africa to what they believe to be a safe sanctuary of the UAE.  Help seems to be coming our way from an unexpected source, namely, President Trump’s United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) which has implemented sanctions against the Guptas “for their involvement in corruption in South Africa.’’ That is the predicament facing the fugitive friends of Jacob Zuma and Ace Magashule. Chandies ruk, in the tsotsi taal of old. Our Minister of Justice and Correctional Services wants justice and correction to be dispensed in Mzansi. Good luck Minister Ronald Lamola. We are behind you. 

Second, dislodging the Guptas and their acolytes from power was a titanic achievement. It was accomplished at the conference that elected Matamela president. It is not the narrowness of his victory margin that should worry us. It is the hollowness of the whole election exercise that is the issue, given the prevalence of corruption. There should be no place in the ANC for people who vote per instruction rather than conviction. It happened last time around and that was a form of corruption. To regain the trust of its branch members, and the population at large, the ANC has to introduce a secure electronic voting system that will enable all members in good standing to securely cast their votes.

Third, the fight against corruption must be waged with relentless ferocity. Members must ask themselves how it is possible that they can be led by an avowed friend of the Guptas, a pariah company in South Africa? Magashule says there is nothing wrong with being friends with them. Really, is that how ANC feels also? If so, we have lost it. There is no hope in hell for any organisational renewal with Ace Magashule as the man in control of the party’s machinery. It is just impossible to expect from someone like him to make a single move to help the exhausted organisation. That would be acting against his own interest, an unrealistic expectation. Neither he, nor his many factotums in the NEC and Parliament, will lift a finger to help President Ramaphosa and the ANC to turn our situation around. If we persist with the current leadership confusion, we are certain to turn South Africa into a failed state.

Fourth, the four commissions that were appointed by the president to investigate corruption in various state organs have done a great job of unearthing the monumental dirt that has piled up. It constitutes our version of the Augean stables in Greek mythology. Cleaning them will be a Herculean task that must be carried out with single-minded attention. That has started and the public is liking it. People have been greatly encouraged by the initial corruption-related arrests. More and speedier action is rightfully expected. 

If ever there was any doubt that the fightback brigade is a bunch of criminals bent on destroying the country, just look at the arson on the Eskom power stations. If they believe they are embarrassing the president, then they are doing it at the expense of the innocent public.

Finally, Eskom must be assisted to work at full throttle. That might just be enough to convince Moody’s and investors the confidence that the turnaround is happening. But that must be just to get us out of the present darkness. 

The future, Mr President, lies in renewable energy – hydroelectric and solar power, among others. Coal pollutes the environment, meaning it causes diseases that kill people. Eskom knows how many people their coal-fired power stations kill every year – over 330 of them. Lastly, coal contributes more than almost any other sources of energy to global warming. Very soon, financing houses will stop financing coal-based energy contracts. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change called for that and South Africa is a signatory to it. 

Like Tambo, I am an optimist. I know for sure that the darkest hour comes before dawn. Happy New Year. DM


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