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Faced with systemic corruption, the ANC’s road to hell is paved with good intentions

By Nick Dall
25 Apr 2021 2

Nick Dall has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. As a journalist covering everything from cricket to chameleons, his favourite stories are always those about people — dead or alive, virtuous or villainous. He is the co-author with Matthew Blackman of ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (Penguin Random House).

Reading all the ANC statements on corruption made over the years, one after another, is kind of like watching a train bear down on a man chained to the tracks. You know what’s going to happen, but there’s nothing you can do to prevent it.

As the DA and EFF illustrate almost daily, it’s easy to cast aspersions when you’re in opposition. But analysis of ANC statements on corruption and wealth distribution dating back almost 70 years does suggest that there was once a genuine desire in the ANC to avoid the kleptocracy we now find ourselves in. A change of government alone will not be enough to fix systemic corruption in South Africa.

Systemic corruption is defined as corruption caused by the weaknesses inherent in an organisation or process. As one of the co-authors of Rogues’ Gallery, a book about the loooong history of corruption in South Africa, it’s a concept I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to. In the book, we show how the structure of the Dutch East India Company — which paid measly wages and had no way of checking up on employees in distant Africa — encouraged corruption. And we examine how governments as diverse as those in Paul Kruger’s ZAR and Lucas Mangope’s Bophuthatswana tossed manure on the seeds of corruption, causing them to flourish beyond all imagining.

But I digress. This column will focus on a series of statements made by the ANC and/or some of its most prominent members on the topic of corruption and distribution of wealth.

Exhibit A

The first comes from the 1955 Freedom Charter. The document which famously declared that “The People Shall Govern!” also contained a section on redistribution of wealth which has not remotely come true.

“The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!

“The national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people;

“The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole”.

Exhibit B

Next, we come to a document entitled Strategy and Tactics of the ANC which was adopted in Tanzania, way back in 1969:

“Our drive towards national emancipation is therefore in a very real way bound up with economic emancipation. We have suffered more than just national humiliation. Our people are deprived of their due in the country’s wealth; their skills have been suppressed and poverty and starvation has been their life experience. The correction of these centuries-old economic injustices lies at the very core of our national aspirations.”

Sadly, this same document gets even more specific in warning against the very situation we find ourselves in today:

“[Our nationalism] must not be confused with the classical drive by an elitist group among the oppressed people to gain ascendancy so that they can replace the oppressor in the exploitation of the mass.”

Exhibit C

The next gem is a 1992 ANC statement on the revelations of the Pickard Commission (which had exposed rampant departmental corruption in the final throes of apartheid), “FROM MURDER, CORRUPTION AND MISMANAGEMENT TO DEMOCRACY, JUSTICE AND GOOD GOVERNMENT”. This one’s worth quoting from at length:


“In early May the report of the Pickard Commission was released disclosing extensive corruption in the Department of Development Aid involving billions of taxpayers’ money. These disclosures were the tip of the iceberg. Indications are that virtually every arm of the central apartheid state have [sic] been deeply implicated in theft and corruption, including DET, Defence, Law and Order, Health and Welfare, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Justice and Correctional Services… This cesspool of corruption extends far beyond the central apartheid state, to Bantustans, regional and local government. Mangope, Gqozo, De Klerk and others whose insistence on regionalism/federalism is partly motivated by their desire to hang on to these freedoms, to perpetuate their hold over resources and entrench their ill-gotten gains …

“Our demands on corruption and mismanagement:

        1. The setting up of an independent commission into corruption and state expenditure — at all levels of government — which would ultimately come under the direction of the Transitional Executive Council. This Commission should have full access to all government Departments and records.
        2. The dismissal and, where appropriate, prosecution of all Ministers and officials implicated in the misappropriation of public funds. This would involve most senior Ministers in the current government.
        3. The seizure of assets of those implicated in the theft of public funds.
        4. In addition to acting against those responsible for corruption, we should demand the renegotiating of the allocation of public funds. For example, the R5 billion allocated to covert projects should be reallocated to compensate victims of the violence, and to finance reconstruction.”

Exhibit D

The next quotable quote comes from none other than Nelson Mandela who, in 1997, promised that South Africa would never see “the formation of predatory elites that thrive on the basis of looting of national wealth and the entrenchment of corruption”. Ironic when you consider that the Arms Deal was announced just one year later.

Exhibit E

And now we come to our fifth and final ANC corruption quote. Readers of this fine rag will probably be familiar with Kgalema Motlanthe’s 2007 bombshell, but there was no way I could leave it out:

“This rot is across the board. It’s not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money. A great deal of the ANC’s problems are occasioned by this.”

While there are plenty of other quotes along the same lines, I’ll stop now. Reading them all one after another is kind of like watching a train bear down on a man chained to the tracks. You know what’s going to happen, but there’s nothing you can do to prevent it.

In her recent book Systemic Corruption: Constitutional Ideas for an Anti-Oligarchic Republic, the Chilean academic Camila Vergara makes a fairly familiar point when she argues that systemic corruption “cannot be blamed on the actions of corrupt politicians but is built into the very fabric of our representative systems… in which the structure consistently works to enrich the few and oppress the many”.

(Even in a mega-corrupt society like our own there have always, thankfully, been some people who manage to resist the temptation to put their fingers in the till. As well as a few who are brave enough to blow the whistle on corruption.)

What’s really interesting about Vergara’s book is that it goes all the way back to antiquity to show that representative democracy was in fact designed to protect the interests of the already rich and powerful to the detriment of the majority.

She also turns to ancient Greece for a potential solution to the problem — namely “the establishment of anti-oligarchic institutions through which common people can collectively resist the domination of the few”. She explains, for example, that by the fourth century BCE “almost all magistrates were chosen by lottery from a broad pool of citizens who enjoyed isegoria — the equal right to speak to the assembly — and were paid by the state to exercise political power”.

Vergara does not suggest for a moment that ancient Greece was free of corruption. But she does think we can learn a thing or two from popular attempts to keep it in check.

Vergara is convinced that plebeians can change the system. But she also describes the fact that “the majority of people are either on Netflix or watching Instagram and cute puppies” as “very convenient for the powerful few”. Between her analysis of systemic corruption dating back to ancient times, and our cataloguing of 350 years of corruption in South Africa, it’s pretty clear that a change of political leadership alone will not be enough to solve the problems we have with corruption.

The hollowing out of state institutions during Jacob Zuma’s presidency does represent a low point (one of several) in our nation’s history. But this is about more than the individual (im)moralities of our political class. It is about fixing the system that creates them. Once we’re all off the couch, I’d like to agree with Vergara that we do have the power to fix the system.

But instead of turning to ancient Greece, why not start by digging out the ANC’s 1992 “demands on corruption and mismanagement”? DM


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  • Corruption is in the DNA of homo sapiens. The core question is how to deal with it. Any system based on values, instead of waiting for gullible voters to wake up, will stand humanity in good stead. Tks for the piece, Nick. More discussion and information on this is needed.