Opinionista Oscar van Heerden 17 June 2021

Fight for a better South Africa: Dismantling the architecture of corruption, brick by brick

The political economy of corruption in our country is eating away at the very fibre of our society. And though many have thrown in the towel and taken a more pessimistic stance, others simply cannot afford to, or won’t allow it to take centre stage.

Oscar van Heerden

Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

I’m the first to say it’s not an easy fight, but we are fighting more than just some corrupt individuals. Look at Eskom, for example.

It was in 2008, just before his unceremonious departure from high office, that former president Thabo Mbeki told the nation why we were experiencing load shedding. 

In 1994, our foreign reserves were depleted and, on the whole, the country was bankrupt. The economy had not been growing for a number of years and the apartheid government left the new government with virtually nothing in the kitty. At the same time, many stakeholders were making presentations to the new ANC government about all manner of urgent matters that required attention, including the bulk infrastructure needed for electricity generation. 

Money was also desperately needed to combat the HIV/Aids pandemic sweeping the country at the time, not to mention all the poverty reduction measures that were needed. 

There simply was not enough money to go around at the time, and so, according to Mbeki, a decision was taken that the bulk infrastructure for Eskom would have to be sorted out at a later stage. 

That later stage came when we started experiencing load shedding and had sufficient money (savings) to negotiate a much better loan deal with various international financial institutions, unlike in the mid-1990s. 

The question then is, why has it taken 13 or more years to fix this particular problem?  

Even if we accept — and it is rather evident now — that there was huge collusion among private sector players and corruption in the construction of Medupi and Kusile power plants — neither is operating optimally to this day — why are we still faced with this challenge all these years later? 

We can either say it’s gross incompetence on the part of “these blacks” running the country and Eskom — a narrative touted by some white South Africans — or we can conclude that it’s for two clear reasons: First, for far too long during apartheid, the capacity of Eskom was only made available to a small minority of white suburbs and businesses, while the largely black townships remained in the dark and made do with paraffin lamps and open fires for cooking. Obviously, now that all citizens are treated equally, the demand is far bigger.

Second, the very ones who are supposed to fix the problem are part of the problem. The contractors and engineering firms — and in no small measure the unionised workers of Eskom — are responsible for and are perpetuating this ongoing problem. 

You see, the private sector types know how desperate we are as a country to have this problem solved, and that’s a great position to be in — there’s nothing like having to rely on others to solve a major problem. Costs escalate day by day to ensure profits. As for the workers, their petty and yet profitable corrupt practices have ensured additional income to augment their salaries, and so the status quo must remain. 

It is no accident that the spokesperson of Numsa should tell us that the new Eskom CEO, Andre de Ruyter, is a racist. In fact, she goes as far as saying that Brian Molefe was a better boss than him. Has she not listened to the Zondo Commission and heard how Molefe and the Guptas sold our country down the river? 

Let’s put it differently: when Mbeki left office in 2008, the debt of Eskom was a modest, manageable R30-billion, more or less. A decade later, after the Zuma administration and Molefe’s leadership, the debt is R492-billion.

Now, for those maths aficionados out there — clearly not the Numsa people — this is an increase of about R462-billion over a nine-year period. This is just wrong in anyone’s book. 

In the 18 months since De Ruyter took office, he has managed to reduce that debt by R90-billion. This is simply incredible. Cut the fat, curb fruitless expenditure, manage procurement inefficiencies — these are among the interventions I’m sure are being implemented by the new CEO. Imagine if we give him another 18 months — this is looking very promising indeed. 

Corruption thrives when there is chaos and systems failure. And apparently, when one comes to instil order, introduce systems and procedures, you are a racist. Because, as a white man, you have to deal effectively with a majority-black workforce, of which many can be corrupt. We must call it what it is, and not fall for lame dirty tricks.

Look at the PPE corruption during this pandemic. Because we are all in panic mode, in the confusion and chaos some thought they could take advantage of this and be corrupt. But we are on to them now.

As my good friend Robert McBride always says, it’s not us who are prosecuting the corrupt individuals, it’s never personal, it is the evidence that is prosecuting you wrongdoers. 

So, if Numsa members and others from the private sector don’t want to end up in jail, best they cease their corrupt practices and become part of putting our country back on a path to renewal and growth. 

Eskom, like SAA, will be dismantled and, yes, private partners will be sought. This is the logical and intelligent thing to do. It’s not that Cyril Ramaphosa is pushing a neoliberal, imperialist agenda — to the contrary. 

We have shown over the past two decades that the state-owned enterprises model does not work — and neither did it work in the apartheid era. We tried very hard to make it work, but the ultimate irony is that if we did not have corruption and we all were on the same page with regard to succeeding in Mzansi, it might have worked. 

But the architecture of corruption is such that we always want more: crass accumulation is the order of the day and to hell with the rest — or should I say, to hell with the people. 

Our South African Police Service is a corrupt criminal syndicate and as such we will ensure that as active citizens in the media and elsewhere, we continue to keep our eye on SAPS. Why the president and the police minister are not actively dealing with this reality is cause for concern.

In short, we will endeavour to dismantle any wall of corruption brick by brick.

Who’s with me? DM

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All Comments 8

  • I like dreamers and idealists, but I choose realism above scenarios of a wonderful utopian world.
    I wish we can dismantle corruption brick by brick. Unfortunately, when starting to understand who and what we truly are, corruption will only stop when the world ends. There is hardly a country in the world left that did not create some kind of anti-corruption unit. Why? Because corruption is a universal reality.
    From a scholarly point of view Daniel Ariely has written about humans’ dishonesty at length in ‘The (honest) truth about dishonesty.’
    There are ways and means to minimise its effects and the more honest people should try to do something about this human trait. Going about fighting corruption is noble and should be persued with everything we have. It is much more devastating than any virus can be.

  • “Our South African Police Service is a corrupt criminal syndicate” – they’re also murderous thugs so watch your back mate.

  • “First, for far too long during apartheid, the capacity of Eskom was only made available to a small minority of white suburbs and businesses, while the largely black townships remained in the dark and made do with paraffin lamps and open fires for cooking. Obviously, now that all citizens are treated equally, the demand is far bigger.”

    Yes, but I feel like you’re going “oh this is Apartheid’s fault here. This is CLEARLY the fault of a shortsighted ANC government, which Mbeki even admitted when we first had load shedding in 2007. They were warned. Repeatedly. Since the 1990s. The ANC chose to ignore the warnings. At least Mbeki was a big enough man to admit that he and others were wrong on that.

    • Otherwise I agree with you.

      The unions enjoyed above inflation related increases long before this, even thought the country has been having financial issues since the start of the Zuma presidency. And with what seems like declining membership, the unions must push for higher salaries so that their leaders can enjoy their big houses, expensive cars, and other luxuries.

      De Ruyter is doing a great job. Even if we’re stuck with load shedding. If he manages to reduce our debt of 3-5 years below 200 billion, he will have been an amazing leader.

      And yes, if only the ANC and those willing to join them in their stealing in the private sector hadn’t robbed us blind, maybe our SOEs would be functional and benefitting all people in SA. As it is now, private investment is the only way forward.

  • I’m with you. The only area of disagreement is the suggestion that state-owned enterprises can work. I don’t believe they can. Government must govern and the business sector must business. Sure, the government can be involved to ensure fairness, competition, transformation, adherence to laws, etc. For the rest, all of these organisations should be run on business principles. The new SAA structure looks like the right approach to me. Government is involved. Transformation and international relations can be maintained. But at the end of the day, for the first time in a while, SAA will be run by people who actually know how to run a business and run an airline.

    I am not saying give business a free hand to do what they want. That won’t work out well for anyone except quick-buck shareholders. Treating business as an enemy to transformation and progress hasn’t worked well for South Africa either.

  • Oscar, oh Oscar. Due to personal circumstances I only managed to read your article now, at 20:00 Thursday 17 June. I have commented on a few others, such as Marianne’s article about a possible reshuffle of the cabinet by Ramaphosa (which turn out out to be disastrous), and simple missed the best the best article of the day, yours! I like to comment on articles, and even on comments of others on certain articles. I love opinions of others in a world of free speech, and listen when there is disagreement in opinion.
    As usual, I am digressing, but wish to inform you that I found most of your opinion articles on DM to be most informative, in short, an avid reader. In short, I was most interest in the opinions of several commentators to your article, noticeably Gerhard, Rowan and Lawrence. And all of them talked sense, the truth, and nothing more. Just as your article! And deep down, all have the same thoughts and opinions. And it just takes someone like you to put those thoughts/opinions whatever on paper, for people to participate, debate, agree, disagree. Thank you…..THAT is what democracy is about!

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