Vickson Ncube, the CEO of the Pan African Federation of Accountants in June 2017 wrote that “African society is drowning in a ‘have all, possess all’ mentality that has become an endless orgy of spend and gain. Position and power have become keys to accessing resources meant for the general good and converting them for private good.
“We will be forgiven in concluding that the scrambles we see for power on our continent are no longer driven by a desire to serve but by waiting turns to loot. We have seen changes in ruling parties in various countries that have not resulted in a fall in levels of corruption.”
Ncube hit the nail right on the head. State and political corruption scandals have been a persistent issue throughout history. They have been a subject of fascination in popular culture, including books, movies, television series, and have even been sung about by renowned and notorious musical performers of different genres with songs addressing themes of corruption and political impotence.
Some struck a deep chord as an outstanding reminder of the palpable disconnect between the ruling elite and the common people on the ground. In South Africa, for instance, it has now become customary and normalised that without corruption stories, there is no interesting news. Feel-good stories are no longer considered important news as they do not involve corrupt practices.
The pedestrian approach South Africa takes when dealing with corrupt activities pales in comparison with other progressive countries that have dealt with similar matters.
For example, the Fitzgerald Report, officially known as the “Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct”, was a landmark investigation conducted in Queensland, Australia, during the late 1980s that uncovered widespread corruption within the state’s police force. It led to major reforms and consequence management through decisive investigations and convictions.
The Report of the Zondo Commission, officially known as the “Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State”, seems not to have been given the same priority attention.
In 2022 the National Assembly’s rules committee accepted President Cyril Ramaphosa’s implementation plan for the Zondo Report recommendations, but little progress has been made with few tangible results.
The implementation of the Fitzgerald Report’s recommendations faced various challenges, including resistance from within the police force as the report revealed extensive corruption within the Queensland Police involving officers at various levels; and political opposition as the report exposed and implicated not only police officers but also politicians and other public officials.
And it went without saying that the implementation of the recommendations meant confronting powerful individuals and vested interests, which led to political challenges and resistance. Despite these challenges, the Fitzgerald Report had a profound impact on Queensland with notable changes being, among others, the establishment of the Criminal Justice Commission (now known as the Crime and Corruption Commission), which to date has played a vital role in combating corruption and misconduct in the state.
Lipservice to the people
The government of the Republic of South Africa needs to exhibit sensitivity to the plight of citizens who are the collateral damage of corrupt practices, and stop stonewalling steps or corrective actions to remedy the existing malaise.
The Zondo Commission report has the potential to bear fruit in effecting significant changes to the structure, culture and accountability mechanisms in South Africa. Close reading of the reforms suggested by Zondo — if considered and implemented properly — would result in reforms with lasting impact, increased transparency, integrity, and public confidence in the government and state-owned enterprises like Eskom.
Talking about Eskom, its former Group Chief Executive Officer André de Ruyter — who was appointed in November 2019 to turn around the struggling utility — has made startling allegations of corruption at the utility, painting it as a cesspool of financial mismanagement, incompetence, and operational inefficiencies.
De Ruyter’s book, Truth to Power – My Three Years Inside Eskom, with allegations untested as they are, tells of a crippling culture of corruption at Eskom. Some comments in response to a recent extract from De Ruyter’s book in Daily Maverick seem to suggest that he might have kicked the hornets’ nest.
“I’m overcome with a sense of despair. What can the ordinary, honest citizen do?” reads one of the comments. Another refers to Harry S Truman who said, “show me a man that gets rich by being a politician and I will show you a crook.”
What the ordinary honest citizen can do is a very profound question. Unfortunately, the seeming political impotence, and our political leaders’ and parties’ indifference to the plight of ordinary citizens as a result of corruption seems to be forgiven very easily for some reason, so accepting — or rather should I say, immobilised — as we are by corrupt practices.
The frustration and desire for change in a corrupt society has not done enough to galvanise collective action or the power of ordinary people to challenge the glaring failure of the state to deal effectively with corrupt practices, the existing corrupt political order, and other challenges that are directly linked to corrupt practices, such as Eskom’s rolling blackouts.
Little is done by society to even leverage court decisions that are favourable to addressing the plight of citizens. For instance, the Constitutional Court in the majority judgment of Eskom Holdings SOC Limited v Vaal River Development (Pty) Ltd Others [ (CCT 44/22)  ZACC 44 (23 December 2022)] held that the supply of electricity need not be explicitly entrenched in the Bill of Rights in order for residents to claim entitlement to it.
We, the people of South Africa, went through the hardships of political strife and the devastation of apartheid policies with many lives lost. The ANC, currently the governing party and at the time one of the main active political movements, stood firm against apartheid oppression and systemic injustice. So profound was its role in the attainment of freedom in South Africa that we all (or at least some of us) had hopes in its nobility to lead South Africa as a shining example of what African countries can be after political liberation.
Unfortunately, such optimism has often proven to be misplaced, with the country’s reputation — like that of the House of Borgia, a prominent Italian noble family during the Renaissance — being tarnished by numerous scandals and allegations of corruption, nepotism, leading a morally corrupt lifestyle, political assassination (either as a means to hold on to power or kill witnesses to some astonishing alleged acts of corruption), and abuse of power.
Like the House of Borgia, it is now well known that the House of Gupta allegedly used shrewd political manoeuvres, strong influence, and extensive use of bribery to secure power and influence and to gain support and maintain control over state entities and government officials.
I am further indebted to Vickson Ncube who quotes French economist and author Frederic Bastiat as saying “when plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorises it and a moral code that glorifies it.”
In his book titled The Law, which was first published as a pamphlet, Bastiat talks of self-preservation and self-development as common aspirations among all people. Bastiat was opposed to the growth of socialism in France in the 1840s and held the view that “the state is the great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else”.
In The Law, Bastiat was concerned about the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder, and as such I will not say a lot about this masterpiece as it relates to the challenge of corruption in South Africa. However, I would still argue that it is becoming common among some politicians and government leaders that “when they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others”.
So far, the focus in South Africa has primarily been on short-term wins against corruption, and comprehensive anti-corruption strategies have been neglected.
The one thing that makes our politicians not feel compelled to prioritise anti-corruption reforms is the public being apathetic towards corruption issues. It is only when there is strong and sustained public demand for change that our politicians will find it more difficult to ignore or resist implementing the necessary anti-corruption reforms.
As Ncube convincingly puts it, “in order to promote integrity and defeat corruption, all of society needs to work together… corruption must be elevated to the level of criminality that it is — a crime against humanity. Let’s stop arguing against corruption, as there has been enough of that; let us take up a fight against corruption.”
Writing on the South African economy and the failing Eskom in the Financial Times, Africa Editor David Pilling said “it is not clear that the ANC has the stomach to do what is right. There are some good people still in the party of Nelson Mandela. But they are drowning in the swamp that will eventually swallow them all”. DM