ON JANUARY 2, South Africans woke up to the news that the country’s parliament building was on fire. Days later came the release of an 800-page report detailing endemic corruption and poor governance in South Africa.
Then, several glass doors and windows were smashed at the Constitutional Court. It’s been a worrying start to the year for a country still mourning the loss of its “moral compass”, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The report – the first of three expected from the Judicial Commission to Investigate State Capture Allegations, known as the Zondo Commission after its chairman, Associate Chief Justice Raymond Zondo – confirmed what the report said. t has long been suspected: state capture is rampant in South Africa. Systemic political corruption has, for example, benefited the influential Gupta family, as well as a range of enablers in the country’s civil service and ministries.
The report reveals patterns of abuse at almost every stage of public procurement. When professionals from ministries or public enterprises resisted, they were replaced by more docile civil servants. In the committee’s view, South Africa needs an independent anti-corruption agency that can perform its duties without fear or favour.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who campaigned on a promise to fight corruption and improve governance, said the findings of the Zondo Commission should be used to help the country reform its institutions and call for accounts to managers. “We have to make sure we use [the findings] to safeguard these institutions in the future so that they will never again be captured,” Ramaphosa wrote in his weekly newsletter.
But statements by other members of the ruling African National Congress party were not so resolute. Speaking to community and religious leaders in a rural province shortly after the report was released, Vice President David Mabuza was evasive about what action the government would take. “We’re committing to deep thinking, and we’re going to change,” he said.
But “reflection” might not correspond to responsibility. ANC national chairman Gwede Mantashe said he opposed the use of the report to prosecute party leaders. The ANC’s position, coupled with weakened state institutions, has led to skepticism about the government’s ability and willingness to act meaningfully on the report’s recommendations.
The mixed reactions to the commission’s report must be seen in the context of the ANC’s internal battles. As the party prepares for its national elective conference in December, factional infighting is more pronounced than ever. Ramaphosa, who is expected to seek a second term as party leader, faces stiff competition from the radical economic transformation faction and will have to balance his political aspirations, party needs and the country’s long-term interests.
It will be difficult to implement the report’s recommendations without lasting damage to the reputation of the ANC. Moreover, South Africa’s constitutional democracy faces threats that go beyond the corruption revealed by the Zondo Commission. As the report notes, “State capture has aggressively attacked a system that was already weakened by longstanding comorbidities,” including high levels of inequality, poverty, and unemployment.
In this state of affairs, the events of early January, such as the riots and looting of last July, should come as no surprise. Although they may not have been part of a coordinated effort to destabilize the country, they are clear symptoms of democratic decay.
Some seemed to embrace the disease. In a recent comment, Lindiwe Sisulu, tourism minister and MP since 1994, questioned the benefits of the “rule of law” and called the country’s constitution a “stopgap” for the poor.
Sisulu’s comments have been denounced as yet another attack on South Africa’s democratic institutions. But it is true that the political freedoms contained in the constitution had to be accompanied by measures aimed at reducing economic inequalities, which are the highest in the world. Twenty-eight years of democratic rule have brought only negligible progress on this front.
TIMES OF CRISIS
The constitution represents a social contract among all South Africans. The democracy it envisions requires the support of ordinary citizens and political leaders. But the rights it guarantees depend largely on the state.
In February, South Africa faced a second assessment by the African Peer Review Mechanism, a voluntary arrangement established by members of the African Union, on the state of its governance. This assessment suggested credible reforms, providing a new opportunity to reflect on the serious problems that have emerged.
South Africa needs bold and decisive action to rebuild trust in institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority, professionalize the civil service and strengthen standards of transparency. The ideals of the Constitution must be put into practice. A good way to start would be to act conscientiously on the recommendations of the investigation into the state capture allegations.
* Cayley Clifford is a researcher in the African Governance and Diplomacy Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
– Copyright: Project Syndicate 2022