Earlier this month the “stalwarts and veterans” of the African National Congress (ANC) bestirred themselves to commend their party’s leadership for “grasping the nettle of corruption” following national revulsion at the “frenzy of looting” accompanying the government’s Covid-19 relief efforts.
Others think this frenzy is a crime against humanity that should be referred to the international criminal court, and that the perpetrators should go to hell. Cyril Ramaphosa thinks they are “scavengers” and “hyenas” upon whom he is going to unleash a “special centre” comprising eight government agencies.
We shall see. Corruption, however, is only part of a problem which also originates in two of the ANC’s major official policies, cadre deployment and “employment equity”.
There are few government agencies, whether in the criminal justice cluster or anywhere else, whose management has not been packed with party comrades. The major purpose of these deployments is to secure ANC control, even if the comrades so deployed are corrupt. Given that so many comrades are corrupt, this deployment policy helps to perpetuate corruption. President Ramaphosa has yet to explain how he will ensure that the deployees sent to hunt down the “scavengers” are not themselves “hyenas”.
When the stalwarts and veterans talk of revulsion at “the industrial-scale larceny visited on the country for well over a decade”, they fail to “grasp the nettle” of acknowledging that their party’s deployment policy has made the larceny possible for at least two decades. Among other things, it has fostered the prevalent culture of impunity in which comradely loyalty overrides the duty of honest and efficient service to the public.
The deployment policy is not the only way in which official agencies have been undermined. Immense damage has also been inflicted by the implementation of employment equity, especially in the form of the requirement that job occupants reflect racial demographics.
If appointments are made not on the basis of professional competence, but on the basis of political loyalty or to fill racial quotas, you end up with the public service which we have got, pervaded by both corruption and incompetence. So even if Mr Ramaphosa seriously intends even to begin to start trying to stamp out corruption over Covid-19 - a big if - he faces the challenge of finding enough officials who are both honest and competent.
Although it is corruption over Covid-19 relief that has pushed public anger to reach a point where even the complacent ANC is a bit worried, it is impossible to disentangle corruption from the other two factors, cadre deployment and racial demographics.
Eskom. SAA. Prasa. The SABC. State schooling. Government health care. National departments? Provinces? You name it. Who is to say which of the three factors has done the most damage?
With the exception of the Western Cape, South Africa’s municipalities are packed with people, many of them deployed cadres, who are sometimes crooked, sometimes incompetent, sometimes both. If all the crooks were weeded out, millions of people would still have no clean or reliable supplies of water, because they would still be at the mercy of incompetent cadres.
No doubt most people outside the ANC (and maybe some within it) would like to see lots of corrupt people imprisoned. That would be a start – if it could be brought about – but it would be only a start. Would the board of a new squeaky-clean SAA be subject to the same old cadre deployment and racial quotas? Would the corrupting policies of preferential procurement and black economic empowerment still apply to the “new” SAA and other state-owned enterprises?
Legislation tightening up employment equity requirements for the private sector is on the way, so presumably there is no intention to relax racial requirements in the public sector.
The commentariat is devoting enormous energy to exposing corruption. A handful of commentators have from time to time focused critical attention on cadre deployment. But they all still largely endorse the policy of implementing racial quotas. They therefore simultaneously deplore corruption while supporting – or turning a blind eye to - policies which undermine the state’s capacity to combat it.
This is nonsensical. It also means that the bulk of the commentariat is not doing a proper job of informing the public.
The Constitutional Court has not been much better, for it has taken the view that “transformation” is the overriding imperative of the Constitution (which is a political opinion rather than a reflection of what the document actually says).
In a judgment handed down in a case in 2014, it upheld the denial of promotion by the police to Captain Renate Barnard on the grounds that she was white, even though no suitable blacks were available for the post in question, with the result that it was left vacant. Affirmative action, the court said, was necessary to achieve “substantive equality”.
By 2014 state failure had long been apparent and the subject of plenty of criticism. The Constitution requires not only “broad representation” in public administration, but also “ability” and “efficient, economic, and effective use of resources”.
Yet even though the Constitutional Court warned that beneficiaries of affirmative action had to be “suitably qualified in order not to sacrifice efficiency at the altar of remedial employment”, its decision in the Barnard case gave more weight to racial requirements than to “effective” public administration - even of the police force in this crime-ridden country.
The court thus lent its imprimatur to racial policies which have undermined the public sector and also the constitutional rights which depend on an efficient public sector, among them the rights to life and dignity, the right to security of the person, the rights of access to housing and health care, and the right to a healthy environment.
Apart from being criminal, the theft of public funds undermines all these rights. But so do the ANC’s cadre deployment and racial policies, which also handicap efforts to combat such theft and other types of crime. It’s about time the commentariat began connecting the dots.
And for the Constitutional Court to be less complacent about the consequences of racial “transformation”.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.