Hitting rock bottom

Jeremy Gordin writes on the recent outcry over Covid-19 procurement corruption

Considering the recent written and spoken words of a number of people, I’ve been wondering this week whether it’s possible that certain peripheral comorbidities – a species of amnesia, say, not unlike early-onset dementia – could affect members of the body politic, even though these folk look and feel okay.

It began on Monday evening.

There was the ever-natty eNCA TV anchor Shahan Ramkissoon on the screen, and he was shouting – yes, shouting accusingly – at ANC spokesperson, Pule Mabe. Now, I was taught that, as a journalist, one doesn’t shout at spokespeople, or anyone for that matter, in (or on) a public forum. One should rather aim at skewering such people with incisive and dogged questions – talking softly while carrying a big stick.

But Ramkissoon was apparently upset about the ANC having been “shown” to be corrupt as a result of its leaders, officials and members stealing millions or billions of rands by hijacking PPE and other contracts – and clearly felt he needed to demand to know why the ANC was being so vile.

Even more remarkable was that Mabe wasn’t being his usual obtuse, obdurate, and arrogant ANC self but was trying to respond to the accusations patiently. (Mabe made little sense, but mostly he never does; so this is beside the point.)

On Tuesday morning, this was followed by Ace Magashule, ANC Secretary General, saying the ANC was “outraged and deeply embarrassed by recent allegations that some, including its own leaders and members, had sought to benefit unlawfully from ... the COVID-19 pandemic” and thus the ANC had collectively dipped “our heads in shame”.

Also on Tuesday morning, though apparently written on Monday evening, a piece by Carol Paton of BusinessLive reached me.

Paton – who, if I might say so, is one of our heaviest hitters – wrote that “[President] Cyril [Ramaphosa] may get cross, but his [sic] state and party will stay corrupt to the core” because “[t]he ANC has institutionalized corruption in so many ways it will be impossible to eradicate. ... It is built into the system in both the state and the ANC and, as we have seen, Ramaphosa is helpless when it comes to reforming either of those”.

Most interesting of all, however, was the sub-head (suitably backed up in the body of the article) – “Black empowerment policies mean tender fraud and jobs for pals at all levels of the system”. This was striking simply because saying this out loudly is so rare, certainly in the so-called MSM.

Along, on Wednesday, came the irrepressible Peter Bruce. Pete’s on a roll, though these days he’s wobbling down the other side of the hill. (Sort of; still hedging his bets though: “Ramaphosa has got a lot [sic] right as president ...”) Bruce’s newly enhanced vision might have something to do with his familial connection to SA Breweries and Heineken SA, which, as he explains in his article, have been whacked hard by the government idiocy, but no matter. At least Bruce is more or less on the right page.

“Not only is it now clear that Ramaphosa has no working majority in the national executive, he is losing union support as well. The unions won him the presidency and they are outraged at the tender corruption the ANC has allowed to happen under the cover of responding to the Covid crisis.

“Ramaphosa may not yet have any direct rivals ahead of the December 2022 ANC leadership election, but they will emerge to the theft and the left of him. ... Stand up to the ANC mafia Mr President or say goodbye”.

But now, long-suffering readers will want to know, what does all this outpouring of remorse, anger and analysis – and I’ve touched on only a smidgeon of what’s been written and said during these last few, heady days – what does it have to do with my cogitations regarding the possibility of a species of amnesia affecting people?

Ah yes. Well, when my gorgeous wife wants to be particularly sarcastic or deprecating about something I’ve said – i.e. when I say something that is blindingly obvious – my wife looks witheringly at me and says, “Well, halloo”.

So, halloo, where has Magashule been for the past while? Did he not read Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State – or was it removed from the shelves of his local bookshop before he had the opportunity? Halloo, I know that unfortunately for Ramkissoon, he contracted Covid-19 and had to spend time recovering, but surely it had previously come to his and his news desk’s attention that the ANC was brutally fleecing the people?

Paton’s article might be a valuable rarity but halloo, correct me if I’m wrong, various people have been writing for literally years on Politicsweb and other places about the deleterious effects of cadre deployment, tenderpreneurship, and so-called black empowerment policies. Helen Zille – she whose name one hardly dares to speak – wrote back in 2008 that “BEE under the ANC has been perverted for the benefit of a small clique in the ruling party and its business partners, who are usually deployed party insiders, and who in turn must pay their dues back to the party and its leaders. This is legalized corruption,’ as author Robert Guest famously described the ANC's approach to BEE.

The question, then, is not whether the government is of the people, by the people, and for the people – we know it isn’t. It’s why that which has been under the noses of so many for so long has suddenly become apparent to so many only now.

Now that we have hit rock bottom, morally speaking, will South Africa accept that just reshuffling our political leadership is not going to solve the problem? That some institutional reforms are needed here. Doing away with political patronage in the civil service, for instance, or making price the determinant of who gets awarded government tenders for things like PPE?

Contrary to one’s instincts, is there something to be said in favour of the unexpected fallout of a frightening and pernicious epidemic? Is South Africa finally going to abandon the bottle of racial nationalism, in favour of trying to solve our problems?

Not if Steven Friedman has anything to do with it. This week Friedman produced a piece titled “New ways are needed to deal with deeply entrenched corruption,” which, notwithstanding the extremely high bar he has set over the years, must be hailed as one of his most bizarre to date.

Friedman explained it had been only a matter of time before discussion of the government’s response to Covid-19 fixated on corruption because the national debate “isn’t at home [sic] with asking whether many illnesses and deaths could be prevented”. It [the national debate, presumably] was, instead, comfortable with corruption “because everyone knows how to respond to it (by indignantly repeating what they said last time the subject came up)”.

This had happened, Friedman explained, “chiefly because the political deal of 1994 left much of the economy untouched. The old, largely white-run, networks still run the show, and this makes it hard for black people with ideas and energy to break through. Some decide rather than knock on a door to the upper rungs of the economy, which remains closed, to use politics to achieve the same aim.

“Discussion of corruption needs to move beyond the routine moralizing in which people stake their claim to fame by telling us how bad corruption is ... There will be no progress unless [discussion] shifts to discussing ways to tackle a deep-rooted symptom of a still skewed economy.”

Generous fellow, Friedman, as this is no doubt what many people would like to hear. Reminds one of a person who presses a case of expensive booze onto an alcoholic who is just beginning to recognise he has a problem.

Kind – but so cruel.