It would be churlish to deny that President Cyril Ramaphosa has just had one of his better weeks in office.
He not only easily survived an African National Congress national executive meeting (NEC) that some had predicted might trigger his recall at the hands of the state looting faction, but he managed to force powerful politicians who has been criminally charged to withdraw from leadership positions while the allegations were investigated. He is also once more the man upon whom great hopes are pinned that the rampant criminality that exists within the ranks of the party and government — in nepotistic South Africa they are the same — will be punished and eventually eradicated.
But these achievements are less impressive than they are painted to be.
Given his unrivalled personal popularity among party members as well as the general public, and the powers of reward or exclusion that any president has over his colleagues, Ramaphosa has always had more power than he has dared use. The presidential paralysis of the past almost three years has had as much to do with his cautious and non-confrontational character than any lack of clout.
And the moves now against corrupt colleagues have less to do with moral conviction than political necessity. The incandescent national outrage over the billions stolen from emergency pandemic relief funds has put the ANC in a quandary. If it ignores the public clamour for action, the party faces the real possibility of a thrashing in next year’s local government elections.
In Ramaphosa’s letter to ANC members last week, the letter in which he conceded that the party was in the corruption dock as Accused Number One, the president made some substantive suggestions on how to address the rot.
The first was that any ANC cadre implicated in corruption — in court, at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, in forensic or investigative inquiries, or media exposes — would have to report themselves to the party’s Integrity Commission. Those unable to bluff their way past this ambitiously titled but lamentably ineffectual body would have to step down or would be summarily suspended.
Following the NEC meeting at the weekend, a handful of the most blatant offenders have now done so. They are ANC MP and former minister, bribery-accused Bongani Bongo; Andile Lungisa, who assaulted a fellow Nelson Mandela Bay councillor; corruption-accused former Ethekwini mayor and KwaZulu-Natal MPL Zandile Gumede; and corruption and money laundering accused, KZN ANC deputy chair Mike Mabuyakhulu.
This is being hailed as a political turning point in the battle against corruption, the first step by Ramaphosa towards a revival in South Africa’s fortunes.
That we get excited about this small gesture is a measure of how far we have sunk. It is the norm in any democracy worth emulating that even substantive allegations — not only charges — of wrongdoing will trigger the person’s withdrawal from office until the matter is resolved.
Despite bodies like it’s Integrity Commission and Council of Elders, that’s a standard of behaviour that the ANC dare not contemplate. On the 87-member national executive alone, it would demand the recusal of easily half of its members. There is no reason to think that those proportions don’t hold for the ANC at every level of the organisation.
Nor should we entertain the fiction that these are new problems that Ramaphosa is having to wrestle with. While the rot accelerated during the years of looting presided over by Jacob Zuma, it existed prior to the previous president and has been tacitly tolerated by this president.
The other anti-corruption measures that Ramaphosa proposes in his letter — lifestyle audits, declarations of financial interests, and a policy on ANC leaders and family members doing business with government — are evidence of this. These have all been promised by the ANC many times before or, as is the case with public representative and government officials, are measures that are supposedly already in force.
Ramaphosa’s administration is no more committed, or able, to enforce such measures than was Zuma’s. If they are now implemented, this is likely to be to as limited a degree as the ANC can get away with and largely as a political weapon to neutralise Ramaphosa’e enemies on the NEC and in the tripartite alliance.
When one examines the many pages of Covid-19 state tenders released last week, what immediately strikes one is how blatant the malfeasance was. This was not about padding a price here, skimming a few bucks there.
For instance, the prices charged for many items were mostly so excessive that few procurement officers would credibly be able to claim ignorance of a rip-off. Also, the crooks executed their crimes with a speed and efficiency rarely seen in a country where all of government and most of business is appallingly incompetent.
Such brazen behaviour stems not from stupidity but confidence. These fraudsters are not new to state looting, they have been doing it for dozens of years with impunity.
They are cocky after 26-years of the Auditor-General identifying each year in his annual report gross levels of state corruption and then bemoaning, in his following report, the failure of the government to do anything about it. They have emerged mostly unscathed from scores of official inquiries, forensic audits, and criminal investigations.
For them, the Covid-19 heist was just another day at the office, albeit that hundreds of billions of rands on offer was an unexpected slice of fortune. And were it not for the similarly unexpected levels of public anger, it would played out as another undetected scam.
Probity in the management of public finances is not the consequence of “integrity commissions” and political party pledges. It is, largely, the result of transparent processes bound by clear procedural regulations, with determined and efficient law enforcement when they are flouted.
If Ramaphosa is serious about corruption, his government would simply implement the mechanisms that are already in existence but that have been until now largely ignored. One hopes now that Ramaphosa has emerged from his slumber, that this will be the case — but on past performance, we should be sceptical.
A straw in the wind is the attitude of his influential alliance partner, the SA Communist Party. The solution, says the SACP in a statement this week, is not as one might have thought, focusing on tightening up procedures and enforcement. The ultimate solution, says the SACP, is avoid having to tender.
“There are just many functions and services at all levels of the state that are tenderised, which should not be the case. All outsourced services must be reviewed, to implement in-sourcing and decent work,” says the SACP.
In other words, enlarge the already bloated public service. Music to the ears of another alliance partner, the Congress of SA Trade Unions.
Of course, most of these proposed new employees will be incompetent and lazy, hired largely on the dual criteria of skin colour and party affiliation. Which means, as is the case now, that critical functions and services will have to be tendered out…
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