Ramaphosa's artful dodging

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the ANC President's appearance before the Zondo commission


No one can credibly take issue with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s opening statement before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture that corruption is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. That the apartheid systems was at its core “morally and systemically corrupt”.

And that there was also “a prevailing culture of corruption within the apartheid state, state-owned enterprises, private business establishment and Bantustan administrations”. That’s true also.

Nor, we can all agree with Ramaphosa, is corruption unique to the African National Congress. “Many other countries have to deal with corruption in the political, economic and social spheres.”

But then Ramaphosa launches on what is proving to be the leitmotif of his testimony before Deputy Chief Justice Ray Zondo’s commission over the four days that he will testify. The crux of his defence of the ANC— for this week he appeared before the commission as party leader, not the nation’s president — is that it was a momentary aberration, a little glitch that with some tinkering will quickly be put right.

The party recognises, Ramaphosa reassures us, that some in the ANC were “advertently and inadvertently complicit in corrupt actions”. He then quickly added that this did not mean that “the ANC is itself corrupt or uniquely affected by corruption”.

This is utter rubbish. If the testimony to the Zondo Commission — validated by the everyday experience of most South Africans — shows anything so far, it is that the ANC is corrupt to its core. Almost every facet of its organisation, from the deployment of cadres to the studious indifference to best managerial practice, is structured, “advertently and inadvertently” in Ramaphosa’s words, to enable looting. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The ANC is not a political organisation with occasional corrupt manifestations. It has consistently used political mechanisms to advance a criminal agenda and is probably irretrievably criminally permeated, given the enormous number of people involved in corruption.

The limited public goods that the ANC delivers are incidental to one of its primary purposes, that of illicit revenue extraction for the political elite. Social welfare benefits and the bloated, comatose public service have become voter bribes, rather than serious attempts to alleviate poverty and advance service delivery.

While it is true that the National Party advantaged its Broederbond cadres to the top positions of most SOEs, it differed fundamentally from the ANC in its ambitions. The primary objective was not looting but to have SOEs that delivered substantial developmental advantages to South Africa. In this, they succeeded.

In scientific terms, the parasitic behaviour of the Nats, while morally reprehensible, was at least rational. In nature, parasites leech the host without usually causing its death. It’s a simple biology lesson in sustainability that the ANC, in driving institution after institution to the point of collapse, has proved unable to grasp.

Ramaphosa was at his squirrelly, weaselly best this week. He served up his now routine, soggy pap of good intentions entirely unbolstered with firm commitments. There was even yet another assurance that a “New Dawn” was about to break…

He defended cadre deployment as a justified mechanism to ensure that the ruling party’s mandate was implemented. This, Ramaphosa explained, happens all around the world, without adding that every functioning democracy also has mechanisms to prevent industrial-scale abuse of office through state looting.

As Ramaphosa earnestly explained, cadre deployment was an admirable tool of government that conceivably, when carelessly applied, might cause a nick or two in the user. On occasion, “ill-qualified persons were put into positions”.

This is the same Ramaphosa who just six weeks ago said that ANC cadre deployment has meant that “all too often” people got key positions for which they were “neither suitable nor qualified … affecting government performance and contributing to nepotism, political interference, a lack of accountability, mismanagement and corruption”. The solution, wrote the president in his weekly column, was depoliticisation of the public service, professionalisation, merit appointments.

Much of Ramaphosa testimony before Zondo was the determined exoneration of himself, his ministers and his party behind a mask of contriteness. Over and again, it was: yes, sometimes bad things happened but no one was to blame. Maybe this is the “historical determinism” that the party’s Marxists like to waffle on about?

Take the issue of corrupt tender awards by means of which, through an “ANC tax”, vast amounts of money are illegally diverted into Luthuli House coffers. When quizzed by Zondo on facilities management company Bosasa funding ANC election activities, Ramaphosa glossed over the problem as just “one of those anomalous events”.

Yes, the ANC “should have been aware of the Bosasa issues,” Ramaphosa conceded. Yes, someone somehow dropped the ball. But it was an isolated incident and not any particular person’s fault. In any case, rest assured, the new Political Party Funding Act would ensure that it did not happen again.

Zondo, who is always impeccably polite in his questioning, did show some signs of scepticism. He asked Ramaphosa why it was that so many SOEs were in such a poor state when they had boards of directors in place: “As the commission, we want to look at what recommendations should be made so that in future this does not happen. What was going on?”

Ever the Artful Dodger, Ramaphosa initially laid vague blame on “massive system failure” and later conceded that the ANC had “drawn numerous lines in the sand” and passed resolutions against corruption, but to no effect. Evidence leader Paul Pretorius responded by asking whether Ramaphosa should not take responsibility for this, as well as the patently poor leadership choices made.

“That is a fair proposition,” Ramaphosa conceded magnanimously. “‘Some of the [failure] may have been inadvertent, and some may have been purposeful … We acknowledge that some of these things did happen. Yes, things went horribly wrong, but we are here to correct that. We do that with humility and our heads bowed.”

Zondo was not to be fobbed off with platitudes. “ ‘I think it is quite important to acknowledge this but I would like you to identify the actual areas as a party where you did something you shouldn’t have. While an acknowledgement is important it is even better if one knows exactly what you are talking about,” said Zondo.

Ramaphosa undertook to do so, but not immediately. He said he would do so at the end of his evidence — in other words not while testifying in his capacity as head of the party, but during the two days that he would be giving evidence as head of state.

The exchange encapsulates neatly one of the most dangerous aspects of ANC governance: the primacy of party interests over national interests. Ramaphosa is saying, in essence, that he has two answers to any question: the party leader’s answer and the leader of the nation’s answer.

All heads of government deal with this tension between party and state in a democracy. The successful ones manage to keep the streams parallel, a process subject to robust opposition and media scrutiny and the dire prospect of being voted out of power. With the ANC smugly and unassailably ensconced in power, in South Africa the two streams are increasingly diverging with potentially calamitous results.

Interestingly in 1979, at the apogee of apartheid arrogance, a commission of inquiry concluded that the then newly inaugurated State President, John Vorster, had while serving as prime minister known all about, and tolerated, the corruption involved in the so-called Muldergate Scandal. Although this was small-scale malfeasance compared to today’s ANC shenanigans, Vorster resigned in disgrace.

There are some embarrassingly uncomfortable historical lessons in this. The Nat cadres deployed to SOEs appear to have been less venal, as well as more disciplined and capable, than their latter-day ANC counterparts. Also, the Nat party leadership, when it came to public revelations of corruption, were more readily shamed than that of the ANC. 

But Ramaphosa will be spared a deservedly similar fate to that of Vorster. Any ANC successor one cares to contemplate would be a thousandfold worse than him.

For now, as a result of the Jacob Zuma inoculation, Ramaphosa has immunity.

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