Politics of patronage

The most drastic challenge to the democratic government’s commitment to accountability emerged in the wake of the decision in 1998 to purchase about R30-billion worth of new defence equipment.

What became known as “the arms deal scandal” enjoyed sustained media attention and led to the testing and, arguably, the failure of a string of institutions of oversight and accountability.

The real test of these institutions is when the going gets tough - and the investigation of the arms deal was a fearsome challenge. It placed contracts worth billions of rands at stake; involved an industry that is highly technical and secretive; and pitted the oversight agencies against the highest reaches of the executive.

The impetus for the investigation came from within the African National Congress itself, initially in allegations raised by disaffected ANC intelligence operatives, and later via the concerns of members of the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa), including, prominently, its ANC members. The probe of the arms deal was also a test of the ANC’s internal democracy, an important asset in a state so dominated by one party.

In early 2000 Scopa had supported a request by the Auditor General’s Office for a preliminary audit of the deal.
The auditor general subsequently tabled a preliminary report indicating some key areas of concern relating to possible conflicts of interest and other irregularities. He recommended a full forensic audit.

Scopa, led by its chairperson, the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Gavin Woods, and supported by the ANC’s Andrew Feinstein, delivered its own highly critical report and recommended a multi-agency probe of the arms deal.

The report was tabled on the last day of the legislative sitting and - apparently while the executive wasn’t paying attention - was accepted by Parliament. When the executive woke up to the implications of this muscular experiment in accountability, all hell broke loose.

This scandal, the biggest to hit post-apartheid South Africa, exposed the tensions and conflicts within the ANC - and the ruling party’s limits in regard to tolerance of accountability.

The executive launched a furious attack on Scopa, initially weighing in with a press conference of three ministerial heavyweights who told the committee it did not know what it was talking about.

Party heavies were deployed to lay down the party line in Scopa, thus destroying the tradition of non- partisanship the committee had built up. First Feinstein and then Woods resigned their positions in the face of this interference. Two key members of the auditor general’s audit team also stepped aside.

Three investigating agencies proceeded with the probe and delivered a verdict that severely compromised their credibility. They signed off on a conclusion that government was not implicated in any wrongdoing - despite clear evidence of abuse by Minister of Defence Joe Modise, by then retired - and that government’s contracting position had not been compromised, despite evidence of irregularities on nearly every page of the report. What government’s overall response demonstrated was that accountability would be shut down at the point where there appeared to be a real risk to the ANC. What emerged at this point of crisis was a consensus in the ruling elite that prioritised the survival of the ANC’s hegemonic project over the more abstract demands of liberal democratic accountability.

The decision not to prosecute Deputy President Jacob Zuma over his untoward relationship with businessman Schabir Shaik, while legally defensible, was arguably also informed by the same strategic assessment of the risk of prosecution.

Given the ruling party’s avowed intention to extend its control over the transformation project to all the strategic areas of society, the likelihood exists of future damaging accountability challenges.

Up to now, the party has kept its response to those challenges within reasonable bounds.

The arms deal also exposed the problematic nature of some of the economic relations set up by Mbeki’s emphasis on the creation of a black business class.

One arms deal investigator acknowledged that the investigation faced a “grey area” that flowed from a political process in which ANC cadres were consciously “deployed” by the party to wrest control of areas of the economy that were considered strategic - like the arms industry. In that process, “mistakes” were made.

Thus, the very “mistakes” for which Zuma was investigated, and Shaik charged, flowed from the attempt to politically manage and control the transfer of economic power - or at least strategic elements of it - from the alliance of Afrikaner nationalism and big business to an alliance of the ANC and big business.

So, although Zuma may have overstepped the line, the line itself is a very wide and dirty smudge, within which fall myriad empowerment deals - and the funding of the ANC itself, as well as its pet projects and competing factions.

During the past two years the Mail & Guardian has investigated a handful of these cases that, for one reason or another, have risen close enough to the surface to offer a glimpse of what lies beneath.

They range from the funding of research into the supposed Aids cure, Virodene, to the inexplicable oil deal with Nigeria - promoted by President Thabo Mbeki, but benefiting a mysterious offshore company.

They demonstrate the same basic outline: the involvement of ANC “fronts” or personalities connected to the ANC’s treasury department, often combined with irregularities in the awarding of contracts.

There is every reason to suspect that the arms deal suffered from the same intentional confusion of national, party and personal interests. With regard to businessman Schabir Shaik, the overlap between private and party interests - and indeed the blurring of the boundary between the two - was built in from the start.

His company, Nkobi Holdings, was named after the ANC’s late treasurer general, Thomas Nkobi, and Zuma has explicitly acknowledged that Shaik played a role in raising and managing funds for the ANC.

In fact, it is arguable that all Shaik did was devise a business plan based on “unwritten rules of the game”, which in effect institutionalise corruption on the basis of both funding the party and extending its control from the political to the economic sphere.

This is not an African disease. France, to take but one example, has long run its politics this way - and the level of corruption under the apartheid regime was less visible, simply because it was more neatly integrated into the fabric and institutions of power.

In France, the establishment of a deeply corrupt intelligence, business and political oligarchy was based on the veneer of a nationalist project - that of promoting and projecting the “French way” as an international “third way” between the Anglo-American axis and the Soviet Empire. Here we have our own national project, which can similarly hide a multitude of sins against good governance.

The risk remains of building an influential, yet parasitic, elite that will vigorously resist being weaned from the advantages it enjoys, and will even lobby to increase state support for its interests.

The policing of this redistribution project remains the responsibility of the oversight institutions. A problem for them remains the ANC’s deliberate policy of deploying cadres to institutions in a manner in which they retain a party loyalty that may undermine or even trump their new independent institutional loyalty.

The ability of such institutions to impose accountability in situations where the political cost is significant is likely to be limited, as critics argued was the case in the probe of the arms deal.

The ANC’s increasing monopoly of political and state power is likely to increase the scope for such conflicts of interest as the party and its cadres become more and more influential in both politics and business.

With such influence will come increased pressure - already evident in the Zuma case - to keep the management of conflicts in-house, within the ambit of the ANC’s own political and disciplinary structures.

In this atmosphere there will be a tendency to use information about corruption for internal political bargaining, rather than throwing it open to the proper public accountability.

Although the ANC’s internal disciplinary processes - which are mostly informal - remain strong, the liberation ideal and its disciplines have already been replaced to a remarkable degree by a brash materialism.

Inevitably the ANC’s ability and willingness to police itself will be compromised. The success of the ANC’s hegemonic project may, in time, become the most significant threat to the country’s democratic one.

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