Fight the state's systemic rot systematically

By the government's own figures, R33-billion was lost to corruption and misspending in the past financial year. That's one Nkandla every three days. (John McCann)

By the government's own figures, R33-billion was lost to corruption and misspending in the past financial year. That's one Nkandla every three days. (John McCann)


Last month, the Economic Freedom Fighters turned Parliament upside down – with a good deal of help from the government – and the official opposition walked out.

The Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane delivered a ripping speech, telling President Jacob Zuma exactly what many think of him. The ANC replied, telling the opposition what it thought of them.

The dust settled. But we still have Nkandla and the general miasma of corruption that wafts from everything Zuma.

So why is the ANC not collectively quaking in its boots, trying desperately to find a way to get rid of Zuma?

Because he makes the rest of them look good.

Undoubtedly, Nkandla is a monumental – or, more accurately, palatial – scandal.
But what all this attention on Nkandla and “pay back the money” misses is that this is not an aberration. This is the way the ANC  normally does business.

By the government’s own figures, R33-billion was lost to corruption and misspending in the past financial year. That’s one Nkandla every three days. Worse, we have the figure of R700-billion over the past 20 years, as reported by the Institute of Internal Auditors. R700-billion. That’s 3 000 Nkandlas.

A 3 000-Nkandla government can only be relieved that there is so much focus on just one of them, and that the other 2 999 are being ignored.

A big flaw in the opposition attack is to focus so closely on Zuma, as if the ANC as a whole is functioning just fine. This attack is particularly cynical from the EFF’s Julius Malema, as a recipient of tenderpreneurial largesse – a big part of the service delivery problem. Nor should we forget that it was Malema who gave Zuma political cover when Zuma was facing corruption charges.

The DA, too, is getting it wrong by focusing so sharply on Zuma. Though his governance is deeply problematic, he is not personally running all the metros, towns and villages where water supply is failing, where RDP housing lists are corrupted, where townships look like trash dumps and where once thriving municipalities are basket cases.

Where I live in Makana, Eastern Cape, the ANC-run council in 2005 was winning awards and had large financial reserves. Today, the council is deeply in debt and is under administration after a civil society revolt.

The thing the opposition really needs to attack is the widespread, systemic and systematic failure of the ANC to operate as anything but a patronage engine. Focusing on the personality of Zuma allows the ANC to get away with vacuous slogans about its “good story”.

We are a country in which the only thing that is run reliably, to a reasonably precise timetable, is shutting off our electricity. Whose fault is that? Apartheid, Zuma tells us. Right: that’s a good story.

That is not an outcome of Nkandla, but it is part of the same systemic and systematic corruption and perversion of state institutions to serve the ends of a small elite. Apartheid was a system that perverted state institutions to serve the ends of a small elite. Wasn’t the ANC supposed to be better than that?

The ANC itself has no high aspirations of doing better. All we have is excuses – and claims that the ANC still has to learn how to run a country. After 20 years, that’s a good story.

Let me be completely clear: I am not questioning the single-minded focus on Zuma because I am a fan. On the contrary. Consider this: What country needs a poorly educated president with a predilection for putting excessive reliance on the security cluster, and who battles to see a distinction between personal interest, party interest and the state? By this, I mean PW Botha.

When a post-liberation president starts channelling PW Botha, something has gone horribly wrong. So what’s the solution?

The biggest difference between Botha and Zuma is that we now live in a constitutional democracy with a robust, justiciable Bill of Rights. Imagine something like Brett Murray’s infamous Spear painting lampooning Botha. You can’t. The nearest to this I can recall was when Unisa lecturer Sally Hutchings pelted Botha with tomatoes in 1987. She was a foreigner and her work permit was summarily revoked. And she didn’t even use penis-shaped tomatoes.

So some things really have changed, and the biggest change is in the power of the ordinary person.

Governance in a system like ours does not lie purely in the hands of the powerful. An active civil society can do a lot to fill the gaps and to force government to perform. Yet many of our people still have habits of life more suited to a police state. If things aren’t right, you keep dead quiet – until you discover that you are not alone, then you use safety in numbers and pull out the old weapon against apartheid, toyi-toyi.

There is so much more active citizens can and should do to challenge state power and abuse of power.

From my own experience, here is a simple formula.

First, do not tackle a broad problem area in which it is impossible to see easily whether you are making progress. Start with a definite goal, one that allows you to measure the effect of your action. Do not take on “service delivery”. Instead, take on an aspect of service delivery, such as corruption of RDP house allocation or failure of water supply.

Second, find out who can make things change. This must be someone whose job it is to get this right, so you are not forcing someone to do anything out of the ordinary or break the law. Now, find a way to apply pressure so it is easier to fix the problem than to carry on letting it slide. If you really want your campaign to take fire, find angry women – one of society’s great neglected resources – to work on the campaign.

Deliver petitions with thousands of signatures, get stories out to the media, enlist the aid of any councillor or MP who will ask questions at the relevant level of government. Get people to write letters to the person who can fix the problem. If you find evidence of criminality, lay a charge with the police. Get a free legal service to threaten (and be prepared to carry out) a high court action. Pile up the pressure and, eventually, the easy thing to do will just be to solve your problem.

Once this particular problem is solved, check it off and go to the next one. If this becomes the way active citizens deal with corruption and nondelivery, we can fix the problem from the grassroots up.

And then we will have only one Nkandla. And at that point, we can and should focus on just the one. And put an end to it. Now, that would be a good story.

Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University.