A cycle of diminishing expectations

South Africa is finally cracking down on corrupt politicians after years of inertia amid weekly revelations about the depravity and scale of corruption through the Zondo Commission (led by the country’s current deputy chief judge) into “state capture” during former president Jacob Zuma’s tenure (2009-2018). “State capture” refers to the handing over of the levers of the economy and policymaking to private interests, in this case the Guptas, a powerful Indian business clan.

Fighting enemies in his own party, President Cyril Ramaphosa is trying to portray recent arrests of political figures, alleged to have profited from state capture, as a win for his stuttering government. But arrests alone do not offer a way forward for South Africa, given the scale of the economic and political crisis the country is facing. The South African government is set on implementing and selling in the name of anticorruption a plan of harsh austerity that will escalate an already brewing social crisis. The country urgently needs more than arrests if the problem of corruption is going to be seriously addressed.

Accountability at last

The Zondo Commission was launched in August of 2018; two years and R700 million later it finally is leading to arrests. The grumblings over the slow pace of justice—despite promises from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), a variant of the FBI, and the government—had been increasing before the first arrests for state capture were announced at the end of September. The commission has revealed a staggering network of corruption that extended far beyond the Guptas.

New arrests of corrupt officials seem to occur on a weekly basis as prosecutors close in on some of the country’s leading politicians, including African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Ace Magashule, widely seen as the leader of the pro-Zuma faction within the party. Zuma himself has been feeling the heat and using all means at his disposal to portray himself as the victim and avoid appearing before the commission. His most prominent failson, Duduzane—a key Gupta aide—has also been conducting an aggressive PR campaign, calling himself an “accomplished businessman,” and doing interviews talking about his and his father’s good deeds.

The corruption extends to other spheres, including the religious. Evangelical Christianity is widely practiced in South Africa and now its crooked pastors are no longer safe. Self-proclaimed “Prophet” Shepard Bushiri, for example, was arrested along with his wife and charged with fraud and money laundering. Also known as “Papa” and “Major One,” Bushiri is a politically connected, smooth-talking hustler, who is arguably the country’s most popular snake oil salesmen—claiming to cure HIV and to be able to walk on air. His arrest comes despite Bushiri prophesizing that 2020 would be a great year.


While the wheels of justice are finally turning in South Africa, the Guptas are on to bigger and better things after making off with a substantial proportion of South Africa’s GDP. They are currently invested in building gigantic model cities for hundreds of millions of dollars in Uzbekistan.

Economic catastrophe

Like almost everywhere else in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially worsened every existing problem, from unemployment to the power of organized crime. Seven months after the country locked down, the impact on South Africa’s economy was described as unprecedented: “We only see these sorts of changes and economic shocks as a result of civil war.” The country’s GDP contracted by 16.4 percent over the second quarter of 2020. South Africa was in terrible shape before the pandemic hit, recording recessions in 2018 and 2019, and three consecutive quarters of declining GDP. Unemployment was already endemic, and the latest figures suggest South Africa permanently lost 2.8 million jobs by June 2020; the expanded unemployment rate is now close to 50 percent and youth unemployment could be more than 70 percent.

Simply put, the South African government implemented one of the harshest lockdowns in response to Covid-19, but failed to provide adequate social provision and economic support. It promised stimulus but never really delivered. It launched a monthly R350 (about USD 20) emergency grant, reaching around 4.4 million South Africans, but this is woefully inadequate as food prices are soaring. The grant has been extended until the end of the year, albeit with some resistance from the Treasury. The government has also promised a massive public works program to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The government’s original stimulus plan of R500 billion ($30 billion) seemed promising, but turned out to be more PR spin than reality. R200 billion of the earmarked funds was set aside as loan guarantees to banks which elected not to lend, and by the end of August the banks had only lent out R14.5 billion. Furthermore, of the Treasury’s claimed R122.4 billion allocation toward the government’s COVID-19 response, R109-billion was financed through budget cuts.

Despite the necessity of a massive stimulus plan, the Treasury along with Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, when not posting apocalyptic pictures of his attempts at cooking on social media, is trying to implement a harsh austerity agenda in the name of reducing rapidly increasing debt.

While there is a bailout of R10.5 billion for the failed national carrier South African Airways in Mboweni’s medium term budget policy statement delivered on October 28, there is harsh austerity for everyone else: higher education has been slashed by R1.13 billion, transport by R681 million and the health budget by R694 million. One would have thought that addressing the escalating social crisis in this country would be the priority of government, but instead there are extreme cuts amounting to more than R300 billion over the next three years.

Mboweni and the Treasury are facing substantial resistance from other members of the government and such harsh austerity flies in the face of the President’s rhetoric about the need for a social pact. The ANC’s internal policy for more than a decade has been pushing for such a pact, in which all forces in South Africa join together and make sacrifices for the good of the nation. However, given the current economic catastrophe and the declining power of organized labor, a real social pact seems almost utopian. Despite pleas for unity to fight the pandemic and given the level of open fratricidal strife within the ANC, it is hard to take these proposals seriously. And the country as a whole is only slightly less divided than the party.

The moralisation of everything

Given that the government seems to lack the capacity to deliver for the poor, despite all the rhetoric about historic transformations, and has so far failed in its economic and social response to the pandemic, all that is on offer is the thrill of seeing some of the bad guys go down for the mess that South Africa finds itself in. I will celebrate it as much as the next person, but a few arrests do not translate into real change.

Popular analysis of South Africa is plagued by endemic moralism; everything is cast into great stories of redemption and return to the heroic legacy of the liberation struggle and the popular movements of the 1980s that are betrayed by the current crop of leaders. This obsessive moralism not only makes it harder to actually understand what is going on in the country, but also reflects an increasingly desperate climate in which people conjure some mythological savior, rather than actual political mobilization, to deliver real change.

South African political writing is also hamstrung by its constant need to self-consciously reproduce a national mythology through endless open letters from elders and increasingly desperate calls for leadership as the panacea to the nation’s woes. Unable to offer solutions to the country’s problems, what is left of the intelligentsia resorts to sentimental calls to reclaim the spirit of past struggle. On the left there is a misguided tendency to reduce corruption to simply a normal function of capitalism—one that requires neither specific political or policy response, nor acknowledgment that corruption has been tied to state formation since British imperialist robber barons lusted over the gold reserves of the Witwatersrand. There are even those that argue that Zuma and the Guptas, along with allied black capitalists, were targeted by white monopoly capital, repeating the spin that Zuma and company were victimized because they were fighting for radical economic transformation for the black majority. Currently there appears to be no political force, either in the trade unions or among opposition parties and social movements, capable of enacting political costs on the ANC that will really hold it to account. In some parts of the country—such as the Eastern Cape province, where people suffer the worst impacts of misgovernance—the ANC faces little to no opposition.

Meanwhile the daily news is full of reports related to the friends and family of leading ANC politicians getting rich off the current public health crisis. Two-thirds of all COVID-19-related contracts for protective equipment and other vital goods (totaling R15.6 billion) are being probed by the Special Investigative Unit. Already, 658 dodgy contracts worth some R5.08 billion have been identified. This feeding frenzy has taken place while the country’s economy is collapsing and nearly 20,000 people have died.

In this depressing climate, any glimmer of hope rests with unelected officials of the judiciary ruling in the right way. The South African judiciary has played a generally positive role in the post-apartheid era, but too often the courts become the first course of action, and political battles are outsourced to lawyers. Legal victories, while not an obstacle to movement-building, cannot replace the difficult task of building power.

Systemic corruption

Clearly systemic corruption requires more than platitudes about leadership and getting rid of the bad apples. It is easy enough to wax lyrical about ethics, but it is a challenge to formulate effective political responses. As we have seen in Brazil and elsewhere, reducing the question of anticorruption merely to prosecuting the corrupt, as cathartic as it is, can have unintended consequences and in some cases make things worse. Corruption cannot simply be solved through technical fixes and increasing “accountability” by locking up the villains.

In South Africa, corruption is intimately tied to declining state capacity, due to levels of incompetence and broken systems. The state cannot deliver basic services in this environment and, so, the incentive to channel resources for personal benefit increases. As political scientist Ryan Brunette points out, the effects of corruption in South Africa mean that  “Life-giving services of water, sanitation, and healthcare, economy-driving provision of electricity, transportation, and education… are in many places collapsed or on the brink”. Yet, the effects of systemic corruption extend beyond declining state capacity and transactional politics as Brunette argues: “The central fact of contemporary South African politics is the emergence within it of a nationwide and mass-based patronage system,” which is mobilized through claims to the common interest.

Systemic corruption creates a cycle of diminishing expectations and the moral outrage to stories of venality declines the more people grow accustomed to it. The less people expect from the state, the easier it is to steal from it and the incentive to actually deliver basic services declines. While in some cases corruption is based on an illicit social compact in which services are delivered with the expectation that some of the amount budgeted for them will be stolen, this is not what we are seeing in South Africa. Billions have been spent on ambitious infrastructure projects that have come to nothing. Thus, it has become increasingly difficult to argue for this type of intervention given that a significant proportion of allocated funding is likely to channeled into the pockets of corrupt officials, their friends and family.

The lack of state capacity and the declining levels of trust in the ability of government to deliver, means anticorruption is increasingly associated with cracking down on wasteful spending and implementing austerity. If the money is going to be stolen what is the point of making the case for state intervention?  Yet, South Africa and its people simply cannot afford anything less than massive state intervention to hold off social collapse. Arresting villains alone will not put food on the table of the millions currently going hungry. Furthermore, graft and patronage mechanisms are so widespread that people are willing to kill to gain access to even the lowest rung of the ANC and the rewards that come with it. With devastating levels of unemployment, the fight over these positions will likely only intensify as jobs become a matter of life and death.

Credible anticorruption must be accompanied by programs of antipatronage and redistribution, along with radical reforms of public administration. This can only come about through mass political mobilization and struggle. Though there have been positive signs in recent trade union mobilisations—calling for effective public administration and prosecutions, along with universal basic income, a universal health care system, and land reform—the country remains the hostage of weak and compromised political opposition and factional offshoots of the ANC.

This article was first published on Africa is a Country

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Benjamin Fogel
Benjamin Fogel
Currently based in São Paulo, Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University and is a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine and website Africa is a Country

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