In late March last year, at the beginning of the lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa stood in front of the nation and promised that his government would “marshal our every resource and our every energy to fight this pandemic”.
Given the unprecedented health crisis, the large amounts of state resources that would need to be redirected quickly towards the most vulnerable in our society, and the country’s struggles with wholesale corruption, the president knew that he would need to assure the nation that he would “act very strongly against any attempts at corruption and profiteering from the crisis”.
Fast forward to Wednesday, 29 September. The very same president was asking journalists and the broader public to be “considerate” towards former health minister Zweli Mkhize, arguing that, “much as we want to be gung-ho and send people to the gallows, we do need to recognise some of the things they have done. Minister Mkhize has served the nation well. We were able to navigate our way around the pandemic because of his experience and having served also in other positions.”
The president said this right after the release of the damning Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report on the Digital Vibes scandal, which found that Mkhize had displayed “distinct lack of oversight”.
The SIU found a disturbing mix of political and bureaucratic corruption at the highest level of the department of health. The report found that the political principal abused his powers, thus influencing the allocation of much-needed state resources for the benefit of his close associates and family.
Specifically, the report found that the minister directly pushed for R150-million worth of communications work to be awarded to the company in a “highly” irregular manner. Moreover, the department of health further incurred fruitless and wasteful expenditure amounting to approximately R80-million.
These were funds meant to be used for communications related to the National Health Insurance, and secondly, towards Covid-19 communications. Fruitless and wasteful expenditure means that the amount in question was spent “in vain”, and the amount was spent without deriving any value, or yielding positive outcomes.
Thus the president’s view — offered despite the report expressly indicating that the minister repay the money — was an insult to South Africans. Rightly, citizens are asking how the president can thank and then defend a member of cabinet who has aided in the defrauding of the state. Where are the very strong actions against any attempts at corruption and profiteering from the crisis?
Instead of an unequivocal condemnation of the actions of the minister, the president chose to offer up a balanced performance assessment, betraying his own weak understanding of ethics and the meaning of leadership. By uttering those words on a public platform, the president failed in his responsibility of leadership. And by barely reacting to this as the broader public, we are betraying the country through our own numbness.
Rent-seeking behaviour is pervasive in the ANC. There’s almost an acceptance of the patronage networks that it uses across spheres of governments. The ANC might not be the only party that practices a version of cadre deployment, but through its long-standing position as the governing party, it has used its position to cement a patronage-based accountability model in society where political choices are determined by the distribution of patronage.
The president himself admitted recently that the Political Party Funding Act, which regulates public and private funding for political parties, has created challenges for the party’s fund-raising. It’s been an open secret in our society that tenders are typically awarded to those who make large donations, particularly during election season.
Clientelism is a typical feature of a postcolonial society, but what Mkhize practised borders on prebendalism, the use of a state and/or party position to derive material benefit either for oneself or for close relations. It is illegal, it is predatory, and it typically thrives in authoritarian states.
That the minister felt he could do this and get away with it in a democratic country speaks volumes about just how confident he was that his actions would not result in any meaningful consequences. It speaks to just how bad things are in the ANC, when simply doing one’s job buys you a licence to plunder.
It’s not so much that we should be surprised that the president holds this view. After all, it’s very much in line with his logic throughout the campaign trail. During the launch of the ANC’s manifesto in Pretoria, the president told the small crowd that they should vote because the city had continued to face severe service delivery issues. The president might as well have said: “We are no better or worse than the opposition. Vote for us”.
The president is a creature of the ANC, and being its president, the outrageous actions of its leaders cannot remain shocking. The president is only displaying the high levels of tolerance for unethical people that can only be expected from that political institution.
There has been a growing argument, at least in the US, that “political junkies” are destroying democracy. The argument goes that the rise of digital media — mainstream and alternative, whose success depends on emotive, divisive and unyielding content — has turned us into nations of outrage-addicted consumers of politics.
Earlier media produced more critical forms of news and opinion, which required time and research. New media, driven by clicks, likes, shares and the pleasures of dopamine, needs bigger and more outrageous stories to survive as an inundated public sifts through vast amounts of unimportant information.
Over time it takes bigger and more damaging actions for citizens to feel angry.
When the president says something out loud that should have remained in the quiet of his mind, our tolerance for such a statement is considerably high. Many of us even wonder what’s wrong with noting the former minister’s achievements.
If we are to protect and rebuild this democracy that was fought for with tears and blood, we cannot allow exhaustion from past outrage to dull our senses of what is right, what is wrong, and what is unethical. Not only should we not allow the president to convince us that there is a scenario here where ethics and job-performance can be considered as equals, we should shame him for lowering our public morals to that of the levels of his dying movement.
And as we head towards the local government elections in less than a month’s time, we must heed the warnings of a party in irreversible decline, and a president desperate to claw back the voting public’s lost trust while also dismissing the ANC’s missteps.
This is a party fighting to retain its power and influence, not one re-emerging as a transformed version of its former self.
But we must also accept hard truths, that endemic corruption is hard to reverse. We must learn to vote for other parties, and we must accept that the troubles we have left to fester were not created overnight and will take years to reverse. The president and his unrepentant ANC rely on our unrealistic expectations of the party, and what it takes to rebuild a society again.