/ 6 August 2020

The ANC is selling false hope, but no one’s buying

Graphic Ca Sithole Corruption Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

Once in a while, the ANC congregates and deliberates on matters of particular importance. As the party responsible for the national government, matters of importance to the ANC are inevitably matters of national importance. This week, the ANC national executive committee (NEC) met in the aftermath of multiple scandals that individually and collectively amplified what the party has become. 

There was the bizarre arrest of an NEC member’s wife for damage to property. The arrest itself was executed by the Hawks rather than the South African Police Service, which left a lot of people intrigued. The intrigue was based on the understanding that the mandate of the Hawks relates to serious crimes and  the mere scratching of a Mercedes-Benz — its price tag notwithstanding — did not fall within the ambit of serious crime.

As luck would have it, a document from the ANC’s integrity committee that became public on the same day explained exactly why the Hawks’ involvement was intriguing. Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo  was deemed to have abused his powers by launching the Hawks to settle his domestic disputes. On the basis of that, the ANC’s hitherto toothless integrity committee recommended that Masondo step down as deputy minister of finance. 

The surprising thing was not that the integrity committee found him wanting, but rather the fact that it  actually proposed a sanction. The intersection of the abuse of power, scandalous behaviour and the elusive idea of integrity within the party have become permanent fixtures of the ANC’s quest to define itself beyond liberation politics. But perhaps no other cloud has haunted the ANC more acutely than the ghost of corruption. 

The party’s arcane architecture, which is premised on open access, has elicited debate for years. As a party formed with the express undertaking to champion the cause of the disenfranchised and marginalised, the open-access approach, which requires no financial means and prescribes no qualifications for one to ascend to leadership structures, has a historical justification but also results in unavoidable consequences. 

The most obvious unintended consequence is the infiltration by those who lack either the capacity to serve the party or the public, and those who regard the party as a vehicle of access to resources. When such individuals emerge from party structures and are elevated to positions of authority, the party risks unleashing representatives who either cannot govern due to lack of capacity, or should not represent the party simply because their political wisdom has no alignment with what the party purports to stand for, but is instead based on the quest for self-enrichment.

This dilemma has been tackled primarily through ideological interventions — the “Eye of the Needle” policy document, for example — and more practical interventions, such as the OR Tambo School of Leadership. Ironically, as the integrity committee sought to justify its call for Masondo to step down, his role as the principal of the school was also cited, with the implication that he is ill-suited to run such an institution. The noble intentions behind these interventions notwithstanding, the ANC’s association with corruption perpetrated by its public representatives has become a permanent fixture of the South African body politic.

The usual response — heavy in political posturing but light in substance — is to draw parallels within the party and across other cases. Whenever a case warrants the attention of the ANC’s internal disciplinary and integrity committees, the accused are able to find multiple parallels and examples of fellow members who have performed similar acts and got away with them. 

Calling anyone to order then becomes an exercise in comparative sins that — in the absence of consistently applied disciplinary principles — leaves both the sinners of the past and the perpetrators of the present shenanigans untouched.  

When internal reference points are exhausted, the alliance of the accused always find a comparative case study somewhere else to explain that seeking to act against an errant member (when other rogues, like former Steinhoff chief executive Markus Jooste, run free) only victimises comrades who would prefer to be not only presumed but actually confirmed as innocent until proven guilty. This practice has created a disciplinary paralysis in the party and makes the idea of disentangling the party from an association with corruption an ambitious exercise in futility.

All of this makes the resolution of the NEC to act more decisively against members embroiled in corruption allegations relating to the Covid-19 crisis rather difficult to take seriously. The resolution states: “We unequivocally condemn all forms of corruption, dishonesty and state capture involving the public and private sectors, including collusion, price-fixing, tender fraud, bribery, illicit financial flows, illegal imports and misuse of tax havens. We will comprehensively fight corruption, combining both prevention and punishment.” 

By the time the meeting started, the ANC already knew of multiple party members who had been implicated in matters relating to the procurement processes initiated during the pandemic. Some had been asked to step back by their structures while investigations were undertaken. 

The problem with that process is that it simply looked accidental rather than principled. The most high-profile examples — Gauteng health MEC Bandile Masuku; City of Johannesburg mayoral committee member Loyiso Masuku; and presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko — were shuffled into suspension as a response to the public pressure associated with their involvement in the scandal in Gauteng. 

True to form, rather than committing to a process of an immediate culling of the accused, the NEC opted to pass the buck to the top six officials to compile a list of the accused and then make recommendations on what ought to be done. If that does materialise, it will at least create the impression that the party is trying to deal with one aspect of the NEC commitment — the punishment element. 

Unfortunately for the ANC, in the very same week that it made this commitment, South Africans were reminded about the strange nature of punishment regimes in the civil service. Former acting national police commissioner Khomotso Phahlane — who had been serving his “punishment” through being on paid leave for more than two years — was finally dismissed from his job on July 30. 

The director-general of the Public Service Commission, Dovhani Mamphiswana, who has been implicated in nepotism relating to the filling of the post of chief director of professional ethics at the commission, was “invited” to make representations about why he should not be suspended by President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

These two cases served as a reminder that even when punishment is envisaged in the public sector, the affected end up suffering not so much a punishment but a loss of face and the preservation of incomes. 

The key issue is that none of the instruments currently envisaged by the ANC deal with the bigger issue of prevention. The punishment regime applies only to those who are detected and are greedy and clumsy enough to get caught. Far too many cases escape the detection process simply because the instruments of detection are not pervasively prevalent or universally applied throughout the public-procurement process. 

The Gauteng scandal that has resulted in the action relating to Diko and the Masukus is a result of the work of whistleblowers and committed journalists rather than the effectiveness of the state apparatus. To leave the resolution of the corruption crisis at the mercy of these incidental and fortuitous instruments risks leaving too many stones unturned and, by extension, too many rands lost. 

The national dilemma is that the corruption pandemic is capable of extending the Covid-19 pandemic if resources earmarked for managing the healthcare crisis are diverted to corrupt elements. Whether the government has the courage to undertake the steps aimed at preventing this becomes the question of whether the ANC has the presence of mind to confront the corrosive nature of corruption on the party and the state. 

This would require an explicit break from the perverse paternalism that is cloaked under the guise of “closing ranks”. Such an approach simply translates to a practice of giving life to the paranoia that anyone who calls out the ANC for wrongdoing is attacking it. This was evident last week when — in response to the national outcry about the tales of corruption relating to Covid-19 funds, the ANC saw fit to unleash an ill-advised and ill-timed social media campaign aimed at attacking those who are seen to be attacking the ANC. 

Although one cannot deny members or sympathisers of political parties the right to express their loyalty, a more disturbing phenomenon was just how many of the young members seem to miss the point of the public outcry altogether. This illustrated the collective political psychosis that has captured the party across all its structures. It also shot down the idea that the stranglehold of the old guard on the party and its inability to adapt to the demands of democratic governance in a modern-day state is the reason for the ANC’s problems. 

The sum of last week’s events reminded us that the ANC is still struggling to figure out what happens when it has to undertake drastic action to fix itself and, by extension, arrest the country’s march towards the abyss. At this stage, the hard body of evidence collected over the past 25 years indicates that the hope for an organic fix is a false hope pinned on a false dawn.

Khaya Sithole — chartered accountant, academic and activist — will be writing regularly for the Mail & Guardian and will discuss the issues raised in his columns on his Kaya FM show, On the Agenda, every Monday from 8pm to 9pm