/ 11 December 2022

The arms deal was the ANC’s original sin that set the stage for corruption in South Africa today

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Empty promises: The ruling party has not moved all South Africans forward. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

As the dust settles (or not) on the Ramaphosa buffalo-couch saga, it is important not to lose sight of the big picture. A government captured by criminals is failing to deliver a developmental agenda or to make a serious dent in inequality. 

South Africa today is run like a bantustan. If you are black and poor, your government does nothing for you, unless you are lucky enough to be politically connected. Despite everything in the Constitution, you have no effective rights unless you are prepared to fight for them.

The entire ANC is tainted and there is very little chance that the damage of the Jacob Zuma era will be fully undone while the ANC is still in government.

Jacques Pauw’s latest book, Our Poisoned Land: Living in the Shadows of Zuma’s Keepers – documents in great detail how key law enforcement structures like the Special Investigating Unit, Independent Police Investigative Directorate, Crime Intelligence and the Organised Crime Unit were subverted on Zuma’s watch. 

More importantly, he shows how little has since been done to undo this. A few key appointments have been made but a lot of the rot is still there. With so many obviously fraudulent appointments to high positions, you would think it should be a simple matter to audit all positions at the level of colonel and above in these agencies and remove anyone who is improperly in their post. But it hasn’t happened. Why?

To get a deeper understanding of the problem, we need to go back to the 1999 election. In 1994, the ANC was flush with money. As a successful liberation movement with a worldwide presence, they had funding showered on them by foreign benefactors. By 1999, they were the governing party and foreign benefactors expected them to stand on their own feet. 

At the time, I recall seeing reports that the ANC was broke – yet they went into the election with a lavishly-funded campaign. In 2015, I met Andrew Feinstein, former ANC MP and anti-corruption campaigner, at the National Arts Festival, where he was present to discuss a movie, Shadow World, based on his book on the international arms trade. 

I asked him whether the ANC had benefited corruptly from the arms deal to support its 1999 election campaign. His reply? Absolutely. This is why party insiders told him his attempts at getting the deal investigated would go nowhere.

The arms deal was the ANC’s original sin and set the scene for subsequent corruption and failures of infrastructure projects and service delivery.

There is an unvirtuous synergy that favours corruptly awarding government spending to contractors who either do not intend to deliver or who deliver far short of value for money. Corrupt contractors, politicians and officials can safely benefit without fear of consequence as long as a cut goes to the ANC. Protecting the governing party provides protection for the other players in the same act of corruption. 

For this to continue working, SIU and other investigative arms of government cannot be too competent, otherwise, the synergy will be exposed. The Zuma government took this too far, to the extent that the capacity to deliver almost anything was compromised. This is why municipalities around the country are failing, as are state-owned enterprises (Post Office, Prasa, Eskom and SAA are the most obvious examples).

Can Ramaphosa pull this back?

The real question is the extent to which he is personally implicated. The Phala Phala episode possibly points to some sort of corruption but is not clearly linked to fraudulent tenders or hollowing out state capacity. I am keeping an open mind on this while noting that fake allegations are very much part of the “radical economic transformation” faction’s playbook (example: Robert McBride and numerous other top anti-corruption cops were pushed out of their jobs on the back of allegations that fell apart on review).

A recording of Ramaphosa saying he was aware of public funding being misappropriated for ANC campaigns has surfaced; he claims that he was referring to reports in the public domain, not something of which he is personally aware. Nonetheless, he was Zuma’s deputy and has people with suspect records in his cabinet. 

Public protector Thuli Madonsela produced a damning report in 2011 on corrupt leases during Bheki Cele’s time as national police commissioner. Yet here he is today in the cabinet as minister of police. Deputy President David Mabuza has serious allegations of corruption against him. At least the deeply compromised Malusi Gigaba exited the cabinet in 2018.

The excuse that Ramaphosa had a narrow win and has to include the other side in the cabinet doesn’t wash. Does this require placing deeply compromised people in key portfolios that they can use to further compromise the government? Does this prevent an audit of top law enforcement appointments to remove any fraudulently appointed on Zuma’s watch?

What can be done?

Two 2018 pieces of legislation in theory can start to change things.

The Political Party Funding Act (which took effect in time for the 2021 municipal elections) should in theory make it much harder to fraudulently fund election campaigns. 

The Public Audit Amendment Act that took effect in 2019 empowers the auditor general to refer suspicious funding to law enforcement and to issue certificates of debt to recover losses from those responsible.

Put these two together and fraudulent expenditure of public funds that in part provides a conduit to campaign funding can be exposed; at least one part of the synergy can be broken.

The problem, as with all other legislation that demands or mandates accountability, is whether there is the will to enforce any of this. With the overwhelming majority of municipalities having unacceptable audits, you would expect numerous instances of the AG referring findings to law enforcement and issuing certificates of debt. 

Yet I have not heard of a single instance of either. Without this, it becomes difficult to join the dots between fraudulent public expenditure and party funding. The timeline for issuing a certificate of debt is part of the problem: it allows 22 months for the entire process. You can bet that any official or politician subject to this process will ensure that it drags out even longer. 

Add to this the fact that the AG will only identify such issues in an annual audit and we are talking about a delay of years before remedial action. In general, due process cannot be as nimble as crime, but this is ridiculous.

In my home Makana municipality, it is obvious that there is serious wrongdoing. Several employees were convicted in March 2022 of running a ghost workers scam that is widely believed to be the merest tip of the iceberg. Two months later, Makana parks and recreation manager Jeff Budaza, who had played a major role in exposing criminality in the municipality, was murdered

Why should a manager place his life at risk by being a whistleblower, when we have all this regulatory machinery to expose and prosecute wrongdoing and recover wrongful expenditure?

The AG knows there are big problems in Makana and hasn’t acted. Budaza’s blood is on them. How many others have to die before those whose job it is to enforce the law do their duty?

Talk is cheap. Until such time as we have a government that is serious about tackling crime and corruption in its own ranks, we will see no progress.

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

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.