/ 23 May 2024

Why the government and political parties will still be corrupt after the 29 May elections

Political parties have simply mirrored the popular sentiment of their respective constituencies
South Africans need to be better informed about democracy and become active citizens. (John McCann/M&G)

The early 20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman said that “if voting changed anything then they would make it illegal”. 

With only days to go before the next democratic election in South Africa, questions about the high levels of corruption in government remain foremost on the agenda. 

At a recent debate hosted by the University of Johannesburg and the European Union, Ndzalama Mathebula, a political commentator and former electoral commission staffer, said corruption is omnipresent for voters as they head to the polls. Most feel that democracy is threatened by corruption, and that the envisioned democracy of 30 years ago has been captured by corruption. 

Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power and resources for private gain, according to Karam Singh, the head of Strengthening Action Against Corruption and Corruption Watch.

Corruption has received a lot of attention from opposition political parties, with most of them having spoken against it in various ways in their manifestos. Some have made fighting corruption a key part of their campaigns. 

In this article, we take a long view of corruption in South African politics and argue that for five reasons, it will remain endemic. Corruption will end when citizens begin to fight it from a grassroots level, instead of relying on legislation, often passed by those who are part of the corrupt system.  

Mcebisi Ndletyana, a professor of politics at UJ, points to some of the historic realities that led to the institutionalised corruption experienced in politics today.  

First, corruption has its origins in the stipend system through which anti-apartheid fighters were paid as they spearheaded the struggle. 

The political elite became particularly vulnerable to corruption, Ndletyana argues, because of their experience in the struggle. Many of the current political elite fought against apartheid, either in South Africa or in exile. They also had no experience of working or running businesses. Once they came into political power, they found ways to continue to receive money through the political system. This led them to establish businesses that did the outsourced work of municipalities. 

The new laws established in the year 2000 prevented them from continuing to own these businesses, but they found ways around this. They appointed chief executives of their old companies, who were beholden to them, resulting in councillors appointing people not because of their abilities or skills, but their willingness to support the governing elite. 

Often their family members became owners of their old companies and the elites continued to push business their way. The only way to correct this is for councillors to be taken out of the process of appointing managers in the business that work for government or municipal entities.  

Business leaders, managers and workers in companies employed by government entities should only be appointed for their expertise, not their political affiliation. A ray of hope here is that the legislation for this should come into effect within the next few months.

Linked to the governing elites’ need to acquire money through their political connections is voters’  limited understanding of where government money comes from and the money available to the government.  

The second reason for deep seated corruption in politics is poor voter education.  Mathebula highlights the urgent need for citizens to understand democracy, how it works and the various roles they need to play for democracy to function effectively, transparently and without endemic corruption. 

She argues that people cannot learn about the complex nature of democracy through TikTok videos. Most people are misinformed about what democracy is and how it works primarily because their own education about democracy comes from political parties. 

This is one of the key reasons for voter apathy. 

The general lack of understanding of what a voter’s role and responsibilities are is critical, because people do not know how to hold their leaders accountable, says Mathebula. 

People need to learn how to be whistleblowers and how to hold leaders accountable. Most citizens do not understand the idea of “power to the people” and view voting as their only role, which makes them believe that they have no real power. 

If voters had real education about democracy, power and governance, they would understand that issues such as VAT and the interest rates set by the South African Reserve Bank are all affected by democracy and controlled by the government.  

Singh said civil society and civil society activism are two of the most effective and influential ways in which people can learn how democracy works, and actively campaign to see grassroots change and hold municipal leaders accountable. 

The lack of civil society activism is the third reason for ongoing and widespread corruption.  Civil society is a broad term, and it includes school governing boards, clean the dam groups, police forums, youth groups, community groups and neighbourhood associations. 

When civil societies participate in issues that affect them in their lives, change begins to happen. But people do not get involved in these organisations because they think the government should fix everything. They do not realise that the government is too far removed, and therefore largely unable to fix civic and municipal issues. 

When South Africa was formed 30 years ago, the incoming president, Nelson Mandela, told the outgoing president, FW de Klerk, that the country would flourish and mature quickly because there would be no National Party gravy train.  

In 1996, Thabo Mbeki oversaw the Arms Deal, which, according to author and journalist Mpumelelo Mkhabela, was the first corrupt deal made by the ANC government.

Mandela had said that there would be no need to spend money on an expanded military because the government was elected by the people, and there would be no need for a large military to control people. Yet two years into democracy, the Arms Deal was signed. 

The ANC recognised the corruption in its ranks and in 2004 began to put various legal statutes in place to mitigate this. It lost the battle because it could not or would not prosecute the ruling elite. Because of this, it was viewed as being theoretically against corruption, but not practically actioning or emulating anti-corruption behaviour. 

This forms the fourth pillar on which corruption continues to thrive.  

The fifth pillar is the economic reality of most South Africans. Ndletyana says that people, particularly those aged 18 to 30, have too little a stake in the system because so many are unemployed. Little drives them to the polls. They do not see how their lives are improved by the government.  

People really pay attention to politics when it affects their pockets. Therefore, those who pay taxes, and still have to pay extra for schooling, medical aid and their own security system, will be the ones to show up to vote, said Ndletyana. 

The panel was unanimous that the manifestos of South African political parties inspire little confidence and, given the poor state of reading in the country, they could not hope to change minds.  

Professor Bhaso Ndzendze is Vice-dean: Internationalisation and head of department, Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg and Maria Frahn-Arp is a professor of Christian Studies in the Department of Religion Studies and the executive director of UJ’s Library and Information Centre. This article is part of a larger project run by The University of Johannesburg to celebrate 30 years of democracy.  Many of the ideas expressed here were first discussed as part of a series of dialogues to enhance accountability and support good governance,  hosted by the EU Enhancing Accountability Programme and the UJ Library. The first of these discussions, in partnership with the UJ Faculty of Humanities, focused on the upcoming elections, the state of South Africa’s democracy and the fight against corruption.