A mafia in the making

2014-02-06 08:00

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In this edited extract from Prince Mashele and Mzukisi Qobo’s new book, the writers look at the state of the nation under Don Zuma

There is a rise of transactional leadership on the back of the growing corruption and factionalism within the ANC.

The unseemly bonds between the ruling party and factions of business post-apartheid bear a striking resemblance to the mafia state that evolved in post-communist Russia under Boris Yeltsin.

Stark parallels include a preference by the ruling party for acquiescent business elite in search of tickets to prosperity.

In a transactional leadership, the relations between the state and business are not based on a shared vision about a better future, but to share the spoils of patronage.

In both countries, access to state-sanctioned commercial opportunities is given to a few elite in exchange for their loyalty to the ruling party.

In return, they are guaranteed commercial prosperity.

Because of their close proximity to the ruling party, these businessmen are expected to overlook institutional failures of the state.

The hideous umbilical cord between the ruling party and factions of business was exposed recently in President Jacob Zuma’s admonition to business during an ANC anniversary gala dinner.

“I have always said that a wise businessman will support the ANC because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business.” He might as well have added: “If you go a step further to support me and my family, you will reap a richer harvest.”

In Russia, especially after Yeltsin’s second term in office from July 1996, there was a coterie of highly influential and self-serving businessmen whose success was aided by the chaotic privatisation programme that bankrupted the state and stifled genuine entrepreneurship.

Russia’s oligarchs had no interest in contributing to the renewal of the nation’s spirit nor in the economic welfare of the citizens who had suffered many decades of devastation under communist rule. These elite possessed no shared social purpose apart from enriching themselves.

Oligarchs such as Anatoly Chubais, then chairman of the agency responsible for privatisation, witnessed instantaneous change in fortunes; they amassed wealth at the expense of the country’s economic stability.

Despite being implicated in sleazy deals, Chubais was handsomely rewarded with a cushy position as Yeltsin’s chief-of-staff, thereby giving him access to vast political influence, which he used to augment his wealth further. Many other oligarchs prospered through a web of lucrative commercial interests in media, real estate and natural resources.

In her book, Sale of the Century, Chrystia Freeland paints a picture of Yeltsin in the words of one of the oligarchs. “He is an interesting personality – dangerous, but interesting. He is like a bear: he seems always to have such a good-natured smile, but it is known that the bear is the most dangerous beast for its trainers.”

Indeed, Yeltsin sold his country’s precious jewels to a coterie of robber capitalists and allowed it to sink deeper into misery. Consideration of his personal survival trumped everything else.

Zuma is Yeltsin incarnate. His presidency signals a security threat for the country?–?economic and political. South Africa’s equivalents of Russia’s oligarchs are men of influence such as members of the Gupta family.

They represent a tiny but growing layer of business elite whose informal power reaches to the highest echelons of the state, allegedly extending influence on just about everything?–?from the conduct of the police force to the deployment of associates to state-owned entities.

Their choreographed public image is at odds with their conduct and their deeply ingrained sense of entitlement.

The danger for society is that these incestuous bonds breed cynicism.

They open up the state to corrupt influences of businessmen with no interest in the vitality of the country.

In this culture, other corporates will lose the will to champion progressive economic change and South Africa could find itself becoming a mafia state in the mould of Yeltsin’s Russia.

But then, the ANC cares little about public opinion. It lives under the illusion that the majority of South Africans will continue to vote for it no matter what.

It views itself as occupying an unassailable position in the psyche of the black majority and so it continues to ride the crest of the wave of its fading historical glory and symbols.

It is the notion that the ANC is a benefactor that brought liberation that deepens its arrogance.

Hero-worshipping among the majority of the population makes it harder to hold elites accountable.

Leaders are seen to possess a monopoly on wisdom and are thereby over-celebrated.

Political leaders, especially ministers, lack humility and are possessed of an inflated sense of grandeur.

The notion that they are servants is completely foreign to them. Among politicians, it is often forgotten that the Latin root meaning for the word ‘minister’, simply stated, is servant or attendant.

In South Africa, it has prima donna connotations.

To question a minister who is involved in some act of corruption or who has committed an irregularity, is viewed by those in power as a sign of disrespect. It hardly occurs to them that by their actions they disrespect the public. It is the two dangerous forces of corruption and factionalism that are hastening the ANC’s demise.

This hideous image of the party as tolerant of corruption and faction-ridden might have its origins in the early years of democracy, but this has worsened under Jacob Zuma.

When the ANC came to power in 1994, amid the euphoria that accompanied its ascendance, the party did not imagine that its support base could one day erode with the real possibility of losing power.

While this may not happen in a Big Bang fashion, trends since the 2009 elections suggest a downward spiral.

The reality is that, on the African continent, liberation movements that go down never rise again.

The ANC is unlikely to regain the electoral losses it is incrementally making. As Financial Times news editor Alec Russell points out: “As the ANC settled into government in April 1994, its leaders bridled when commentators compared their beloved party to other liberation movements or even predicted they too might lose their way.”

Today the ANC’s loss of moral compass is commonplace. It is a new normality that the party faithful would want us to adjust to. The ANC’s leadership bench is becoming thinner as the dough of corruption rises.

The political culture of the party and the character of its leadership go a long way to explaining the morass the country finds itself in today.

The view of leaders as heroes has helped to facilitate the growth of corruption and its terrifying continuity under Jacob Zuma. There is no sign that this will abate any time soon.

In fact, we contend that the idea of Zuma serving another term as president of South Africa raises the spectre of a a state à la Russia under Boris Yeltsin.

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