The spoils of power

2008-04-08 00:00

The year is still young, but even the most avid reader of South African news might be wilting. Racism; corruption; crime; crises in service delivery and sports administration; and mayhem on our roads hit the headlines with the regularity of a revolving door.

Some stories appear inexplicable, their supposed causes hard to credit. Periodic upheavals in the organisation of cricket, football and rugby are put down to the lack of transformation. Similar accusations are used to explain why some black professionals still need to organise in racially-exclusive bodies. Universities are increasingly governed in authoritarian ways totally at odds with academic freedom. And in the trade union movement, another sector where democracy blossomed in the past, purges are under way.

These apparently unconnected happenings have a common denominator: power, the gateway to influence and wealth. It was Martin Welz, editor of Noseweek, who cannily predicted that an ANC government, far from putting the needs of the dispossessed at the top of its agenda, would quickly engage with the corporate world in a relationship of crony capitalism. Civil society took far too long to grasp the implications: the gravy train tag was applied just to the small-time crooks. Welz argues that divisions within the party are to a degree about competing business interests. A basic ANC tactic — deployment — is ultimately to do with the spoils and rewards of power. The public interest comes a distant last.

The recent history of the ANC Youth League and its cosy relationship with the crooked business empire of Brett Kebble provides a good example. According to the National Prosecuting Authority, Schabir Shaik allegedly made 676 payments worth R3 million to Jacob Zuma over six years. And German investigations suggest that even larger sums of so-called commission connected to the arms deal may have found their way into the pockets of the highest politicians in the land.

Principled individuals within the ANC are worried. Trevor Manuel fears that self-serving politicians have hijacked the party. This would explain his other warning — that parliamentarians are failing to hold the executive to account. If suggestions that every major decision in which government is involved factors in personal or party rake-offs are true, the country is corrupt from top to bottom.

Certainly the ANC has very quickly become very rich. Its investment arm, Chancellor House, has assets worth hundreds of millions: companies in which it has a stake have a significant slice of the contracts awarded to build South Africa’s new power stations. The debate about whether the ANC has managed to transform itself from liberation movement to political party is actually redundant. As Patricia de Lille points out, it is now a business corporation.

The dangers of this to democracy and the constitutional state are self-evident. The ability of the judiciary and the media to curb the powerful new elite explains why they are under fire and subject to those manipulative words, racism and transformation. The ANC has no clue what to do about the really pressing crises in education and health that can potentially derail the nation’s future. But it pours energy into destroying its supposed enemies. The Scorpions are the most obvious. This also explains the proposed statutory media appeals tribunal.

When different factions of a corrupt and less than competent elite are fighting to hang on to or acquire power, the last thing they want is a free press. There is no evidence that the public in general is dissatisfied with the media —except with his master’s voice, SABC. And laws are in place to protect the rights of all citizens. Those best placed to use them are, ironically, among the newly-rich elite.

But the ANC is determined to make the media answerable to Parliament, which effectively means Luthuli House. Raymond Louw of the South African National Editors’ Forum believes this is a move towards thought control. In broad terms he is correct, but there is a narrower agenda. In its stumbling efforts to justify a tribunal, the ANC routinely mentions the case of Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Yet the issues raised about her past and present had a direct bearing on her suitability for office. Her continued appointment to a key ministry is a matter for intense scrutiny.

A tribunal is at odds with the right to freedom of expression and, if pursued, will surely fall foul of the Constitution. In the meantime, it provides yet another example of the ANC’s inability, or unwillingness, to distinguish between the clearly delineated roles of state, party and individual that are essential to democracy.

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