Guest Column

State capture is here to stay

2016-11-10 15:10

The allegations of state capture over the past few months have unleashed an unprecedented wave of political passion. It’s difficult to recall anything since 1994 – not even the arms deal or the Nkandla debacle – that has provoked such outrage from such a diverse spectrum of opinion. And why not? This is about the people’s democratic birthright being stolen. It’s something worth being angry about.

Whether a politically-connected family did actually manage to commandeer the state for their own benefit is something that remains to be proven. Should the Public Protector’s report be acted upon, it will fall to a judge to bring the whole saga to light.

Perhaps a more important question is what lessons we will take away once the issue is laid to rest.

If this is to be reduced to a morality tale about a set of dubious relationships and the story of how an outraged citizenry and a plucky Public Protector asserted themselves, we will not have achieved much. Presidents and power-brokers come and go. Rather, this is an opportunity to reflect on the quality of governance that we, as a country, will demand. 

State capture is not new to South Africa. A few months back, labour writer Terry Bell recalled the influence of the Afrikaner Broederbond on South African politics in the apartheid-era. Inevitably, some Broeders saw this as a means to profit personally. ‘Been there, done that’, some remarked sardonically.

No less significant was the approach that the ANC took towards the state in the late 1990s. Cadre deployment was adopted as party policy, aimed at inserting party loyalists into the civil service. It was intended to ensure that the civil service – contrary to the constitutional requirements that ‘no employee of the public service may be favoured or prejudiced only because that person supports a particular political party or cause’ – would be politicised.

As one discussion document put it: "Transformation of the state entails, first and foremost, extending the power of the National Liberation Movement over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on."

Denials to the contrary notwithstanding (the same document claimed implausibly that this didn’t mean that such institutions could not remain independent and non-partisan), it is difficult to imagine a more picture-perfect description of state capture. 

Cadre deployment ranks as one of the great missteps of the post-apartheid order. That it violated the constitution was bad enough. But it also retarded the development of a well-motivated, professional civil service. Indeed, in 2009, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs released a major study on the state of local government in the country – which, though diplomatically phrased, made clear that the politicisation of local administration lay beneath much of its dysfunction.

Today, ‘cadre deployment’ carries implications of nepotism and malfeasance. Somewhat ironically, the ANC has recently accused its opponents of engaging in it.

An illuminating sidebar to this story is that cadre deployment was widely endorsed – or at least defended – by numerous commentators outside the ANC at the time it was introduced. So were many questionable appointments. It’s fair to say that at least some portion of the responsibility for the damage that was done must be borne by the editors, academics and activists who refused to see the dangers before them.

And this brings us back to the current tumult. This is a challenging – even frightening – set of circumstances. So, what lessons should we learn? 
One obvious lesson is that history has a habit of repeating itself. We can be sure that this will not be the last challenge of this nature we are likely to see. And let’s not assume that a different party logo will mean an enhanced resilience to the temptations of power. 

Another lesson is that we need a resilient, robust state, staffed by an ethical, professional and, above all, impartial civil service. As this is what our constitution envisages, this should hardly be controversial. Whether for reasons of power, ideology or money, states will always be targets for capture. A strong organisational culture is at least one guard against this. 

Finally, the events currently unfolding demonstrate the need for ongoing citizen engagement. Visible public outrage has ensured that is this an issue that cannot be chuckled away or swept under a carpet. The scope of this – not least the voices of many prominent members of the ANC – has been a major statement of commitment to our constitutional order. It is, unfortunately, one that we as citizens have not always risen to. We must not fail to do so going forward. A healthy skepticism about power and the courage to demand accountability are essential, not just now, but for South Africa’s future as a free society.

As the American abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few.’

* Lebone is head of the Centre for Risk Analysis at the South African Institute for Race Relations.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  state capture
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