There is no decent punchline available (not one that could be repeated in polite society at least). Trying to find ethics in contemporary politics is reduced to a joke.
This is as true at home as it is abroad. Cynicism is rife, and so is pessimism, as globally, intellectuals see a worldwide "Road to Unfreedom" (Timothy Snyder's recent book) and few prospects of a progressive politics that seeks to honour human rights, cease environmental destruction, work against inequality and form pro-poor policies.
Rather, we are in a global era of state capture (in which we are far from unique), rising inequality, a looming Anthropocene and politics mired in corruption, self-interest and anti-poor policies.
But within this gloomy global and local picture, are there any positive portents? Now that we can no longer point to the clutch of policies that drove down inequality in Brazil, or hope that progressive Nordic countries would keep the flame of social democracy glowing, or that the United States may try occasionally to be on the side of the angels?
Busiest offices in town
Looking at local politics, it is notable that the busiest offices – in all major political parties – seem to be their ethics or integrity offices. The DA is trying to manage claims and counter-claims of corruption, racism and bullying as the fallout from its disastrous handling of Patricia de Lille (and the associated internal mud-slinging) seems to confirm that the party simply cannot handle strong women.
One thinks of Lindiwe Mazibuko, the brief affair with Mamphele Ramphela, the (not always successful) muzzling of Helen Zille, culminating in the politically suicidal onslaught against the former sitting mayor of Cape Town. With allegations of racism, corruption, cronyism and protecting white privilege being thrown about, one assumes the DA's integrity office is working overtime.
One hopes the same is true of the EFF. The recent scandals surrounding funds from VBS Mutual Bank allegedly finding their way into party leaders' pockets and into the party's coffers have cast significant shade on a party that has managed to get away with blatant racism (its key electoral appeal) but whose "pay back the money" mantra is now turned right back at itself, its leadership, and whether or not they will pay back their VBS money.
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Finally, the ANC seems to stagger from one scandal to another. After a decade of Zuma-driven venality, presumably only the most die-hard and loyalty-blinded supporters imagine the party to be clean, and it came as no surprise to find that the ANC too had benefited handsomely from VBS largesse.
What is different, however, was that ANC treasurer Paul Mashatile simply admitted it, and signalled intent to repay the money. This is not the ANC we have come to know – a party of impunity and blatant theft of public resources. Could it be that something positive is occurring?
The most recent sign of this – just prior to Mashatile's admission regarding VBS monies – came from the ANC's (presumably over-worked and exhausted) integrity committee. George Mashamba, the widely respected chair, recommended to the party's leadership that all members implicated in the VBS Mutual Bank scandal step aside from leadership positions and activities.
Mashamba noted (without irony) that the party's "reputation and credibility have been seriously damaged" and that implicated members such as Limpopo treasurer Danny Msiza and deputy provincial chair Florence Radzilani should stand aside and report to the integrity commission. There is no evidence that they acceded to the request.
Taken together, the integrity commission request and Mashatile's openness about the VBS funds do suggest that Ramaphosa is trying to change the internal party culture and not merely the external manifestations of corruption in government and state-owned enterprises. It is early days, and these are precious green shoots – but the irony is that the ANC has responded to recent events with greater transparency and speed than the DA or EFF with their own challenges. No denials, no mud-slinging, no hint of a cover-up – the reverse seems to be the case. Is change really possible?
South Africa in a world going wrong
"Ramaphoria" ebbed as we all began to realise quite how deep the rot had set in – in every state institution and throughout the party – and how tenuous Ramaphosa's grip on power seemed to be.
It also ebbed because South Africans (reasonably enough!) wanted vengeance, blood on the floor, heads on spikes, and got nothing of the sort.
We wanted all those gloating, trough-eating bloated hacks fired, gone, not hectoring us any longer – but they largely stayed. Headlines shrieked that this proved how weak Ramaphosa was, how he would be toppled by internal pro-Zuma forces; and when that didn't happen, by a new party formed with Zuma's support at a tawdry set of Durban hotels. That has not happened either. Instead, what we got was good governance.
Ramaphosa has moved exactly as a leader should – no rush of blood to the head, no shouting matches, no unattainable promises. Rather, he has called a halt to state capture, and asked us to look at how state capture worked.
A series of commissions of inquiry began to lift the lid on the picture, big and small, the overall strategy and how it played out in SARS and elsewhere.
Slowly, steadily, using the rule of law and transparency, Ramaphosa exposed to our gaze the appalling behaviour of his former colleagues. Faced with public scrutiny, some disappeared; others, such as the SARS peacock Tom Moyane, attempted defiance – and got fired. Step by slow, measured step, Ramaphosa is rolling back the rot, internal and external.
Cleaning up the state
This is not a puff piece for the ANC – the DA and EFF may well find the guts to confront their demons as well, but in the grand scheme of things what happens to the ANC directly affects us all, like it or not.
The point is that as Brazil elects an overtly fascist leader to join the right-wing nutters in power across much of Europe, America, Russia and elsewhere, joining post-coup leaders in Zimbabwe or a seven-term president in Cameroon – Ramaphosa is moving in the opposite direction. Where others are happily locking up opposition politicians, muzzling academics, rolling back progressive laws, proclaiming every uncomfortable fact as "fake news" – Ramaphosa is seeking to clean up the state, clean up his party, and deliver on the ANC's long-standing pro-poor mandate.
He seems to be unafraid of how much we get to see the interstices of state capture, knowing that transparency is by far his strongest weapon. And by so doing, South Africa is increasingly standing out, globally, for confronting the politics of corruption and state capture and seeking to reverse it.
It may just be that from the unalloyed mess of the last decade, South Africa will once again offer an example of how gatvol South Africans can effect change. The gatvol factor that broke Bell Pottinger, that exposed KPMG and SAP and Bain and so many others, is now firmly behind the commissions of enquiry and the actions of new Boards cleaning out state owned enterprises.
We are all watching the slow but unrelenting force of the rule of law that is exposing Ramaphosa's opponents one by one. Seen in global terms, South Africa is doing something quite remarkable, and we citizens are all part of it.
- Prof David Everatt is the head of the Wits School of Governance.
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