Corruption is in part a product of the great expectations of the transition to democracy. Redistribution of wealth was an urgent goal, but already at that time there was friction within the ANC on how this should be achieved, writes Christi van der Westhuizen.
Former ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama declared memorably that he did not join the struggle against apartheid to be poor. This statement captures the global culture of consumption but also, more importantly, how the impoverishment of black people was intrinsic to apartheid and colonialism.
The corruption crisis in South Africa, therefore, should be analysed in relation to both the largely failed project of redistribution of wealth since 1994 and those mass robberies known as colonialism and apartheid. Using racist justifications, black people were deprived of resources and systematically exploited. To give just one example: black mine workers, the backbone of the South African economy in the 20th century, earned less in 1970 than in 1910.
Ngonyama's statement thus reflects the great expectations of the transition to democracy. Redistribution of wealth was an urgent goal, as outlined in the reconstruction and development programme (RDP) of the mid-1990s.
But already at that time there was friction between two groups within the ANC which, for purposes of brevity, could be called the moderates and the militants. It is essential to place revelations of corruption – for example, those in Crispian Olver's How to Steal a City on Nelson Mandela Bay and Pieter-Louis Myburgh's Gangster State on Ace Magashule – in this historical and ideological context.
At the time of the negotiations, the moderates adopted a hard-nosed approach, for example, when the ANC withdrew from Codesa, led by Nelson Mandela. But they opted to stay the course, with Cyril Ramaphosa playing a vital role to bring about a peaceful transition.
On the other hand, the militants distrusted the politics of negotiation, as shown by Operation Vula, a clandestine military "Plan B". The National Party (NP) government was also engaged in covert operations, with political violence killing more people during 1990-1994 than at any other time during apartheid. Eventually, as we know, the proverbial doves prevailed on both sides. But in the ANC, the discord was not resolved.
It partly reflected the hopes of ordinary ANC members of overthrowing white minority rule, embodied by leaders such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, known for violent rhetoric. Her name appeared high on ANC lists, despite her connection to the murder of child activist Stompie Sepei.
It is no coincidence that Julius Malema and Dali Mpofu of the EFF, nowadays operating as an external wing of the ANC militants, were both close to Madikizela-Mandela. Magashule apparently too.
Coming to the politics of race, the militants are notorious for anti-white statements, in contrast to the moderates' position of reconciliation and non-racialism.
In 1996, the moderates expressed their economic vision in the growth, employment and redistribution programme, known as Gear and led by Thabo Mbeki. South Africa still follows this model with the current National Development Plan. It involves neoliberal interventions in the economy in the form of deregulation and liberalisation, which are augmented by a developmental focus. The comprehensive state welfare system helps to cushion the unintended effects of this form of capitalism.
In contrast, the militants do not project a clear economic position. Mbeki previously described them as "ultra-leftists", suggesting they were pursuing "obsolete" ideas. Malema visited Zimbabwe and Venezuela for inspiration, but EFF policy falls short on details of how state-centred development would be funded.
Meanwhile, the primary global impact of neoliberal capitalism, the exacerbation of socio-economic inequality to unseen extremes, also occur here. Since the 1990s, South Africa has taken turns with Brazil to occupy the shameful position of being the most unequal country in the world, according to the Gini coefficient measurement.
Although South Africa's economy eventually showed growth during the 2000s, with some jobs created, these advances were set back by the global economic crisis of 2007-2008. Given that private investment has been at levels too low to significantly boost development, also before the global crisis, the state has increasingly become central to ordinary people's survival.
This is especially true in smaller towns, where private investment has virtually disappeared and a harrowing collapse in local economies is visible. In a country where half of the population live below the poverty line, even the small amounts of welfare grants and pay for temporary work on local roads can be life savers that keep you and your children from going to bed hungry tonight.
In this context, the control of state services and contracts for the purposes of patronage becomes imperative for local political elites. The rise of Jacob Zuma was a national reflection of these local realities.
The moderates' policies have not produced economic advancement that substantively changes most black lives. This failure gives oxygen to the militants, shifting the balance of power in the ANC in their favour.
But the militants cannot conjure convincing economic alternatives in the face of neoliberal hegemony. A kind of informal redistribution of wealth has instead kicked in, with corrupt networks worming their tentacles into government coffers at all levels. Today, non-corrupt leftists find themselves in the ironic position that the neoliberals, broadly speaking, represent the only force to counteract corruption.
Of course, not all leftists in the ANC are corrupt. Given the various examples in Olver's and Myburgh's books, it rather appears that corrupt, militant elements have hijacked the leftist position, spiced up with anti-white and violent talk, as a cover for their operations. Hence the rallying cry of "radical economic transformation", the Bell Pottinger revival of the old phrase "white monopoly capital" and calls to "nationalise" the Reserve Bank.
The corrupt elements' concoction of "radical" ideology and corrupt patronage is convincing to many in the context of a glaring lack of opportunities outside the state to survive. To uproot these elements, their opponents have to crack down on corruption, but more crucially: all possible steps must be taken to meaningfully reduce the ongoing socio-economic misery experienced by most South Africans.
- Christi van der Westhuizen is an associate professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (Canrad) at Nelson Mandela University.
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