The ANC and its funders

In the room full of the political and business elite attending the ANC's anniversary gala dinner in Durban last Friday, very few people would have been jolted by President Jacob Zuma's remarks to secure funding for the party. In fact, had the media not reported on it, it probably would not have even registered on the radar of bizarre statements the president tends to make when he speaks off the cuff.

According to the Sunday Times, Zuma said: "We're not forcing people… you can support and be a supporter, but if you go beyond that and become a member, [and] if you're a businessman, your business will multiply. Everything you touch will multiply. I've always said that a wise businessperson will support the ANC… because supporting the ANC means you're investing very well in your business."

Which is downright strange, if one looks from a strictly legal perspective: during former police commissioner Jackie Selebi's corruption case, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) rejected his appeal that argued he did not do anything in return for receiving benefits from Glenn Agliotti.

The court's interpretation of the 2004 Corruption Act was that just agreeing to accept money or gifts - from someone you suspect may want to buy your influence - constitutes corruption.

The new Corruption Act made it unnecessary for the state to prove that there was a counter-performance by a politician or civil servant accepting a bribe, the SCA found.

Zuma's statements at the dinner, therefore, were essentially setting these businesspeople up to enter into a corrupt relationship with the ANC. Ironically; Zuma was indicted under the same Corruption Act and his former financial advisor Schabir Shaik was convicted for his "generally corrupt relationship" with the president. In his ruling sentencing Shaik to 15 years' imprisonment, Judge Hilary Squires said the following to justify the penalty:

"I do not think I am overstating anything when I say that this phenomenon [of corruption] can truly be likened to a cancer eating away remorselessly at the fabric of corporate privacy and extending its baleful effect into all aspects of administrative functions, whether state official or private sector manager. If it is not checked, it becomes systemic. And the after-effects of systemic corruption can quite readily extend to the corrosion of any confidence in the integrity of anyone who has a duty to discharge, especially a duty to discharge to the public.

"One can hopefully discount the prospect of it happening in this country, but it is that sort of increasing disaffection which leads and has led on other parts of our continent and elsewhere to coups d'état or the rise of populace leaders who in turn manipulate politics for even greater private benefit."

It would be fascinating to find out from Squires now what he thought of Zuma's comments last week.

On the basis of the Shaik judgment, Zuma was fired and charged with corruption himself. He spent the next four years in and out of various courtrooms contesting the charges. His defence was always that his actions did not constitute corruption, as he did nothing reciprocal for receiving money from Shaik, and that he was a victim of a political conspiracy. Nonetheless, one would think that after four years of trauma and the prospect of jail time, Zuma would have understood why the state was able to throw the book at him and the nature of his charges.

Selebi's trial would have been another lesson for the ANC's high-profile leaders to be wary of receiving gifts and money from businesspeople who clearly do not donate generously to the party or its leaders out of the goodness of their hearts. They do so to buy political favour, to be among the privileged set who have easy access to those with political power and to keep the wheels of their business operations going.

The past few years have seen the contaminating effect businesspeople have had on the ANC, from influencing and benefiting from the awarding of state tenders to being privy to classified information such as intelligence reports and Cabinet appointments.

But it is not as if everyone on the ANC is oblivious to the problem. A few weeks ago, at the ANC national conference in Mangaung, the party's newly elected treasurer general Zweli Mkhize said he wanted to set in place clear guidelines around fundraising. He told a media briefing that there should be mechanisms to prevent abuse and to ensure proper accountability around donations to the party.

"The ANC only accepts 'one-way' donations… People can't give the ruling party something and expect something in return," Mkhize said.

But the official position of the ANC on Zuma's comments was that there was nothing wrong with them and that he was talking generally about the ANC's "economic and business-friendly policies". Even the ANC's policy head and Justice Minister Jeff Radebe was on radio justifying the president's statements on Monday.

(Ironically, it was Radebe's department which tightened the legislation to strengthen measures to prevent and combat corruption.)

The ANC lashed out at the Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko for suggesting that Zuma should retract his remarks. In a statement on Monday, Mazibuko said she would be submitting parliamentary questions to Zuma to clarify whether his remarks that businesses which support the ANC will see their fortunes "multiply" was government policy. She said these were "dangerous and irresponsible comments that have the potential to undermine our constitutional democracy".

"These remarks… have the potential to severely compromise the principle of good governance, which our constitutional democracy fundamentally depends on. They imply that by backing the ANC, businesses will be provided with financial reward, which can only be leveraged through state resources. With high levels of corruption already costing the economy billions of rands, hurting the poor and vulnerable the hardest, such a comment is deeply irresponsible," Mazibuko said.

The ANC said Mazibuko's statements were due to naiveté about African traditions and said it rejected "with contempt" her call for Zuma to retract his comments.

"The ANC supports the call made by President Zuma that 'businesses that support the ANC will prosper'. It is a sad fact that Lindiwe Mazibuko is so naive when it comes to African traditions that she cannot relate to them. It is our tradition as Africans that if someone gives you something, in return you thank him/her and wish them prosperity and abundance," ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said in a statement.

"It is also a fact that the ANC is the only party in South Africa that has economic and business-friendly policies. The implication of this reality is that if business wants to prosper in South Africa, they have to support the ANC as their prosperity is dependent on the ANC being at the helm of South Africa's government.

The ANC has demonstrated its pro-business stance by establishing a Progressive Business Forum to ensure that business contributes in our policies," Mthembu said.

It might be advisable for Zuma, Mthembu and other ANC leaders, as well as businessmen seduced by the president's words, to read the Squires judgment in the Shaik trial and the SCA judgment in the Selebi trial.

Squires in particular was lucid in explaining the corrupting nexus between business and politics.

Stating that Shaik had lost his "moral compass" and scruples, Squires said: "What was important to him was the achievement of a large, multi-corporate business group… and the power that goes with that and close association with the greatest in the land.

"It is precisely in such circumstances that corruption works."

No matter how much the rules are bent, neither the ANC nor its leaders will ever be above the law. "The greatest" in the land, it would seem, are also unable to decipher right from wrong and desperately need to find their moral compass too. 'Cause the first step to stopping the cancer of corruption is understanding what corruption really is.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.