OPINION: The enemy is corruption, not the ANC
If you thought that government could not do anything else to make the Nkandla scandal worse, think again.
Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko has disclosed that it cost R26,000 to compile his controversial report on Nkandla, which he was not required to produce in the first place. In response to a parliamentary question from Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard, Nhleko revealed that the funds were spent on architectural and cultural experts he consulted to justify that the upgrades at Nkandla, such as the cattle kraal and amphitheatre, were in fact security measures.
The purpose of the exercise was to excuse President Jacob Zuma from having to pay back the money, as had been recommended by the Public Protector's report.
You would think that after the long-running fracas and public outrage over the Nkandla spending, government would resist having to spend more money justifying the expense. But no. The police minister, who took it upon himself to conduct his own investigation, saw it fit to use even more public funds on his report, which also recommended that more upgrades at taxpayers' expense were required.
This is how deaf senior members of government are to the mass outcry over Nkandla and indifferent they are to efforts to curb wastage of public funds. Even without the funding being exposed, Nhleko's report was somewhat of a tipping point that prompted the civil society campaign against corruption.
Last week, prominent civil society figures such as former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, Section27's Mark Heywood and Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim announced an anti-corruption campaign that would culminate in a mass march to the Union Buildings on 19 August. The campaign initially involved 29 civil society organisations and eight trade unions. Heywood says they have since been inundated with requests from organisations and individuals to join the cause.
"The issue of corruption has struck a chord and the march has captured people's imagination. There is a feeling that we have a reached a point where enough is enough and we need to demonstrate our opposition and stop corruption," Heywood said. He said more unions, youth organisations and a range of faith organisations had come on board in the past week.
In response to questions about the campaign being perceived to be anti-ANC, Heywood said this was an "easy line of attack" that would not wash. "The campaign does not have a political agenda. It does not have an anti-ANC agenda. We would like to reach out to and have participation of ANC members who are affected by corruption."
"Corruption and looting of resources is a thread that runs through many of the ills upsetting and undermining people's dignity. Our focus is on corruption, looting, abuse of power and the demand for public accountability," Heywood said. He said many people's anger was pushed over the edge by Zuma's attempt to trivialise and "laugh off Nkandla". "That cripples the fight against corruption. We are trying to un-paralyse the fight against corruption," he said.
David Lewis, the executive director of Corruption Watch, which has also joined the campaign, said there was a growing level of outrage about the levels of corruption and the march would be an outlet for people to express their views. He said while there were many who despair whether anything could be done about corruption, South Africans are generally unwilling to passively accept that corruption is a way of life.
Regarding criticism that there was too much focus on corruption in government and not enough on the private sector, Lewis said that generally, acts of corruption involved private or business people on one side and public officials on the other. "Public servants are the frontline custodians of public resources and invested with public power. That is why there is particular outrage about corruption in the public service," Lewis said.
He said the organisers of the campaign would try to focus the demands and the messaging around corruption but because of the big media and public audience the march would draw, there might be some opportunism. "There are some people who think that everything that is unfair is corruption. Corruption is very far reaching but it is important to try and keep focus," Lewis said.
The one person whose words and actions will be closely watched is Vavi. Because of his expulsion from Cosatu, there are suspicions from his former comrades in the federation, the ANC and the South African Communist Party that he will use the anti-corruption campaign as a launch pad for a new political project. For this reason, they interpret the anti-corruption message to mean "anti-ANC".
But Vavi says the march is "anti-whoever is involved in corruption".
"We do not want to present it as anti ANC or anti-government. If the ANC decides to present itself as opponents of the campaign, then the march will be anti-them. If the ANC says people have the right to express outrage and the campaign helps government focus on the matter, then that will put pressure on everyone involved in corruption."
"The march is purely against corruption and whoever is involved in it, whether they are in business, in the trade unions, in government, an ANC leader or a DA leader," Vavi said.
Regarding the march becoming a general complaining session about issues that may not be strictly deemed as corruption, such as load shedding, Vavi says many problems could be traced back to corrupt activity. He said he had no doubt that something suspicious was going on at Eskom and therefore had called for a judicial commission of inquiry into the "mess". Therefore the issues concerning the power utility we "legitimately within the ambit of the anti-corruption campaign", Vavi said.
He said the focus of the march had to be broad to focus on the "cancer of corruption" in the public and private sector. He said all those involved in collusion in construction and bread companies, inflating the costs of building schools and corrupt activity in the upgrades at Nkandla as well as renovations at ministerial homes should be jailed.
In response to questions about the cross section of organisations joining the campaign, including trade union Solidarity, Vavi said they would not turn away anyone as long as they were equally concerned about corruption. "We don't have perfect agreement on everything. We agree on the matter of corruption but do not agree with Solidarity, for example, on the issue of transformation, which they are fighting. We hate that. But if (Julius) Malema endorses the anti-corruption march, we won't turn them away. Civil society will take the lead of this campaign," Vavi said.
While the initiative might be raising hackles in the alliance, there have not been any official statements from them about the march. ANC national spokesman Zizi Kodwa said "people have the right to march, we can't stop them".
Asked whether the ANC supported the anti-corruption campaign, Kodwa said: "That is precisely our position. We are worried about corruption in the public and private sector. Anyone who raises such concerns should be welcomed."
Asked whether the ANC would make a call to its members to support the march, Kodwa said: "We don't even have to make that call. It is part of our programme. I am sure the organisers themselves are ANC members."
In response to questions about Vavi's role in the campaign, Kodwa said: "We are not at all worried. Why should we be worried? He has been vocal on the issue of anti-corruption so there is nothing wrong with it."
As momentum continues to build towards the march and the messaging zeroes in on issues such as Nkandla, some ANC leaders might not be as generous in their reaction. With the parliamentary ad hoc committee established to consider Nhleko's report now set to conduct an onsite visit to Nkandla on 22 July, the issue is likely to evoke even more outrage.
Nkandla will no doubt be the most uttered word on 19 August, much to the chagrin, or perhaps mirth, of its number one citizen.
But the pressure is now firmly on the organisers to make the march a worthwhile cause and not a passing craze. They need to remain resolute in their message while still aiming for as broad support of the march as possible. Perhaps they should look again at the marches organised by many of them as part of the Mass Democratic Movement during the '80s. The Apartheid regime was such an easily defined enemy that it was not too difficult to energise people in displays of mass defiance and protest.
In corruption, the organisers have a disease eating the very soul of our society. For the first time in almost 30 years, there is another easily definable enemy that thousands can feel outraged enough to take to the streets. Keeping the anti-corruption message clear and strong, however, and the energy associated with it pure and effective, might prove difficult.
The temptation should be resisted to challenge democratic outcomes through the campaign as it will be too easy for beneficiaries of corruption to hide behind perceptions of a proxy campaign for regime change. Targeting bad leadership is another campaign for another day.