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[OPINION] Politics in SA can be stranger than fiction

We should not be surprised at the revelations coming out of the Zondo commission each day. Yet we are. Perhaps we are surprised at the brazenness, the venality and ultimately, the vulgarity of some of the recent testimony. This past week former Bosasa COO Angelo Agrizzi has been opening the proverbial Pandora’s box. Minister of Women in the Presidency Bathabile Dlamini was right - everyone has their own ‘smallanyana skeletons’.

It turns out that even the secretary to the commission may have been on the take. Khotso De Wee has now been relieved of that position by being placed on special leave.

There are too many revelations to get one’s head around and certainly if even half of what Agrizzi is saying is true, then the new National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi will have her work cut out for her. Perhaps a special ‘state capture’ court will have to be set up to deal with the hundreds of cases which will no doubt arise out of this commission?

The weekend papers were filled with details of ‘Mama Action’ Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane’s demands from her benefactors. These include shopping lists that appear to reveal a penchant for fine wines and whiskey.

If the allegations against Mokonyane are true, then it would square with her leaving her previous portfolio as Minister of Water and Sanitation in complete collapse due to corruption and maladministration.

Usually the corrupt are those with no interest in actual governance or delivering better services to the poor.

Former President Jacob Zuma presided over the near collapse of our economy and democratic institutions while lining his pockets in every conceivable manner. It’s very easy to join those dots.

Monday’s evidence centred around ANC MP Vincent Smith and payments allegedly made to him by Bosasa. Like a real B-grade movie, Agrizzi testified that he would hand over the wads of cash to Smith at a popular coffee shop in a mall. His daughter’s university fees were also allegedly covered - in British pounds, no less.

Politics can sometimes be stranger than fiction. When allegations arose against Smith in September 2018 in relation to Bosasa payments, he vehemently denied them. It was alleged then that Smith had received more than R670,000 in payments from Bosasa. He denied monthly payments but stated that other amounts were ‘personal loans’. So the relationship with the Watsons and Bosasa was never denied. The ANC has said that Smith was being targeted as he chaired the constitutional review committee on the expropriation of land. That is precisely the kind of lily-livered statement we have come to expect from the ANC sadly. The DA, for its part, referred the matter to Parliament’s ethics committee.

According to further testimony, Bosasa also allegedly sponsored many ANC electoral campaigns - their logo is even to be found on the ANC's birthday cake. For those of us who have been following ANC politics for long enough, this is hardly surprising. It was at Polokwane that the ANC ‘network lounge’ gained so much traction, after all. And it was the arms deal in 1999 which gave us more than an unpleasant whiff of the world of bribes, corruption and party-funding.

The irony is that it was Smith who chaired the parliamentary ad hoc committee to institute party-funding legislation. It was easy to forget that Smith played a key role in the cover-up in relation to the arms deal investigation way back in 2001. For those of us seasoned parliamentary watchers, Smith was the ANC hatchet man within Scopa. As leader of the ANC’s study group in Scopa after the unjust ousting of former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein, Smith brooked very little dissent from the opposition. He clearly had a job to do for the executive and did it as he sought to exonerate senior ANC figures and cover up the corruption in the deal. He remained an MP thereafter and was never rewarded with any further promotion.

Smith had, however, seemingly rehabilitated himself as a capable and decent chair of the committee leading an enquiry into the SABC and made all the right noises during the passage of the party-funding legislation.

During a panel discussion that hosted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in October 2017, Smith set out the basis for the party-funding legislation.

"This is about transparency and accountability," Smith said. He added, "Deep pockets should not dictate policy in South Africa and our sovereignty should not be sold." That evening Smith himself went on to highlight the benefits of the multi-party democracy fund the new Bill has created and conceded that party-funding transparency ought to be covered at local government level as well as national.

As the revelations flood our news bulletins daily, the public reaction has gone from horror at what we are hearing to a cynical resignation in many quarters.

The ‘new dawn’ we were told would be different. ‘Thuma mina!’ Ramaphosa had said as we rode the emotion of missionary zeal at being sent. That was scarcely a year ago. Much has happened, a lot of it positive, but our nation remains in a precarious state as we watch the ANC continue to mine its deep divisions to the detriment of good governance.

Our institutions and our economy, hollowed out by the neglect and corruption of the Zuma years, have to be rebuilt carefully and painstakingly while at the same time education, healthcare and the public service are in crisis.

We also have elections upon us and the contortions that Ramaphosa will need to perform to win a convincing victory in May will leave us reeling. It will be unpalatable, as was the insincerity posing as unity on the stage at Moses Mabhida stadium when the ANC launched its manifesto recently. Zuma and Ramaphosa in a dark embrace even as Ramaphosa called for an end to state capture and a cleaning up of the state.

There are a few things that are certain in these times - that the Zondo commission now has a life of its own. It cannot be politically controlled. Live testimony of malfeasance and criminality has a way of sticking in the public consciousness. The media continues to do a sterling job of reporting on corruption and South Africa is fortunate to have brave men and women who indeed do write what they like and who speak truth to power.

Legally, matters will also take their course and much will rest on Justice Zondo’s final report. Of course, the allegations made by Agrizzi and others will have to be tested, and so another thing that is certain is that the ‘days of Zondo’ will not be over for a very long time. In the meantime, however, it will be up to citizens and civil society organisations to continue to place pressure on government to act against corruption. It would also not be a bad time for Parliament to start exercising its oversight role and looking into all current Bosasa contracts - as a start. Certainly the legislature should be asking some pertinent questions while the Zondo commission rumbles on?

Ultimately, the question we all have to ask ourselves is a values-based one - what kind of society do we want to become? We have two stark choices - will we choose to be a lawless country where we allow politicians to line their pockets at the expense of the poor, or the country our Constitution envisages - a country of laws where even the most powerful are not exempt from being held to account? What the Constitution envisages is not easy and on some days feels nigh impossible.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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