JUDITH FEBRUARY: The indescribable impunity of the ANC

OPINION

A picture is worth a thousand words. In this case the picture says everything.

It is one of (disgraced) Minister of Communications and Digital Technology, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, looking down like a benevolent goddess as a poor man in ragged clothes, wearing no shoes, kneels in supplication. Ndabeni-Abrahams, dressed in a fashionable jumpsuit, hands him what looks like a mobile telephone.

Another one shows a clearly destitute man, a South African flag draped around his shoulders, staring confused at an envelope Ndabeni-Abrahams hands him.

There are other similar photographs showing ANC members doling out shiny objects, sometimes even money.

Perhaps this is what is meant by ‘delivering’ to ‘the masses’ or ‘our people’, as the ANC puts it?

Ndabeni-Abrahams responded by saying the recipients were disabled, they were showing respect and that the pictures were from the 2018 file.

The pictures are disturbing in their insensitivity, lack of empathy and underlying venality. They also tell us everything we need to know about a governing party that treats the elderly and poor as chattel, voting fodder and humble supplicants.

Out of frame would be the expensive German cars, along with the ubiquitous blue light brigade so beloved by our politicians.

How else would Ndabeni-Abrahams and her colleagues be transported, after all?

The pictures tell the story of a party which has long ago lost its ethical moorings and sense of purpose.

This week we watched as the ANC’s Zandile Gumede, the former eThekwini mayor, was sworn in as a Member of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature. Gumede is currently out on R50,000 bail for her alleged role in a Durban Solid Waste tender scandal which allegedly involved between R389 million and R430 million. She is due to appear in court again in September.

Sometimes there are simply no words to describe the impunity with which the ANC acts. Gumede, for her part, blamed the media for her travails. It’s an old trope - blame the messenger.

Is it any wonder then that there is a cynicism when we hear of government’s trite promises to ‘fight corruption’ (yet another tired phrase)?

Undeniably, dealing with corruption is a complex task. Some of what needs to be done is within President Ramaphosa’s power and some of it is not. The president cannot, for instance, tell law enforcement agencies what to do, direct prosecutors or compel investigations into criminal conduct.

Progress has been made, slowly and carefully, in trying to dismantle the architecture of state capture through the Special Investigative Unit, cleaning up state-owned enterprises, SARS and other institutions.

Undoing the rot is a long-haul journey, let us make no mistake. It is so that former President Zuma spent most of his near-decade in power looting the state and ensuring that he and his political associates were assured of financial security at our expense.

To facilitate his project, he found many willing helpers within the ANC. So, we had a Zuma problem, but it was enabled by the corrupt comrades around him. They’re a motley crew of individuals and they are still around trying to loot as much as possible. Secretary-General Ace Magashule is a key enabler and has several allegations of corruption hanging over his own head.

This has made it possible for the likes of Gumede to act with such boldness. Shame is a rare commodity in South African politics and the ANC is well-known for recycling the corrupt and shameless.

So, it’s an ANC problem, and it is obvious that Ramaphosa picks his battles with Magashule and his faction carefully. That is his political strategy and has been variously described as ‘weak’ or ‘deliberative’, depending on which side of politics one sits. Sometimes, of course, the truth is somewhere in between the neat binary.

What is true is that there are times, however, when he should be able to act on what is in front of him.

Ramaphosa can be proactive and deal with the fiasco surrounding his spokesperson, Khusela Diko, who is currently taking a leave of absence following allegations of corruption relating to a PPE contract for which she and her husband made an "error of judgment" when he tendered for a contract to supply PPE worth R125 million to the Gauteng Department of Health.

This whiff of corruption around Diko undermines Ramaphosa himself and she should be dismissed. It may also provide a salutary lesson to others caught in an ‘error of judgment’ in future.

The ANC will contest a local government election next year and again make the case to a weary and often apathetic electorate.

In the 2016 local government elections, the ANC won only 53.9% of the vote and lost three key metros: Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Johannesburg. Since then the governance in all three places has been incoherent, mostly unprincipled and messy. The limitations of coalition politics South African-style has been on vulgar display.

Quite how the ANC improves on the 2016 result is unclear when it seems so unfit for purpose.

Next year’s election will also be held in the wake of COVID-19 which has caused economic devastation.

Ironically, Ramaphosa is one of the few within the ANC who has the political capital to strengthen the ANC’s electoral fortunes ever so slightly. His face will be on the T-shirts, after all. In 2016 it was all Jacob Zuma.
Ramaphosa really is the ANC’s only hope of doing better in the 2021 local government elections. Is it not therefore time for him to expend his capital more effectively within the ANC? That will mean taking on Magashule and other corrupt leaders within the party who enable someone like Gumede’s impunity.

But even if he does so, Ramaphosa alone cannot fix the levels of corruption within this society.

If we all want a better society which fulfills the aspirations of the Constitution, then as citizens we need to continue exposing corruption, as the media does, and be more focused and disciplined in our demands for accountability in public life.

Recent events in Beirut show us what happens when corruption reaches such levels that society’s rotten underbelly is entirely laid bare. Chemicals explode, a country implodes, people take to the streets and governments collapse.

Or, apathy sets in to the degree that governance paralysis is all we have. Both scenarios are equally dangerous for South Africa.

The message to the ANC itself is as stark as it can be right now, if it cares to listen.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and 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