A fight over graft within South Africa’s monolithic ruling party is intensifying, and its outcome could determine whether the continent’s most developed nation prospers or fails.
South Africa has labored for the past decade with a level of corruption that has progressively slowed growth, bankrupted state companies and hollowed out institutions.
As party members take to the streets to protest against graft and public outrage grows, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is accelerating his anti-corruption campaign in the governing African National Congress (ANC).
With an economy crushed by a COVID-19 lockdown and now in its worst state since the end of apartheid, the party’s own survival might be at stake if Ramaphosa fails to follow through on his pledge.
Ramaphosa wrote to ANC members in late August saying that the party was “accused No. 1” in the court of public opinion, and then exacted a pledge from its top decisionmaking committee that officials facing disciplinary and criminal procedures must step aside.
Pressure is growing to push forward with arrests and prosecutions.
“Cyril doesn’t have to worry about stepping on a few toes; the public will defend him,” said Matthew Parks, parliamentary coordinator for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the 1.8 million-member labor group that is a key ally of the president. “What we want from the president is decisiveness, throwing people into prison.”
So far, that has not happened.
The president did dock three months’ pay from South African Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula after she allowed senior ANC figures to accompany her on a formal visit to Zimbabwe, blurring the lines between government and party business.
On Thursday last week, the South African Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, known as the Hawks, indicted Angelo Agrizzi, former chief operations officer at services company Bosasa, and Vincent Smith, a former ANC lawmaker who oversaw a parliamentary commission on prisons. Agrizzi previously told a judicial commission that Bosasa paid bribes to win government contracts at prisons.
Senior government officials were also arrested last week over alleged corruption at a state housing project in the Free State province.
Aside from former South African president Jacob Zuma, who is facing corruption charges that were reinstated after being dropped more than a decade ago, and former South African minister of state security Bongani Bongo, no major figures have been apprehended.
The dilemma for Ramaphosa is that however much the public might support his fight against corruption, it is inside the century-old ANC where the battle is being waged.
Until now, his ability to act against graft has been constrained by his wafer-thin victory in the late 2017 party election that left two key allies of Zuma in the ANC’s top six decisionmaking body, limiting his room to act.
With the ANC’s next elective conference set for 2022, Ramaphosa might need to placate the various party factions if he is to serve a second term as president.
The lack of prosecutions has spurred increased dissatisfaction with the ANC, as testimony at several commissions of inquiry into corruption has been broadcast almost daily for more than a year.
“I don’t see any new moment as far as the ANC is concerned, and as far as the president is concerned, the only new thing is public indignation,” said Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst and author. “It is a question of who gets arrested; there are people who are disposable. There is still a sense of a face-saving exercise.”
The extent of the graft within the party became clear when it was revealed that the husband of Ramaphosa’s own spokeswoman had won contracts to supply the government with medical equipment needed to fight COVID-19.
ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule was drawn into the scandal when it emerged that his two sons won similar tenders, although they have not been accused of wrongdoing.
South Africa finds itself in a very different place than many hoped when it burst forth from the end of apartheid as the so-called “rainbow nation,” a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in reference to the country’s many ethnicities and popularized by its first black president, Nelson Mandela.
With the economy set to post its biggest annual contraction in nine decades and 42 percent of the potential workforce unemployed, Ramaphosa has no choice but to act.
The ANC faces voters in a municipal vote next year and general elections in 2024.
“The idea of the ANC losing power is not far-fetched,” said Ntsikelelo Breakfast, a political science lecturer at South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch.
“It’s an untenable situation; we are stealing out of the mouths of our children and the old and the infirm and the vulnerable,” said Martin Kingston, vice president of Business Unity South Africa and chairman of the local unit of Rothschild & Co.
“We are not going to mobilize the capital that’s required domestically or internationally without comprehensively tackling crime or corruption,” Kingston said.
That is key, given that Ramaphosa has staked the country’s economic recovery on an unprecedented plan to attract as much as 2.3 trillion rand (US$140 billion) in private investment into infrastructure over the next decade.
The national power monopoly is mired in corruption scandals and US$29 billion in debt, the state arms company cannot pay salaries and the national airline is insolvent.
The result has been state bailouts that have deepened the country’s debt burden and seen it take its first ever loan from the International Monetary Fund, a step the ruling party had in the past deeply opposed.
Until Ramaphosa can carry out a decisive strike against corruption, the economy cannot progress, said Claude Baissac, chief executive officer of Eunomix Business and Economics Ltd, which advises on political risk.
“For South Africa, Ramaphosa’s effort right now is the last chance saloon,” he said.
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