Here’s a question for you. Who said the following? ‘The ANC is pained immensely by stories of corruption. We are highly conscious of the damage that corruption does to the party and the country … with some cases maybe we have made an approach that is too legalistic and that approach needs to be reassessed.’
If you guessed it was Cyril Ramaphosa, you’d be right. But you would almost certainly never have guessed that this statement dates to the now distant days of October 1996.
This 24-year-old quote is the introductory frame of the latest Centre for Risk Analysis (CRA) webinar briefing by Frans Cronje, CRA director and CEO of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), aptly titled ‘The ANC’s Corruption Dilemma’.
With good reason, Cronje begins by observing: ‘The fact that [Ramaphosa] has been wrestling with this demon for that amount of time sets the tone for what is going to be a fairly sceptical briefing.’
The dispassionate analysis that follows underscores Cronje’s point that the ‘institutional depth of the problem of corruption is not properly understood’, and the fact of its now being ‘woven into the fabric of the ANC’, illustrates why the task of corruption-busting is far greater than merely ‘removing a few rotten eggs’.
And part of what is not understood very well is that corruption cannot be isolated from the pressing task of turning the country’s fortunes around.
Scale of the crisis
In bullet points at the end of his presentation, Cronje sums up the dilemma of the title, and the scale of the crisis.
- The scale of corruption has become institutionalised. It is no longer peripheral but rather woven into the fabric of the ANC and the government;
- Corruption is cross-factional. The clean-vs-dirty-ANC narrative does not hold up to scrutiny;
- Sincere prosecutorial action would devastate the management ranks of the ANC, but would first have to be agreed to within those ranks;
- Such action would further collapse the patronage networks upon which ANC unity depends;
- Preferential procurement policy has legal legitimacy but in practice comes down to rent-seeking that the media and public regard as corruption. Challenging the rent-seeking would put BEE on trial; and
- Ramaphosa and the ANC are pressed to act and know they must be seen to act, but sincere attempts to defeat corruption would tear the ANC apart.
The party must choose between backing ‘ruthlessly firm political action’ – which would be possible under a ‘strong-man leader’ – as an effective counter to corruption or facing the consequences at the ballot box.
Prospect of losing power
In the absence of action, Cronje argues, the ANC risks losing power before the end of the decade. There is no ‘third way out of trouble’.
Popular disenchantment is reflected in the trends, he points out. Ahead of last year’s elections, ANC support among people in their twenties was just over 50% in a country in which only a third of people are over 35.
Young South Africa was the focus of the 2015 IRR study by policy fellow John Kane-Berman, Born Free But Still In Chains, South Africa’s first post-apartheid generation.
This cohort is, in the idiom, the future, numbering (then) some 27 million, about half the country’s population.
Many of them, Kane-Berman found, had flourished under democracy, but the vast majority – and the scale has doubtless grown since – were jobless, poorly educated and politically alienated.
Noting the common perception that born frees were still ‘trapped’ by the legacy of apartheid, Kane-Berman wrote: ‘The damage done by apartheid has been chronicled in great detail in hundreds of publications by the Institute dating back to the 1930s.
‘However, all the data and the analysis presented in the present paper combine to show that born frees are now trapped much more by other factors: low economic growth, high crime, poor education, few opportunities for skills training, labour law which raises barriers to entry into the labour market, and racial preferencing legislation which may be designed to give them a leg up but which often operates in practice as a leg-iron. Social and economic alienation no doubt feeds through into alienation from a political system already suffering from a crisis of credibility. All of these issues need to be addressed. They need to be addressed in the first place because they are all serious problems in themselves. However, they also need to be addressed in order to neutralise threats that continued economic exclusion may in due course present to the rule of law, stability, and democratic institutions.’
Could the ANC overcome its difficulties and address young South Africa’s needs and wants?
In the CRA webinar, Cronje weighs the options, concluding that ‘if firmer action does not follow on corruption as much as on economic reform – if you do not have prosecutions and stop the rot, and you do not create jobs and establish new businesses on the ground – you play for time and the political consequences will catch up with you’.
The difficulty, both for Ramaphosa and for the party itself, is captured in what Cronje calls the ‘misnomer’ of two camps in the ruling party … ‘that there is a good faction that is clean, not corrupt and supports structural reform clashing with a bad faction that is corrupt and opposes structural reform’.
‘In reality,’ he goes on, ‘that does not work on the ground in the ANC.
‘Many of those who are politically clean sit on the Left, within the SACP and the like, and often, on governance, they are far less enmeshed in malfeasance than some of their peers – but they strongly oppose structural reform.
‘Then there are others on the Ramaphosa side of the equation, who support everything he is trying to do and believe the country would be better run if he was successful, but are themselves implicated in allegations of corruption, and if he ever acted firmly, those actions might in time ensnare them and they could go to prison.’
It was necessary to ‘distinguish between strong support for Ramaphosa and strong support for structural reform’.
‘Few people who would sleep comfortably’
‘There is very limited support for structural reform and that is the reason why we do not see much by way of reform,’ Cronje says. ‘On corruption, nominally there is wide support, but there are very few people who would sleep comfortably if they knew a ruthless prosecutor had been given free rein to do what must be done.’
If, as is doubtless true, corruption was damaging to party and country in 1996, all these years later it is nothing short of paralysing.