The nature of systematic corruption

Instead of reorganising the foundations of the country to create a democratic socialist alternative, the ANC prioritised developing a Black capitalist class and political elite.

Corruption in South Africa dominates the headlines – seemingly every week there are new arrests or scandals at all levels of government. The damning Kabuso Report has exposed the devastating extent of corruption in the Makana Local Municipality. South Africans also recently found out donors with vested interests in the outcomes of the ANC conferences have been funding the ANC presidents’ campaigns.  

There is a tendency to reduce South Africa’s problems to bad leaders or bad ethics. For some, state capture – meaning the Gupta family’s control over the levers of power – could be ended simply by getting rid of the Guptas and the politicians who enabled their grand theft: Jacob Zuma, Jessie Duarte, Malusi Gigaba and others. But corruption in this country is systemic.

The ascendency of Ace Magashule into the position of secretary general of the ANC illustrates the rot in the predatory elite. Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture lays bare how Magashule drained the coffers of the Free State provincial government to buy his political career, impoverishing and diminishing the people he was supposed to represent. Was Magashule’s corruption the outcome of personal or systemic failures? Is it a matter of a few bad apples, or is the whole barrel full of rot?

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One sure way to accumulate wealth is to be an ANC member who rises up the ranks and is deployed into the state. But climbing the ANC’s ladder is not achieved through good work, commitment or capacity. Instead it is often the result of concealing, supporting or being part of corrupt activities. This has contributed to the hollowing out of state capacity and often results in public funds being stolen. 

Ivor Chipkin, Gumani Tshimomola and Ryan Brunette point out in a 2014 article that it is important to consider human values and behaviour when trying to understand corruption. They counter the narrative that it is only the result of poor leaders and can be fixed by good ones, suggesting that “these quick answers … get in the way of a proper appraisal of what is going on. In particular, they draw attention away from the genuinely historic changes that have been happening in the way the South African state is structured and organised.” 

Corruption in South Africa occurred both before and during apartheid, as Chipkin and his colleagues note. In some senses, it is a legacy inherited from apartheid, particularly in regional administrations that used to be homeland civil services.

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One reason corruption is so rampant today is that the new political dispensation prioritised the assimilation of the Black political elite, rather than changing society and reorganising the structural foundations of the country. Frantz Fanon appears prophetic here. Nearly 60 years ago he wrote about the possibility of a national bourgeoisie appropriating liberation movements for their own gain, describing leaders succumbing to the corrupt and exploitative practices of colonial regimes. Fanon brings together psychological and structural perspectives to understand corruption and is worth quoting at length:

“There exists inside the new regime, however, an inequality in the acquisition of wealth and in monopolisation. Some have a double source of income and demonstrate that they are specialised in opportunism. Privileges multiply and corruption triumphs, while morality declines. Today the vultures are too numerous and too voracious in proportion to the lean spoils of the national wealth. The party, a true instrument of power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, reinforces the machine, and ensures that the people are hemmed in and immobilised. The party helps the government to hold the people down. It becomes more and more clearly anti-democratic, an implement of coercion. The party is objectively, sometimes subjectively, the accomplice of the merchant bourgeoisie.”

Motivated by greed

We can trace the current plague of corruption and the rot in the ruling elite back to the transition from apartheid. The ANC quickly prioritised the development of a Black capitalist class to “deracialise industrial capital”. But most of the aspirant Black bourgeoisie had no access to capital because of apartheid. So the state established Black economic empowerment, which required a set percentage of a corporation to be Black owned. But the system resulted in a rapacious kleptocracy in which the likes of Magashule, Julius Malema and others have grown rich while ordinary people suffer from the precipitous collapse in state capacity. The outsourcing of state procurement was another way the government enabled corruption.  

In I Write What I Like Steve Biko explains: “Tradition has it that whenever a group of people has tasted the lovely fruits of wealth, security and prestige, it begins to find it more comfortable to believe in the obvious lie and accept that it alone is entitled to privilege.” Radically changing our society was not on the agenda in the negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. Just after the paradigm shift of 1994, the arms deal saga erupted. This was engineered by the ruling party even though this country was not going to war nor was it under any threat. As Hennie van Vuuren writes, “Individuals who entered the public and private sector after 1994 and were motivated by greed to act corruptly were likely to welcome the opportunity to work through, and with, influential people, often well networked, who had escaped criminal prosecution under apartheid for similar activity.” 

The new political elite became multimillionaires in partnership with corrupt European companies. Many were already in the pockets of business people such as Sol Kerzner and Brett Kebble, an outright gangster – both cultivated close links with factions in the ANC.

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Authority is that form of power which is accepted as legitimate – that is, accepted as right and just – and therefore obeyed. But former liberation movements in the “postcolony” often become a mechanism for top-down control, as Fanon reminds us. 

Believing only individual leaders are corrupt leaves us frantically picking the bad apples from the barrel, instead of looking at why so many become rotten in the first place. Or throwing out the whole batch and starting again. 

People think the only way to challenge this authority when it abuses its power is through elections, where voters can discipline politicians who step out of line. But we can also build a mass movement of the impoverished and the working class to create a democratic socialist alternative to the kleptocracy that has grown out of the alliance between white capital and the predatory faction of the new Black elite.

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