In order to fight corruption in South Africa, we must first understand it – and acknowledge its secret history at the centre of South African politics and business.

It is no secret that South Africa has a problem with corruption. At every level of our society, in the public sector and in the private sector, the abuse of entrusted power for private benefit is costing the people of South Africa billions of rand every year, and threatening to completely derail efforts to address poverty, unemployment and inequality.

While it may be a popular dinnertime gripe for the chattering classes, corruption is a burden that is carried disproportionately by the poor: at the 2011 Summit of the National Anti-Corruption Forum (NACF), Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi described corruption as “a programme of the elite to steal from the poor.” It was these concerns that led to the launch of the organisation Corruption Watch, adding more voice to the many bodies within government and civil society who work to challenge the corrupt.

The human costs of corruption and waste of public resources are quantifiable; by way of example, research suggests that the total reported irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure by provincial and national government in 2010/11 could have been used to effectively double the income of the 7-10 million poorest South Africans. Other scandals such as the multi-billion dollar post-apartheid arms deal may have lead to the loss of almost 1 million jobs and had a hugely negative impact on the process of democratic consolidation.

Yet few people realise the extent to which this culture of corruption has a legacy that reaches much farther back than 1994. Corruption may well have festered during the period of political instability from the late 1970s through to the country’s first democratic election in 1994. Given the nature of complex relationships between political and economic elites in South Africa it is of course impossible to neatly disconnect these two periods. It is probable that past practice influences some of the current networks within the country’s political and economic elite.

While the apartheid regime was waging a war against its people, its agents and their political masters were engaged in systemic economic crime to bust sanctions, buy favours abroad, and fund their dirty-tricks campaigns at home. At the same time, these activities were creating criminal networks between the state and the private sector, creating an opportunity for a small group of individuals to use the cloak of secrecy to steal vast amounts of money and move it overseas. This phenomenon is commonplace in autocratic regimes when it becomes clear that the ruling elite’s hold on power is starting to slip, and the ‘party’ is about to come to an end. Yet the extent of this phenomenon and its impact remains largely unexplored.

Since 1994, there has been very little sustained effort to investigate these wrongs and bring those responsible to justice. Investigating economic crimes was not part of the TRC’s mandate, and although there were a few piecemeal investigations into apartheid corruption post-1994 in general there has been little public attention, and even less political will, to identify and track down culprits of apartheid-era corruption, and return their plunder to the people of South Africa.

It has even seemed at times that initiatives to open up the secrets of our corrupt past have been actively stymied by leaders of our new democracy. For example, in 2006 a major civil society initiative to have apartheid financial crimes put on the agenda led to the publication of a report entitled Apartheid Grand Corruption – a document which was discussed at cabinet level but eventually buried.

But there are still some signs of movement. The Public Protector, Adv. Thuli Madonsela, appears to be investigating allegations of apartheid-era financial misconduct by South Africa’s largest banks. These allegations stem from a recently leaked government commissioned report (authored in 1997), which identified almost US$2,9billion that could be uncovered from three large corporations (two of which are South African) and a further $3,1billion in questionable payments made in Europe to buy weapons. This is a brave decision on her part which will hopefully be matched by a thorough investigation, given the interest in the matter from a range of individuals who stand to lose – or seek to profit.

But some will ask – why bother with apartheid-era corruption when South Africa today is so vexed by instances of venality and the abuse of power? Why risk opening secrets of the past that could threaten to derail South Africa’s nascent democracy? Why risk the ‘miracle’ of our transition?

There are a number of answers to these questions. The first is a simple a matter of restorative justice; the fact is that there are possibly billions of rands siphoned off from the public purse during apartheid that can, should, must be returned; no less urgently than money gained through sleazy tenders and shady arms deals. The second is a matter of re-shaping our collective memory as a nation; there is a deep (racial) pathology in public perceptions of corruption as a ‘new’ import to South Africa that arrived with our constitutional democracy, which has allowed the apartheid regime and its private-sector collaborators to be remembered as ‘brutal’ in the way they wielded power, yet ‘honest’ in the way they managed their finances.

There is another reason in the Protection of State Information Bill (the “Secrecy Bill”), whose retrospective powers would give severe new protection to certain secrets of the Apartheid government which have yet to be uncovered, and place those penalties on ordinary citizens as well as guardians of state-security; it is not unreasonable to fear that the space to investigate politically uncomfortable secrets of the past may begin to close.

Lastly, these problems – of how to deal with corrupted elites at the time of transition – are no different from the experience of many other societies undergoing similar transitions in North Africa and elsewhere. What can lessons can be drawn from South African experiences of tackling this thorny issue during the first two decades of freedom?

But there is a bigger issue at stake as well. The truth is that until we understand grand corruption in South Africa today as continuity from our past, we cannot hope to root it out. In no small part, the massive incidence of economic crime that plagues our democracy today is a result of our failure to dismantle the criminal networks that thrived under apartheid. This is another kind of ‘unfinished business’ of the transition: the ghosts of our tortured past will continue to haunt us until they are exorcised fully and publicly.

While we may today have a better understanding of the physical violence inflicted during apartheid, we spend little time discussing the criminalised conduct of some individuals and groups among the country’s super-rich. While wealth in a deeply unequal society may not be a crime, it is unquestionable that illicitly acquired wealth is. If we don’t deal with the longer legacy of political and corporate corruption in South Africa, it will continue to poison of our politics and public life. It will continue to make greater fairness unattainable in politics, business and daily life.

In short, it is time to open the secrets of South Africa’s political elites, past and present – it is time to shine a light on the nexus of power and profit that continues to shape South Africa.

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