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By Moepeng Valencia Talane

South Africa has a serious corruption problem, and everyone including the morally compromised ANC agrees, but what we’re not agreeing on is the extent to which the absence of a culture of political accountability will keep corruption in place without tangible solutions. That is, if nothing is done by those with the political power to change things.

Political accountability, in its truest form, would compel the leadership of the ruling party – and to a lesser standard opposition parties – to reflect honestly about its role and its developmental mandate for the millions in the country who need a well-functioning government for their very survival. Without such accountability, we run the risk of repeatedly coming back to the corruption solutions table empty-handed, with the same unevolved calls to action, and little progress.

From an administrative governance perspective, the apparatuses we have are solid: comprehensive legislative framework; constitutionally supported regulatory and oversight structures; the fair and impartial judiciary; and the robust inquisitive media, among others. But these alone are not enough.

I was recently reminded through social media of an infamous quote by then ANC national spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama in 2004 when he said, “I did not join the struggle to be poor.” The context for the utterance was his defence of his participation in a lucrative share scheme relating to a R6-billion Telkom deal that had come under the media’s scrutiny. Ngonyama is currently South Africa’s ambassador to Japan, a position that is traditionally preserved within the ANC for somewhat “compromised” comrades that the party needs to keep in government, but away from local media scrutiny.

Eighteen years on, the sentiment behind his quote reverberates once again amongst social commentators to remind us of the ANC we’re dealing with, but more worryingly, it is weaponised by factional supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa to defend him from political opponents both within and outside the ANC. More recently this has been made necessary by the Phala Phala scandal.

They want to continue to loot, that is the only reason they want Ramaphosa out, is the argument advanced by his supporters. But what more have they done beyond the public smearing of their rivals in the party and its tripartite partners? 

ANC’s weak accountability standards are its own downfall

In his recent address at the commemoration of International Anti-Corruption Day – traditionally hosted by the Public Service Commission – labour minister Thulas Nxesi declared that those behind the call for Ramaphosa to step down over Phala Phala only have the conviction because they fear accountability for their part in the grand scandal of state capture.

The Zondo commission recommendations, he argued, make a clear call for accountability for several politicians, some of whom have since publicly denounced the president following the revelations of alleged dodgy dealings in his private business. That the allegations came from a compromised, state capture-accused former State Security Agency director-general Arthur Fraser is no coincidence, he said.

Nxesi may have a point, but like many of his political colleagues, he failed the test of addressing it to the relevant audience, and to consider why the ordinary South African should be concerned with the ANC’s internal squabbles, when it is clearly the party’s lack of clear and consistent accountability standards that had entrapped Ramaphosa in the first place. It is these squabbles that have made the party a shadow of its former self, and weakened the public’s perception of it.

Checks and balances in place

Fortunately, the governance systems mentioned above were in place to subject Ramaphosa to the highest level of oversight, the National Assembly. But even as preparations for the debate over the adoption of a constitutionally mandated panel report were underway, there were media reports of ANC leadership once again directing which way its members of Parliament should vote at the end of the debate. Ramaphosa dodged impeachment because his comrades were ordered to vote in a certain way, and a majority of them did, but his administration’s image will forever be tainted by his presidency’s most damning scandal yet.

He lives to see the opportunity to contest a second term for the presidency of the ANC at a conference that commences later this week, just three days after National Assembly process.

One of his opponents in the leadership battle, Cabinet minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, boldly stood up in the open voting process to support the adoption of the report, while the other two, former and current ministers Zweli Mkhize and Lindiwe Sisulu respectively, were a no-show on the historic day. All three have been vocal about the need for their boss to account, grabbing every opportunity in the media to voice their opposition to Ramaphosa’s second term aspirations, but are now reportedly facing disciplinary action within the party for that.

The parliamentary process is constitutionally protected and serves a public interest mandate role, but when one thinks of Nxesi’s utterances and what they mean, coming from a member of the faction of the ANC with the upper hand, one cannot help but wonder if it is not power play at work, at the expense of the public whose confidence the party desperately needs to win back.

Wanted: a culture of accountability

It looks more and more like the first hurdle Ramaphosa needs to overcome is that of building a stronger accountability culture within his movement, should he be retained as president of the party. It should be a culture that espouses the moral obligation for members to vacate positions of leadership should they be found wanting, all in the spirit of restoring the party’s public image. It is, after all, a party with robust policies that honour the need to reverse the damage of apartheid on black communities by restoring and maintaining dignity, security, economic opportunities and socio-economic rights of all those it endears itself to with its election manifestos.

The authors of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy, which has only recently found ownership in the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council, cite undue political influence and interference as a real threat in the anti-corruption fight: “The realisation of this strategy depends on the resolute political will of those who serve in public office, and ethical leadership in all sectors of society. It calls for all members of the public to take personal responsibility in preventing and addressing corruption and to work together, across political, socio-economic and ideological divides, to build the democracy and achieve a corruption-free South Africa, as envisaged in the National Development Plan 2030.”

Ramaphosa, by surviving impeachment, is served an opportunity to fix what is wrong in his own party first, so that the anti-corruption ambitions of his administration can be realised.