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Image: Flickr/Africa University

By Moepeng Talane
First published on Maverick Citizen

As Corruption Watch releases its annual report, South Africa stands on the brink of its seventh democratic elections, representing what some have described as a second shot at democracy. This implies that the ANC’s 30-year rule has failed to produce a true democracy — but even if it did at some point look like the right party to administer this huge task, there is no doubt public confidence in its leadership has decreased.

This 2024 election is the country’s biggest yet, with more than 300 contenders on the ballot paper vying for the votes of about 27-million registered voters.

Many sectors of our society have clear intentions to change the status quo and lessen the influence of the ANC nationally and in the provinces. Whether the changes will happen at a notable rate remains to be seen.

It is not, however, difficult to put a cost to the crisis of leadership that besets the country. Local and provincial authorities haphazardly deliver basic services, with either collapsing or collapsed governance structures that no longer serve their purpose. The quality and strength of the police service and its ability to counter the high rate of crime have diminished. Load shedding is a constant feature in our lives and large components of the public transport system are a shambles. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Divorced from reality

It was under these circumstances that President Cyril Ramaphosa made his final State of the Nation Address (Sona) of the current administration. For 90 minutes he spoke about the gains made by the government under his party, but neglected to reflect the immediate realities of millions of South Africans as spelt out above. 

Although he did acknowledge that the ANC still had some way to go in turning the tide for many poor South Africans who depend on the services of government, he left out the longed-for tangible solutions for their everyday challenges that include load shedding, high food prices, irregular or scant water supply, and unemployment.

Even the Tintswalo character that he used to relay his government’s service delivery wins over the past 30 years is not living the true experience of a typical South African youth because if she were, she would be extremely anxious about the state of the nation.

For those who did not watch the Sona due to load shedding, lack of interest or any other reason, Ramaphosa said, “The story of the first 30 years of our democracy can be best told through the life of a child called Tintswalo, born at the dawn of freedom in 1994. Tintswalo — democracy’s child — grew up in a society that was worlds apart from the South Africa of her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.”

Ramaphosa waxed lyrical about how Tintswalo benefited from policies of the democratic dispensation that allowed her access to free public healthcare, an RDP house, funding for her education provided for by the National Student Funding Scheme (NSFAS) and later in her young life, employment enabled through black economic empowerment. 

In reality, Tintswalo’s story, as told by the president, was full of gaps which showed that she’s either been immensely blessed to be protected from the corruption that engulfs these milestones, or she simply does not exist.

Rife sextortion

To illustrate this, let’s start at the end. Tintswalo’s story, ending in her finding employment, means that she beat the odds that 5-million others born around the same time as her, could not. She was probably not exposed to the rife sextortion that distresses many of her age-mates who, desperate for jobs for which they are adequately qualified, are asked to do sexual favours for senior public or private sector officials who abuse their powers without consideration for the damage this does to the psyche of a young person.

To study further, Tintswalo’s peers would have had to overcome the inefficiencies of a National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) overcome by corruption and leadership shortcomings. There are corruption allegations against the scheme’s chairperson, Ernest Khosa, and Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande.

Both have denied the allegations and challenged the civil society organisation Outa, which made the allegations, to prove them. Nzimande has, however, acknowledged that there are challenges in getting funding to all the million-plus students per year who rely on the scheme. When Ramaphosa spoke of the NSFAS benefiting Tintswalo, he did not acknowledge the plight of the thousands who did not make the cut for funding this year. 

Such is the longstanding rot associated with the scheme that the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) reported to Parliament recently that it had recovered more than R700-million from unallocated funds stemming from poor accounting systems at the scheme. Millions more were owed to the NSFAS by parents and students who benefited unlawfully, or by higher education institutions, for which the SIU has secured acknowledgments of debt. 

So, unlike Tintswalo, many young people with potential and a willingness to study are deprived of an opportunity to further their education because of corrupt or incompetent elements in the system. 

Construction mafia

Among those who applauded the president’s account of Tintswalo’s journey were the Cabinet ministers who oversee the portfolios of housing — through which Tintswalo’s family received a house — and police. Either minister, along with their colleagues in trade and industry, small business development, and finance, among others, should be privy to the work and findings of the Infrastructure Built Anti-Corruption Forum, formed in 2022, on the impact of construction mafias that have captured the sector, reportedly at a cost of billions of rands.

For many who deserve the same benefit as Tintswalo’s family — government-issued housing — the mafias will delay the delivery of such housing. And once those houses are built and ready to be allocated, the reality of corruption in that process will become a lived experience. While the South African Police Service has announced some inroads in dealing with the construction mafias, much more is needed. 

In a nutshell, Tintswalo’s life journey would be cause for celebration were the country not gripped by growing corruption that disables the government’s service delivery goals at every turn and negatively affects the lives of millions of people.

If the leaders of our country were truly invested in continuing with the service delivery goals of this democratic dispensation, they would publicly acknowledge the systemic flaws that make it difficult to deliver those services and they would come up with tangible solutions.

Even if a Tintswalo exists, at some point she is going to face the true reality of corruption.