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Are winds of change blowing down the corridors of the state, bringing a chorus of pronouncements on the scourge of corruption? And are there echoes of definitive and to-scale effective action?
Is the ANC party/government finally recognising that the anti-corruption ticket guarantees its future electoral fortunes?
There is talk of “no corruption”, “hire skilled people”, “bar state employees from trading with the state”, “get performance management done”, “educate civil servants about rules and legislation” and “review cadre deployment”.
The president and provincial governments are notching up a “war on corruption” discourse and the auditor-general has declared (qualified) optimism.
Several senior men and women are just doing their good work.
And, in particular, a handful of no-nonsense, no-political-pardons-required, no-current-political-ambition-for-the-highest-office people are sweeping through in the limelight of a seeming anti-corruption crusade.
They come from the National Treasury, the Department of Public Service and Administration and the National Planning Ministry.
These intimations come at a time of pending crisis for the ANC. South Africans have in all likelihood by now moved beyond a point of voting for the former liberation movement just for the sake of its frontline position in defeating apartheid. They are progressively assessing what this colossus is doing to earn their continuous endorsement.
And the support-manufacturing mechanism that will guarantee the ANC’s hold on power is at the heart of the state.
Supporting evidence is how and with what effect the state is run.
As delivery deficits reveal themselves, the question for many South Africans is whether those gaps would have been smaller had there been less elite preoccupation with carving out and preserving privilege.
Yet, a multitude of well-deployed ANC cadres from the most modest of municipalities to the top of the state pile have been going about daily behaviours of rent-seeking and manipulated tender processes as if the electorate is not checking and as if their behaviour will never claim a toll. This is while statements condemning corruption abound.
ANC conference resolutions to nip opportunistic cadreship flow thick and fast, especially with application to newcomers in the ranks.
A mantle of immunity and pardon seems to fall over incumbents.
The new risk now goes beyond corruption to accusations of hypocrisy and even ridicule.
This is the essential party-state context of the winds of change. The voices need to be assessed in terms of the likelihood of big (and essential) talk converting into practice. The new messengers’ political dependency on the upper political chiefs is a crucial factor. Those who still wish to rise through the ranks are beholden; if the chiefs aren’t squeaky clean, silence on corruption is practically inevitable.
Two bottom lines are that anti-corruption voices have been raised before, and anti-corruption calls and proposals for action are not universally endorsed in party and state. What then, if anything, differentiates “now” from “previous”?
Personalities and political agendas are a substantial part of the answer. Securocrat-turned-reluctant bureaucrat, Minister of Public Service and Administration Lindiwe Sisulu, is centre stage. Without a strong minister in this portfolio the state and the ANC might as well surrender in the war on corruption.
Transferring her no-nonsense, no-argument style (not always endearing to unions and underlings) into the war for clean administration may very well be the trigger for progress.
Sisulu has announced a barrage of new and revived initiatives to get civil servants to march in line.
Beware! Here come her anti-corruption bureau’s pooled intelligence on who has done what in which department (legislative amendments are promised for June). Prohibitions on civil servants doing business with the state, new attention to the post-employment cooling off period for civil servants (last mooted under Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi and until now not touched in Zuma times), the anti-corruption hotline, the revamped Batho Pele (“people first”) hotline, the government’s own school of government by October (also a recurrent theme), legislation to create a uniform public service, and, above all (another almost-forgotten relic from the rule of Fraser-Moleketi), super-director-general status being proposed for the Sisulu department. This would enable DPSA oversight over other director-generals.
The implementation of this full scenario could very well induce fear in the hearts of warriors in the battles to access the state’s troughs.
The chances of sincerity about implementation escalate, given that the throng of voices includes National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel and Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan.
Gordhan warned in his budget speech that Sars will be keeping tags on the lifestyles of those who control piles of state tender budgets. A chief state procurement officer is soon to be appointed.
Manuel, in turn, is the new advocate of getting the engine room of the state working, of setting up new standards to build the capacitated state. Without this, the National Development Plan will not fly.
Of course, the ANC has also been heard. In Mangaung it promised the ANC’s own integrity committee, to be instituted within three months after Mangaung (any time now?). New entrants into the ANC portals will be scrutinised. Leadership stripes will be reserved for those with longer-term credentials.
The ANC also asserted its right to retain a disciplinary say over its deployed cadres.
In his State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma assured South Africa that the “government continues to wage a war against corruption”, but his statistical dipstick failed to stress the proportion of successes. In vintage Zuma style, he then noted the agencies and institutions at work, including the Anti-Corruption Task Team, comprising the Hawks, the Special Investigating Unit and the National Prosecuting Authority. For a party that is already at war against corruption, this was a very modest response.
It would hardly meet the standard of strong leadership interventions that auditor-general Terence Nombembe puts forward as necessary for improvement.
A common denominator in the relatively convincing anti-corruption voices of the Sisulu-Gordhan-Manuel anti-corruption axis is that these people are, by most available indications, individuals without political debts to pay and political favours to curry.
Gordhan is not easily replaceable, short of risking a national crisis. Manuel’s National Development Plan now enjoys policy centrepiece status and the government’s credibility will benefit from the chief architect remaining inside the ring. However, since he works through other departments, his authority for enforcement suffers.
The rules of the Sisulu game are different. The questions are: Is she going for the corruption jugular, feeling she has nothing to lose after forfeiting her defence portfolio and not being on any top-six list in Mangaung? Or, would she be in the pound seats to regain securocrat deployment if she threatens to mean anti-corruption business, sowing trepidation in the hearts of those crowding the trough?
Perhaps the calls for her to be replaced are already going up. Come the moment of post-2014 election cabinet reshuffles she could find herself a securocrat again.
Or, is this perhaps exactly what the ANC or ANC-in-government has in mind: (overdue) army boots over the sinners of corruption in the run-up to the 2014 election? It could prove to a cynical electorate that the ANC means business; ready to quash the perception of the ANC as “a bunch of thieves and crooks” – a phrase that is rampant in the ranks of former liberation movement followers who now despair of what the ANC, in several respects, has become.
Lines between pre-election discourse and post-election fulfilment will be drawn later.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s stated willingness to let local elections be re-run, even if the ANC loses, in those wards where the rampant party chiefs substituted ANC community choices for favourites of the inner circles could very well be an indication that the ANC is willing to mess with the apple cart to get itself on a more credible track with the people.
There is a long way to go to persuade South Africans of the commitment, the mobilised political will, to get anti-corruption credibility restored. The first step is the giant leap to acknowledge and correct the governing party leadership’s duplicity on corruption in party and state.
- Booysen is professor at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (P&DM) at Wits University and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power.