South Africa, corruption and accountability: 12 years later

File: The organisations are demanding transparency, accountability, and good governance. 

File: The organisations are demanding transparency, accountability, and good governance.

On 20 October 2006 in his keynote address to the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) in Durban, Njabulo Ndebele reflected on the state of South African journalism and considered what its coverage of corruption reflected about the state of political debate in South Africa. 

At the core of that analysis was his call for the examination to move beyond the shibboleth of ‘speaking truth to power’, to shift what he called the ‘conceptual boundaries’ around our reporting on and analysis of corruption. He suggested that we move beyond the naming of individuals, the exposure of the malfeasance, to consider the conditions which made such possible.

More than a decade later, and especially as we in South Africa contemplate the meanings of the last decade, Ndebele’s call has become more urgent. 

From the aborted trial of Jacob Zuma on corruption charges which has now resumed, through his accession into the position of president of the African National Congress and, thereafter, his election in parliament as the President of the Republic of South Africa, and to his summary removal from that position by his own party in some complex behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, there has indeed been much to consider in light of Ndebele’s suggestion.

We have lived through the Nkandla cost- and scope-creep fiasco which cost the tax payer in excess of R250-million. 

South Africans have had to watch men and women elected as the people’s representatives in the legislature meant to hold the executive arm of government to account defend the costs, and the man in whose name they were escalated. 

It took a Constitutional Court judgment to remind all of us what the responsibilities of various arms of government were supposed to be, and where they had failed.

Then there was the Marikana tragedy, the full scope of which has not yet been accounted for in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa.  

Despite the judicial commission of inquiry, many people’s questions about the causes of the tragedy remain unanswered, and issues of accountability and reparation remain inadequately addressed. 

The Marikana massacre will haunt the post-apartheid body politic in much the same way that the Sharpeville massacre haunted the apartheid body politic – ‘unfinished business’ (to invoke the phrase used by Terry Bell and Dumisa Ntsebeza about a different set of unanswered questions and unresolved problems) which blights our sense of political progress.

More recently we have had to come to terms with the Life Esidimeni tragedy, in which more than 150 mental health patients in government care died in the most horrific of circumstances consequent to neglect and administrative indifference. 

The processes by which one official after another signed off on measures which they must have known would have tragic consequences revealed a certain kind of moral indolence and intellectual torpor. 

How they had come to make these decisions in violation of their professional training and their professed moral commitments was partly what former Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke wanted to unearth.

The VBS ‘bank heist’ is only the latest of such incidents where the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ cannot be fully understood if the only questions pursued are ‘who’ and ‘how’. 

That the money involved was taken from ordinary people’s savings, and that to cover the theft more money had to be stolen from the people, first from our municipalities, and after that, from the Public Investment Corporation itself. 

And what did this alleged larceny fund?  Helicopter rides and flashy cars. 

That those appointed to oversee and hold to account these organisations and those who manage them were implicated in the corrupt actions only reveals how deep-rooted the rot really is.

And accountability is too often misunderstood as a negligible add-on in a society of democratic governance as post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa professes itself to be. 

The institutions and organs by which people ought to account have been included in the design of this society, but they are not always functioning at optimal level. 

In fact, the last decade has seen some spectacular failures of oversight and accountability.

Think of the failure of parliamentarians to curb executive excess in the Nkandla scandal. 

What accountability to the people of Marikana for what was done to them, in the name of profit or power, or whatever else justification continues to be used to explain away this most dreadful event? 

What moral and intellectual corruption, in the broader sense, led to a point where the lives of human beings could be considered expendable? 

One imagines the same question can be asked around the deaths of children in pit latrines at government schools, or around the death of Andries Tatane, or of the treatment of young students demanding free education.

Corruption in its narrow sense is indeed rife, and as Njabulo Ndebele urged us twelve years ago, we may need to ask more critical questions about the conditions and contexts which not only allow for it, but positively encourages and requires it. 

Because, it can be argued, those questions would lead us to ask questions about corruption in its broader sense, where those who avail themselves to such seem to have no shame.  

How else to explain the hubris we have seen from public officials when called to account, whether at commissions of inquiry or at press conferences?

Their behaviour is not that of public servants who owe the people answers. 

They behave like mandarins who are offended that anyone would dare question them. 

Their defensive postures – falsely crying racism or sexism to deflect from accounting for their actions – often also lead to further corruption of the body politic by cheapening real racism and sexism in this post-conflict society.

Just over twelve years ago Ndebele suggested ‘the pervasiveness of this problem should warn us that we are most probably not just dealing with corrupt people but, perhaps more tellingly, with corruptive conditions. 

We have concentrated too much on exposing individuals without a simultaneous exposure of undermining context.

We must respond to Ndebele’s challenge these dozen years later. We owe it to ourselves and our collectively imagined future.

- Angelo Fick is the Director of Research at ASRI

Paid Content