President Cyril Ramaphosa this week published a hard-hitting letter, promising South Africans that the government will take decisive action against corrupt officials, and clamp down on dodgy business practices that are milking the country’s Covid-19 relief funds dry.
Reports over the last two weeks have pointed to billions of rands in Covid-19 relief contracts being looted by officials, where tenders were given out to friends and relatives, while food parcels and other aid have allegedly been stockpiled for personal use and profit making.
The president empowered the Special Investigating Unit to delve into these allegations and bring the perpetrators to book – while the ANC, whose members are most implicated in the wrongdoing, said that it is embarrassed by the allegations, and that public outrage is justified.
However, despite Ramaphosa’s call to action, and the ruling party’s acknowledgement of the rot, the latest corruption revelations come on the back of over a decade of allegations, investigations, court battles and reports of corruption within government, and the ANC.
At the same time, very little has actually been done about it. No high profile arrests have been made; barely any money has been recovered; and many of the names who turn up time and time again in claims of impropriety are still in the government, or are within the controlling positions of the ANC itself.
This is the reality that businesses in South Africa are finally waking up to, said Intellidex analyst, Peter Attard Montalto. And, it is pushing sentiment around South Africa down faster than what was seen during the Zuma years.
Attard Montalto noted that much of the negative sentiment towards Ramaphosa and the government right now is based on the latest revelations and allegations of looting and corruption tied to Covid-19 finances.
Despite the president’s platitudes on taking action now, his position has been undercut by the previous two and half years of inaction on corruption. With no high profile ‘victories’ in law, and nothing but promises, public and business perception of the president as a change-maker are quickly slipping.
“We have seen a marked increase in anti-Ramaphosa sentiment from a broad range of people across business and labour, which is far more directed and specific than somewhat amorphous hand-waving seen in the initial loss of Ramaphoria in 2018 and then the grinding depression seen through 2019.
“There is now an increasing sense of hopelessness which we have never quite seen in South Africa before,” the analyst said.
This is largely rooted in many South Africans realising that corruption within government is a bigger pandemic in South Africa than Covid-19 could ever be, but also not really seeing any alternative in political leaders or political parties as a whole.
The corruption ‘problem’
While discussions usually point to the ANC having a “corruption problem”, Attard Montalto said the reality is that it’s not so much a problem as it is the core of the party itself.
The problem, he said, is that the modern ANC “is neither a policy generative machine nor an implementing machine” anymore. “It runs below the surface on tenderpreneurs, through neo-patrimonial rent extraction,” he said.
This setup involves contracts washing out to politically connected individuals at the municipal and provincial level in particular, then recycles back through a variety of trust fund structures into the ANC’s campaign coffers at election time, he said.
Since the breaking of the Zuma/Gupta links and the state capture saga, this does not necessarily happen as much at the national level, but more on the sub-national level.
A key question often received in 2018 was ‘what happens to the level of corruption after Zuma’?
“Our answer then was the same as it is now: the high profile massive mega project corruption the Guptas represented will fade back as the taps are tightened, but it will bubble up elsewhere. The underlying system will broadly be untouched,” the analyst said.
“Without this system, we think the ANC would cease to exist in any meaningful form – as we have seen with the party in the Western Cape, when it lost power at metro and provincial level and tenders dried up a decade ago.”
While the president may try to push back against this – as seen in reports of him trying to establish independent commission within the ANC to investigate the latest looting allegations – he does not enjoy majority support within the party’s NEC. Thus these moves are rejected to protect the status quo.
“The ANC is fundamentally incapable of shifting on corruption, in our view – not without a wholesale realignment of its membership, its parliamentary representatives and even those in government,” Attard Montalto said.
“Put simply, it isn’t going to happen unless these people are going to be taken out externally by law enforcement agencies.”
“It seems to be the realisation – from business especially – that the ANC is not going to stop corruption, and that Ramaphosa is perceived to not have the ability to deploy political capital from any sort of mandate to tackle corruption. That is really now hitting sentiment more forcefully,” he said.
He said that a lack of alternatives means there is no threat to the ANC continuing as-is.