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The Untouchables: Crime and corruption

- Sarah Hudleston

Corruption is not unique to SA as US and UK have shown. Democracy relies on holding authorities accountable, but no one seems keen to do that.

US Capital insurrection | Curiosity 17: #Democracy ©

South Africans have begun to view the growing litany of our politicians’ criminal and corrupt practices with a growing sense of alarm.

In 2018, then Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Mogoeng Mogoeng (the then Chief), appointed Raymond Zondo to chair a commission to investigate state capture.

The report emanating from the inquiry and published in its entirety in June 2022 revealed that no fewer than 1 483 people were implicated in state capture, yet less than a handful have been prosecuted and convicted.

Nor have investigations into a string of other incidences of gross corruption, including the VBS Mutual Bank scandal, the arms deal, and the Phala Phala affair which implicated the country’s first citizen in allegations of money laundering, resulted in any of the perpetrators being held accountable.

Does this all point to a breakdown of our political and legal system and a threat to South Africa’s democracy?

Colonial corruption

Professor David Everatt in the Wits School of Governance says, “Perhaps it would be better to ask why, when South African politicians lie, the response is, ‘is our system close to collapse?’, but when a sitting US President supports an armed insurrection to steal power after lying and cheating for decades, there are no such questions? Similarly, when the UK cabinet is shown to be profoundly corrupt, there are no such questions.”

Everatt makes a good point. Evidently, democracy in the United States is not deemed to be damaged, despite former President Trump’s actions, says Professor Lawrence Hamilton, the SA UK Bilateral Research Professor in Political Theory at Wits and Cambridge University. He believes that Trump defies much of democratic logic.

“There is no doubt that he has an incredibly loyal support base, which is surprising because Trump is not like his supporters at all. But they seem to enjoy his rebelliousness and his perceived people’s touch,” says Hamilton.

“As to why the West describes South Africa as a failed state and does not consider the US or the UK in the same way, comes perhaps from their inherent prejudice against the South which is reinforced by something that is real, which we have lived through. It is not as if these northern countries are not corrupt. But what they do have is a long history of global dominance.”

Procedural accountability in politics

Democracy functions through a variety of mechanisms, with the focus on accountability, says Hamilton. “We have representatives to speak for us as citizens, and we hold them accountable through the electoral process. In addition, there are various media mechanisms to hold them to account. If elected officials have broken the law, or if they are corrupt – as revealed by the Zondo Commission – they need to have their day in court.”

However, “There is this generalised acceptance that there won’t be any consequences for corrupt actions.”

Hamilton says that the current lack of accountability in South Africa is due to two main factors that go hand in hand:

“The first is a structural factor, in that we do not vote for individual representatives, we vote for parties. The other is that an incredibly corrupt set of practices, that we now refer to as state capture, became prevalent, and it is corrupting of our system of governance.”

‘Political capture’

Alex Van den Heever, Adjunct Professor and Chair of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies in the Wits School of Governance, believes that democracy is more than just the electoral process.

“Theoretically it is about being able to change the people who make key strategic decisions in government as well as holding politicians to account if they behave in a fraudulent or dishonest manner,” says Van den Heever.

“We must be able to remove these people swiftly through a process of investigation and prosecution. That is quite apart from other kinds of accountability structures such as administrative penalties and disciplinary processes within government.

What we now see in South Africa is political capture. The state system is failing to deal with that concurrent aspect of accountability. The very long period of incumbency of one political party means that we have not had accountability in our political process for a long time.”

Overcoming structurally imperfect politics

Hamilton believes that despite the current challenges facing South Africa, it does have a viable democracy, given the mechanisms that focus on accountability. Similarly, Van den Heever believes there is hope for democracy in South Africa, which goes to the polls on 29 May 2024.

“This country has got the resources to grow fantastically, to eliminate unemployment, and to have a decent society overall. It has all of that potential but, as long as we allow the current status of our structurally imperfect politics that befuddles large parts of our population to prevail, we cannot achieve this,” says Van den Heever.

“We are underperforming against peer countries – and the gap is widening. We are doing worse and worse relative to countries similar to our own and we are falling behind. In 1982 South Korea had a lower per capita GDP than South Africa but today it is eight times that of ours. So, this is the potential. You get it right, and you will grow systematically. Your infrastructure will work, and you will have a decent democratic society.”

  •  Sarah Hudleston is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 17th issue, themed: #Democracy, we turn to our academics and professional staff for their research, perspectives and commentary on both the progress and shortcomings in our democracy, and democracies elsewhere.