David Saks
David Saks

Condoning corruption: The Achilles heel of SA’s democracy

In the dying days of the old National Party regime, when I was still working at the old Africana Museum (now Museum Africa), I was given a first-hand taste of the corruption that was by then running rampant at all levels of government.

It was just before the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain and excitement over South Africa’s participation after a 30-year hiatus was very much in the air. Out of the blue, we received a visit from a senior official from the ministry of culture (or whatever it was then called) requesting a tour of the exhibitions. The ostensible reason was he needed some background for his forthcoming official visit abroad to investigate the museums of … well, you can easily guess where.

It fell to me to go through the farce of showing around this Nat functionary whose work suddenly required in-depth research into Spanish museums. We went from display to display while he made interested noises. He wasn’t allowed to get away with it completely, though.

On his departure our chief curator, the fearsome Mrs Nagelgast, referred pointedly to the interesting coincidence of his visit to Spain coinciding with the Olympics there. He had the grace to look a little embarrassed. “Well, I won’t say I won’t be playing hooky now and then,” he said, with an uneasy cough.

A white Afro-pessimist remarked to me around this time that the only difference between the Nationalists and the incoming ANC was that the Nats at least waited until your back was turned before they stole from you.

Well, in the last years of apartheid, that was certainly not the case as functionaries of the doomed regime set about grabbing whatever they could. Before that, though, government corruption was also endemic, albeit not quite as obvious.

From its 1948 electoral victory onwards, the National Party commandeered public resources to build a support base by promoting the positions of their supporters, while the “baantjies vir boeties” (favours for pals) culture saw massive self-aggrandisement by those in a position to exploit their political influence.

In a normal Western democracy, such a government would soon have been thrown out by an outraged electorate, but of course, there was nothing normal about apartheid-era South Africa.

The Nationalists were successively returned to office because most whites were counting on them to perpetuate minority rule and if turning a blind eye to corruption was the price that had to be paid for this then so be it. In the end, lower-middle and working class whites were left high and dry as the whole rotten edifice collapsed and their chosen saviours went about plundering whatever they could from the ruins. Another reason for the acquiescence was that even for whites, apartheid South Africa was at bottom a totalitarian society, and most people were frankly intimidated.

The National Party’s corruption, like the party itself, is part of history now. What is very much with us is how the ruling ANC regime, practically from the outset, has engaged in essentially the same kind of public corruption for purposes both of promoting the positions of their disadvantaged supporters and of strengthening its support base. Like the Nats, the ANC has created an environment for large-scale corruption, whether through the facilitating of patronage or bribery, illegal use of public funds for private use, shady backroom deals, tampering with the justice system to protect those holding high office and sundry other ways.

It is at least understandable why the corruption issue did little to harm the ruling party at the ballot box prior to 1994. Why it remains so widely condoned in the post-apartheid eras, as shown by how the ANC continues to dominate at election time despite mounting revelations of rampant abuses at every level, is a great dealer harder to explain.

Perhaps what we are struggling with is an exaggerated respect for those in authority, resulting in a mind-set that working for regime change, even by perfectly legal, democratic means, is somehow tantamount to disloyalty.

In other democracies, the prevailing attitude is that all governments must be regarded as guilty until proven innocent and once an administration has breached a certain threshold of venality, it is ruthlessly put to the sword by a vengeful electorate.

Here, by contrast, there is an imbedded culture of acceptance of official wrongdoing which in turn is based on an unquestioning belief that the regime as a whole is fundamentally virtuous and has the well-being of the people at heart. It is quite frightening to think that even when the extent of this misconception finally dawns it may be altogether too late.

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