The memory of a politician is often as short as their election promises are long. An example is the speed with which the elected — and electorate — forgot an election undertaking by the ruling party in 2004 promising to strengthen the Scorpions as part of its proposed anti-corruption drive. Fast forward five years and the Scorpions have been legislated out of existence. This despite it featuring prominently in what the ANC billed its “people’s contract”, during the last national poll.
The ANC is hardly alone in policy flip-flops on the corruption issue. Witness the 2004 opposition DA battle cry against corruption juxtaposed to the party’s ongoing reluctance to lead the way in disclosing its funders. Donors of political parties want access and influence — and a party that looks set to wrest control of the Western Cape from the ANC is a good bet if this might gain access to lucrative provincial government tenders. It is this fact that makes the policy positions of parties likely to form a government, or participate in a coalition, very important as they have access to state power which is often easily manipulated. For the rest one relies on smaller opposition parties to help keep a check on power by using their voice in legislatures, and on public platforms to help expose obvious venality.
However for the electorate it remains difficult to separate politicians of relative integrity from the individuals who make up the mafia-like elite within business and government who actively seek to undermine the constitutional value of open governance.
It is important to recognise the role corruption has played in political mobilisation in the run-up to the elections. Corruption is not necessarily the most important issue in the mind of most voters, but there is a growing realisation that it’s a crosscutting issue which impedes service delivery, undermines the rule of law and deepens inequality. The swagger of wealth suggests to the poor that the powerful have “eaten”. However, instead of engaging the electorate on the substantive issues about values and integrity — we have seen a “Zumafication” of the corruption issue. While corruption and clean governance feature in most party manifestos — opposition parties have concentrated most attention on ANC President Jacob Zuma and allegations of corruption levelled against him.
Personalising the war on graft clouds the larger and more important issue — that of strengthening institutions and deepening ethics in public life. The National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to withdraw corruption charges may have left a cloud hanging over Zuma, but for the opposition it was a massive blow in their over-investment in one political celebrity. Similarly the Zuma matter has necessitated the ANC to push the corruption issue onto the back burner. It’s one of the top policy issues for the party, but on the campaign trail it was feared the more one discusses the issues, the more attention one places on the corruption charges levelled against the ANC president. Voters therefore hear noise about dealing with corruption in the awarding of tenders and jobs for party cadres, but little else from the ANC.
The party with possibly the most detailed anti-corruption plan is somewhat surprisingly the Congress of the People. However, it remains difficult for the time being to reconcile its manifesto promises with the role of its leaders who occupied public office until recently and whose past actions in part now necessitate policy reform. One need only think of the blind spot many party leaders have when it comes to the issue of a comprehensive inquiry into the corruption-riddled multibillion-dollar arms deal — something which smaller opposition parties such as the United Democratic Movement and the Independent Democrats, among others, favour.
The real measure of integrity in South African political life is unlikely to be found in party manifestos, which remain littered with inconsistencies. Rather, it is going to be up to citizens, civic groups and the media who are willing to engage in a forthright debate on accountable governance and the values of an open society as envisioned by the Constitution. This needs to happen in local communities as much as it does when allegations occur of corruption in multibillion-rand national tenders. The tone is ultimately set by the electorate who largely get the leaders it elects. It is time that we realise that the political parties will follow us, but it is up to all South Africans to lead the way, every day after the elections. The more we demand from the powerful and embarrass them for abusing the power, the better the parties, their manifestos and the leaders who write them will become.