Graft shakes South Africa's vaunted ANC party
Several high-profile corruption scandals within the ruling party are weakening South Africans' confidence in the postapartheid government.
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
If money is the grease that makes democracies function, then South Africa should be one of the most well-oiled democracies in the world.Skip to next paragraph
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In the past few months, South African newspapers have reported manifold scandals that reach deep inside the ranks of the country's ruling party. This perception of lavish corruption – including bribery over arms purchases, misuse of government travel money, pension-fund embezzlement, contract kickbacks, and even insider trading – is straining many South Africans' faith that their government is still acting in the interest of the common man.
The trend worries many South Africans that their country is following the flawed examples of other African nations, where postcolonial leaders let personal wealth trump the ideals that first led to independence from colonial powers.
"The impact of corruption on a society as poor as ours is devastating, because what is stolen could be better used to help the poor," says Patricia De Lille, leader of the Independent Democrats, an opposition party in Parliament. "People are no longer prepared to accept excuses that we don't have money, not when we see the extravagance of their leaders. We created a lot of expectations after liberation [from minority white rule in 1994], and now people want these things to be delivered."
South Africa remains a country where the vast majority is unspeakably poor. But by most measures, it is still the exception on the African continent. Its schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, and water still function, and second-class citizens can have first-world expectations. But a growing white-collar corruption trend may be costing South Africa some 50 billion rand (about $7 billion) a year, according to some estimates.
"This rot [of corruption] is across the board," said ANC General Secretary Kgalema Motlanthe in a recent interview with the Financial Mail newspaper. "Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money. A great deal of the ANC's problems are occasioned by this."
Corruption now a top priority
South African President Thabo Mbeki, whom most South Africans believe is personally clean, has also made tough speeches about the need to crack down on government corruption. But at a global conference against graft in Johannesburg last week, Mr. Mbeki struck a more defensive tone.
"The anticorruption discourse ... is inseparable from broader goals of socioeconomic development," said Mbeki. "In the era of globalization, when vast wealth and asset gaps exist among individuals, regions, and nations, the fight against corruption must be rooted in common understandings across borders. It must go beyond the rhetoric of perceptions and blame."
The very fact that Mbeki finds it necessary to speak out against corruption is itself a step forward, many observers here say, and South Africans have reason to be optimistic.
The country's Constitution provides a legal framework that is leaps and bounds ahead of the notorious crony capitalism of the apartheid years. Its enforcement agencies, such as the new financial-crimes unit called the Scorpions, and the independent auditor general's office, as well as its laws protecting whistle-blowers, are among the strongest and most progressive in the world.
"We didn't go to the bush as the ANC so that when we are in power, we will plunder," says Vincent Smith, an ANC parliamentarian and member of a committee assigned to study corruption. "Corruption impedes the liberation and its goals. Nobody I know of would have sympathy for someone who is misusing the system for his personal benefit."