South Africa votes to turn honesty about graft into action against it

After years of transparency about corruption, the country sends a signal in an election that the ruling party must now cleanse itself.

Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) party, seen on a video screen, cheer as President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during a victory rally in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 12.

If a global award were given to a country for being the most open about discussing corruption – as opposed to preventing it – South Africa would win hands down. It is a model of transparency and introspection about the problem. It has able judges, investigative journalists, civic watchdogs and many others trying to expose official wrongdoing. Yet not a single member of the ruling party, the African National Congress, has been held accountable in the quarter century since the ANC ended white-only rule and took power.

That virtue of openness, nonetheless, may now pay off. The election of a Parliament on May 8 was a victory for the incumbent president, Cyril Ramaphosa, whose popularity is largely due to his anti-corruption image. After helping the ANC in its electoral win, he promised to finally purge it of “bad and deviant tendencies,” or powerful factions that have contributed to one of the world’s highest rates of unemployment.

“We are going to end corruption whether [ANC leaders] like it or not,” he said, with a hint of the battle to come within the party in choosing a new Cabinet.

Mr. Ramaphosa concedes he knows of no other ruling party in the world that is so honest about its corruption. Indeed, most parties running in the election had manifestos that included vows to set a moral course for the most developed economy in sub-Saharan Africa. The Cope party, an ANC breakaway group, even promised to have every South African commit to personal integrity.

The ANC’s victory margin of 57% – down from 62% in 2014 – revealed a mixed signal from voters. They backed Ramaphosa in his cleansing efforts but also suggested this may be the last time they will back the party since the end of apartheid in 1994.

“The people have told us what kind of an ANC they want: an ANC with leaders and civil servants who work to serve the people not to line their own pockets with taxpayers’ money,” the president said in his victory speech.

Youth voters in particular are more concerned about corruption and the lack of jobs than they are about the ANC’s long-past identity as a liberation movement. In the two years since Mr. Ramaphosa became president, they have watched one scandal after another being exposed, often on live TV. They have also seen ANC figures thwart prosecutors and investigators trying to end the plundering of state resources.

After years of focusing a spotlight on corruption, South Africa may have decided to extract it by the roots. In the mid-1990s, the country was rated among the least corrupt in Africa. Now it may be the most honest about its corruption. That is a big step toward returning to the promises of equality and justice made by the late ANC leader, Nelson Mandela.

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