South Africa’s chance for honest governance

The final report of a corruption commission challenges the ruling party – and points to resiliency in the country’s democracy.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters in 2021 after being charged with corruption.

At the end of its probe into human rights violations committed during the apartheid era, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission referred about 300 cases for prosecution in 2003. That was in line with the panel’s key trade-off. Perpetrators could seek amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of politically motivated crimes. If they did not, the courts were waiting.

But the prosecutions never came. As evidence later showed, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) blocked trials of former apartheid agents to avert possible legal action against its own party cadres – some of whom had become senior government officials. That decision, critics still argue, undermined the rule of law early in the country’s new era of multiracial democracy.

Two decades later, the ANC faces a similar pivotal decision – and an opportunity to renew South Africa’s foundational ideals of equality and honest governance after years of ruinous graft.

On Wednesday a special commission concluded its nearly four-year probe into a wide-ranging corruption scheme under former President Jacob Zuma. Its final report, totaling more than 5,000 pages, is a stunning rebuke of the ruling party. It provides a new benchmark for judicial independence on a continent where the rule of law remains fragile.

“There were multiple ‘warning signs’ in the public domain, which the ANC did not act on in any meaningful way for at least five years,” the panel’s chairman, Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, wrote. “There was arguably, at least, a knowing abdication of responsibility.”

The report details how Mr. Zuma and his cronies siphoned an estimated $30 billion in public funds while undermining the integrity of the intelligence and security services, the national revenue agency, and scores of state-owned enterprises. Few senior ANC officials emerge untainted. The president now has four months to decide whether his party will once again favor its instincts for self-preservation or enable the national prosecutor’s office to clean house.

Beyond that, the commission’s work may offer South Africans a needed reminder of the resilience of their democracy at a time of sinking public confidence. The latest Afrobarometer poll in South Africa, taken a year ago, found that confidence in nearly all public institutions had fallen. Only 38% of those surveyed said they trusted the president, 27% parliament, and 43% the courts.

That pessimism is understandable. After 28 years of ANC rule, the annual growth rate is a tepid 1.9%, unemployment hovers above 30%, and access to education is uneven. Although nearly 90% of South Africans now have electricity, service is frequently interrupted due to lack of enough power.

But as Justice Minister Ronald Lamola argued in a recent speech marking the 25th anniversary of the country’s constitution, the well-being of democracy starts with the exercise of integrity by individual citizens.

“In more ways than one, this young democracy is being suffocated by corruption,” he said. “The corrective action ... lies in citizens confronting corruption directly where it arises. We can’t confront corruption by being tolerant of those amongst us who live on bribes and criminality. Criminality is the absence of humanity.”

In a 2019 poll by Transparency International, 57% of South Africans agreed that ordinary citizens can make a difference in the fight against corruption. Now the corruption probe has challenged the ANC to reclaim the high ethical standards it once demonstrated. But the report’s real impact may be in reminding South Africans that integrity – like democracy – is renewable.

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