As thousands of South Africans across the country marched Wednesday morning in protest of the administration of President Jacob Zuma, their banners targeted, in a hundred different ways, a single grievance.
"We need leaders, not looters," read one sign. "Corruption must fall, Zuma must fall," read another.
The march capped a year of official scandals – including President Zuma's refusal to pay back $20 million in public money used to upgrade his personal home, and government officials' purchase of $43 million worth of train cars that didn't fit on the country's tracks.
But the final straw came last week, when Mr. Zuma abruptly announced that he had fired his finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, replacing him with a nearly unknown politician, David van Rooyen. Many speculated that Zuma was looking for someone more willing to accommodate his expansive spending on controversial projects, including a $100 billion deal to obtain nuclear reactors. But the move sent the South African currency into a tailspin, prompting Zuma to replace Mr. van Rooyen with former finance minister Pravin Gordhan after only four days.
As the reaction to Mr. Nene's sacking suggests, disenchantment is rising over corruption in Africa's second largest economy. In a recent Transparency International poll, 83 percent of South Africans said they believed corruption has been on the increase here over the past year, a higher percentage than anywhere else in Africa.
That comes even as a November report by the auditor general showed a decline of 27 percent in so-called "irregular expenditures" in government spending over the previous year.
That disconnect, many experts say, is telling. The problem here, it seems, is not so much the absolute level of corruption. Instead, anger is focused on where the corruption is happening: at the highest echelons of one of Africa’s most celebrated democracies, from within the very institutions charged with beating back a long legacy of inequality and exclusion here.
For many South Africans, high profile cases of corruption are not just a drain on the country’s finances or a driver of lethargic public service delivery. They are a personal betrayal.
“These cases are incredibly demoralizing for the public,” says Trevor Ngwane, a community activist and sociologist in Johannesburg, of Nene’s dismissal. “When people see corruption coming from the president’s office, the highest office in the land, it sends a signal that there’s a lack of political will to change the situation.”
Taking it to the streets
But Mr. Ngwane is also quick to note that a lack of political will doesn't mean a lack of pushback. South Africa has an independent state office investigating corruption – the aptly-named public protector – that has put pressure on Zuma's government over the past six years, even if he has shrugged off many of its findings. The country also has a rowdy civil society with extensive experience holding South African governments – black and white – to account.
This September, for instance, on the heels of revelations that a state-owned railway company had purchased the misfit train cars, a motley coalition of civil society groups, including AIDS activists, labor unions, and free speech NGOs, organized a series of large protest marches targeting state graft.
And when student protesters shut down universities across the country over rising tuition the following month, they linked their own struggle to the unsavory financial dealings of their political leaders.
“If Zuma won’t pay back the money, why should we?” read one popular slogan of the protests, referencing the president’s refusal to return the funds used to upgrade his private home in KwaZulu Natal – a scandal that has dragged on here since 2009, when investigative journalists first revealed that Zuma intended to expand his homestead to include a private hospital, swimming pool, and cattle grazing area.
“These young voters don’t have the same memories of the ANC as an anti-apartheid movement that older generations do,” says Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime, and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. “They’re fatigued by the constant scandal and I think we’re going to see that corruption will have an increasingly important role in their political decision making going forward.”
Tackling the problem
Still, corruption remains a difficult issue to tackle, in part because it’s been a key form of wealth redistribution since apartheid, a way for a new black elite to jump the hurdles of race, class, and education that had excluded them for centuries from the halls of power.
“It’s a new channel of access for people disenfranchised by history,” Mr. Newham says.
For most South Africans, however, the possibility of getting ahead by patronage and graft remains a distant reality. Their personal experiences of corruption are far more mundane and belittling: a police officer asking for money to avoid a speeding ticket, an immigration official demanding cash to push a refugee’s papers through the system. A study released last week by the Ethics Institute of South Africa suggested that, 26 percent, or about 1 in 4 South Africans know someone who has been asked to pay a bribe in the last year*, most for traffic offenses or to secure a job.
Those figures are alarming, says Kris Dobie, the study’s lead author, but they also shine light on wide gap between people’s perceptions of the levels of corruption in the country and a more muted reality. While only 26 percent of South Africans knew someone who had been asked to pay a bribe, 78 percent believed it was impossible to get by without paying them.
That's important because the more normal people perceive corruption to be, the easier it is to justify it – even if those perceptions don’t align with reality, Mr. Dobie says. That goes for high-level corruption as well. When citizens see enough corruption scandals come and go unpunished, he points out, they begin to believe that government officials can act with impunity.
But for Mr. Ngwane, the activist, there’s a silver lining.
“We know now those in power aren’t going to act,” Ngwane says. “So the only people who can address this are the ones who are suffering. Corruption can and will only be stopped by a movement from below.”
*Editor's note: The original version of this story has been edited to clarify that 26 percent, or about 1 in 4 South Africans know someone who has been asked to pay a bribe in the last year.