South African corruption allegations threaten a historic upset

Ruling ANC vows to act amid fears a growing scandal could end its 25-year dominance

The scale of the alleged corruption involving South Africa's elite that has emerged in recent months is a concern for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) leadership ahead of this year's general election.

Since coming to power in 1994 the former liberation movement has continued to back senior ANC members accused of crimes, in many instances refusing to remove or suspend them until they were found guilty in court.

However, this week the ANC changed tack and called on law enforcement agencies to arrest officials if overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing emerged against them in any of the three commissions of inquiry taking place.

Since last October a stream of senior ANC figures have been implicated in the looting of the equivalent of hundreds of millions of euro of taxpayers’ money at the commissions of inquiry investigating public sector corruption.


But with a general election coming on May 8th, many people see the ANC’s announcement as an attempt to pacify angry voters rather than a genuine embrace of a more ethical approach to party governance.

To date, former president Jacob Zuma, environmental affairs minister Nomvula Mokonyane, former South African Airways chairwoman Dudu Myeni, former South African Revenue Service commissioner Tom Moyane and four former ANC MPs are among those implicated in fraud and bribery linked to the controversial Gupta business family and facilities company Bosasa.

But the evidence provided by former Bosasa chief operating officer Angelo Agrizzi – he claims every public sector contract the company secured during his 19 years there was tainted by corruption – suggests more ANC members will be incriminated before the two-year Zondo inquiry into that alleged corruption is done.

Swift action

The revelations have prompted many South Africans to call for swift legal action to be taken against those accused of offences, which they say would reassure them the ANC is cleaning up its act.

And with the election so close, party president Cyril Ramaphosa is under a lot of pressure to get the National Prosecuting Authority to act against the accused.

Until Ramaphosa replaced the scandal-plagued Zuma as South Africa’s president in February last year, there were fears in the ANC that it could lose May’s general election.

In 2004 the ANC secured 62.2 per cent of the national vote, but its support fell to 54.5 per cent in the 2016 municipal election, largely due to discontent with Zuma’s rule. A fall below 50 per cent would see the ANC lose its sole mandate to rule for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994.

However, a recently released poll by research company Ipsos revealed that 61 per cent of 3,571 adults it interviewed late last year would vote for the ANC in May.

In part, analysts have put this reversal of fortune down to what Ramaphosa has done to clean up the government since becoming president. However, they also warn that if no action is taken against officials implicated in wrongdoing ahead of May’s poll, disillusioned voters could make the ANC pay at the ballot box.

Mark Swilling, a leadership professor at Stellenbosch University, says a poor showing by the ANC in the polls would also fan the factionalism that has undermined the party for nearly 20 years. And in turn, he says, this might damage South Africa's fight against corruption by returning the allegedly corrupt to positions of authority in the ANC.

Writing last month in the online newspaper, Daily Maverick, Swilling said the Zuma faction in the ANC was well prepared for the battle that will occur to replace Ramaphosa if the party does not do well in May.

“A reduced majority would allow ANC provincial executive committees to argue that contrary to the hype, Ramaphosa has not been able to reverse the electoral losses experienced during the Zuma years,” he said.

“The message will be simple: if the ANC is in worse shape under Ramaphosa, why should he remain the leader?”

Crime-busting unit

In recent weeks Ramaphosa has promised that corrupt officials would face the full might of the law, but only when the inquiries had finished their work – which will be 2020 in some cases.

In a state-of-the-nation address last Thursday he also unveiled a new crime-busting unit that will be housed under the National Prosecuting Authority.

Five department of correctional services and Bosasa officials implicated in wrongdoing at the Zondo inquiry were charged last week. The police, however, say their arrests stem from a 2009 investigation rather than the commission’s work. Only one of the ANC officials implicated so far in corruption at the inquiry was among the five.

So, at this point no one can be sure if the ANC intends to act aggressively against its corrupt members, or if its recent calls for action against the allegedly corrupt in its ranks is just rhetoric designed to boost its pre-election popularity.

Jakkie Cilliers, a senior politics researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, says voters must look to the party’s election representative list to get clues around how Ramaphosa’s ANC plans to treat officials accused of corruption.

“A lot depends on this list, which is currently under wraps,” he says. “If any corruption-tainted people appear on the ANC’s MP list for the election it gives opposition parties a lot of ammunition to argue the party remains deeply corrupt under Ramaphosa, despite what he says.”