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Why corruption in South Africa isn’t simply about Zuma and the Guptas

By Karl von Holdt | The Conversation |

Corruption in South Africa isn’t simply a matter of bad morals or weak law enforcement. It’s embedded in processes of class formation – specifically, the formation of new black elites. This means corruption is primarily a matter of politics and the shape of the economy.

In a recently published paper, I attempt to shed fresh light on the unconvincing narratives that have been presented in the media, NGOs and academic circles about the events of the past 10 years.

These narratives generally depict events as a struggle between two opposing forces. On the one side are a network of politicians, officials, brokers and businessmen centred on former President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family.

All are bent on looting, state capture and self-enrichment. On the other are a band of righteous politicians and citizens. This group is seen as drawing together the “old” ANC, activists, “good” business and citizens in general. They are intent on rebuilding institutions and good governance, the rule of law, international credibility and fostering growth and development.

I argue that a much deeper set of social forces underlies and shapes the struggles within the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), and the society more broadly. These political struggles are inseparable from struggles over the shape of the economy.

Limited access

The primary process to change the economy has been the drive to accelerate the emergence of new black elites. But institutional interventions, such as black economic empowerment, have been insufficient.

Already, during the Thabo Mbeki period as well as the presidency of Nelson Mandela, an alternative informal political economic system was emerging at national, provincial and local levels. Through this, networks of state officials, ambitious entrepreneurs as well as small time operators, were rigging tenders or engaging in other kinds of fraud so as to sustain or establish businesses, or simply to finance self-enrichment.

Because of a number of factors there was little alternative for channelling the aspirations and burning sense of injustice of black elites and would be elites in post-apartheid South Africa. These factors include the property clause in the Constitution, the conservative strategies adopted by the ANC government and the fact that large corporations and white owned businesses dominated the economy.

This means that opportunities are few, demand is high and competition is fierce. In this context, the state is where people who are locked out are most likely to gain some access.

This links to the issue of violence. The emergence of new elite classes is often a ferociously contested, ugly and violent affair. South Africa is no different from many other post-colonial countries – or indeed the histories of the Euro-American elites that currently dominate the globe.

In South Africa this violence takes the form of burning down homes and state facilities, intimidation, assault, the deployment of the criminal-justice system to protect some and target others, and, increasingly, assassination.

I argue that this set of practices constitutes an informal political economic system. By a system I don’t mean a structure which is centrally coordinated or planned. What I’m referring to is a pervasive and decentralised set of interlocking networks that reinforce and compete with one another in mutually understood ways, and include the use of violence as a strategic resource.

This system preceded Zuma’s presidency, and extended far beyond the Zuma-Gupta network. The recent revelations about corruption at the Zondo commission into state capture, VBS mutual bank or in the bookHow to steal a city by Crispian Olver, make this abundantly clear.

It should also be abundantly clear that the informal political-economic system necessarily entangles President Cyril Ramaphosa’s core network of institution builders.

Ramaphosa’s challenge

Ramaphosa’s key challenge is to build a stable coalition within the ANC so as to embark on his project of institution building. His trajectory, and the future shape of corruption in South Africa, will be determined by the character of the coalition he can forge – or that will be forced on him – among party barons within the ANC.

For the purpose of building institutions and attracting investment, it will be necessary to establish as stable a coalition as possible. This means it will have to be a broad coalition. One thing is sure: the coalition will include corrupt figures. It already does. The informal system of patronage politics will remain pervasive.

Even so, Ramaphosa’s power is precarious in the ANC. The odds are stacked against success in establishing stability. For the medium-term the trajectory of politics is likely to be characterised by multiple contestations over material opportunities, political power and symbolic representation. This will give rise to an increasingly volatile, unstable and violent political space.

To return, then, to the prevailing narrative and its misreading of the politics of corruption.

Deep structural issues

The problem with the narrative is that it assumes it’s possible simply to remove some “rotten apples”“, and it sets standards Ramaphosa cannot possibly match.

Perhaps, though, it is a useful fiction for the mobilisation of civil society, journalists and judges, which at the very least may contribute to containing corruption?

There is some validity in this. Yet it fails to direct attention to the deep structural issues which give rise to corruption as an aspect of class formation.

The only long-term and stabilising solution would be to draw into the formal system some of the purposes of the informal system. This would require a much more fundamental redistribution of assets and wealth, which could be deployed in the large-scale formation of a new black business class, primarily located in manufacturing and agriculture, as well as to fixing the education crisis. The result would be the formation of professional, scientific and technical middle classes.

This kind of solution will not emerge from the Ramaphosa administration, which is much more fixed on reproducing the policies of the Mbeki era. The problem is that these were what created the opportunity for the rise of Zuma in the first place.

Karl von Holdt is a Senior Researcher, Society Work and Politics Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand