Corruption is a common pandemic in the world, and Africa is not immune to it. Many African countries, including South Africa, have made many unsuccessful attempts to fight corruption head on. The dominant tendency has been to create as many institutions as possible with an oversight role with the aim to create checks and balances in governance, bring about financial accountability in government spending, and ultimately get rid of corruption. But this has had little, if any, impact, as corruption remains rampant. The South African case illustrates the fact that rather than solely focusing on establishing anti-corruption institutions, our priority should be to groom upright leaders that will eventually lead these institutions and our countries.
What happens if those who claim to fight corruption are implicated in activities that reflect the very acts that they claim to fight? The recent allegations against South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, related to the ‘dealings’ at his Phala Phala Farm, put into question his intention to fight corruption in the country. When Ramaphosa took over power, he vowed to root out corruption in state institutions and unequivocally presented himself as the champion of the ‘cleaning up corruption’ operation. He made promises to rid the country of corruption both in the party (The African National Congress- ANC) and in the government. Judging from the level of corruption the country was experiencing at that time, it was evident that strong institutions required leaders with very high moral and ethical standards and unwavering political will to change the appalling status quo.
So, Ramaphosa presented himself as the person that the country had been waiting for. He even created the slogan Thuma mina (send me), as his campaigning mantra during his presidential campaigns. This slogan can be traced back to great biblical leaders who wholeheartedly gave themselves to the service of the lord. For those of us who were in South Africa during that time, we were given the impression that the sun was finally disbanding a depressing and dark cloud of corruption. It seemed that South Africa(ns) had discovered a ‘Moses’ to lead it from the ‘Egypt’ of corruption to the ‘Canaan’ of accountability in governance in which the rule of law will reign supreme. It was like a new dawn of a corruption-free South Africa was upon us.
Nevertheless, many questions were asked, some of which doubted the credibility of the new ‘saviour’, especially because he worked with the so-called ‘mastermind’ (former President Jacob Zuma) of the state capture as his deputy but never expressed discontent with what was happening during Zuma’s time in government. Moreover, under Ramaphosa’s administration, the looting of the state funds continued unabated, with cases of embezzlement of funds allocated to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Ramaphosa condemned these acts and promised that those who were involved would face the full might of the law. But the fact that his name was mentioned in what is called the Phala Phala Robbery scandal raised the question as to whether our ‘anti-corruption champion’ was implicated in the very acts that he promised to eradicate.
Most importantly, South Africa’s failed attempts to eradicate corruption raise other questions: What if, instead of establishing so many institutions to fight corruption, we had focused on grooming the upright leaders we want to see at the helm of our states and different institutions? Have we been putting the cart before the horse all along?
Let’s consider South Africa’s anti-corruption journey. The country has a vigorous anti-corruption legal framework such as the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Act (PCCA) that criminalizes corruption in public and private sectors. In addition, South Africa has 13 public sector agencies that have specified legal or policy roles to play in combatting corruption. Moreover, a number of national task teams such as the National Anti-Corruption Task Team have been established to support the functions of these agencies. The country also has dedicated numerous policies, standards and legislations that enable the state to tackle corruption. Despite all these strategic preventive mechanisms, the country is still riddled with corruption, extortion, active and passive bribery, fraud, and money laundering.
South Africa has also attempted to tackle corruption head on by establishing a judiciary commission of enquiry to look into allegations of state capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector, including organs of the state. The need to establish this commission was made necessary by a report based on the investigations conducted by the then Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela. This commission is now commonly known as the Zondo Commission, named after its chairperson, Deputy Chief Justice Ramond Zondo, who is now the Chief Justice of SA. Apart from the fact that this commission has fearlessly confronted any person or group implicated in corruption despite their rank or political influence, the proceedings are televised live for all to see and witness. Hence, the Commission’s work is transparent and fair. However, there remain a number of challenges.
Speaking at the Pavocat-Stellenbosch Academy Counter-Corruption Summit, former Public Protector, Professor Thuli Madonsela, highlighted that fighting the scourge of corruption in South Africa is possible only if we move beyond ‘the emerging gangster culture that is anchored in protecting certain perpetrators of corruption at all costs’. In other words, she appears to suggest that corruption is so entrenched in our practices that even with numerous institutions and legal frameworks, the tendency is to cover up for the culprits, particularly those with significant political connections.
Madonsela further went on to point out that it is not enough to expect only the various arms of the state to take up this challenge; instead ‘this duty must be taken on by all members of society if success is to be achieved’.
Corruption is one of the gravest crimes, as it diverts scarce resources that could have been used for development, perpetuating poverty on the continent. Africa has witnessed high ‘levels’ of corrupt activities that have affected it negatively in terms of economic development, as indicated by many corruption-ranking organizations. According to some reports, almost 75 million people in Africa are estimated to have paid a bribe in one form or the other in order to avoid punishment either by the police or courts. Some of these bribes are paid by people in order to access basic and essential services that governments should provide without any hindrance. The fact these happen even in countries that vowed to fight corruption and have established numerous institutions to this effect should be a wake-up call.
As calls for president Ramaphosa to resign or step aside increase every day in light of his alleged involvement in the Phala Phala Farm corruption case, (South) Africans might need to do some soul-searching. How strong can our institutions be if those who lead them have no moral integrity and purpose for power? Can we really have strong institutions without addressing the character of their guardians?