Originally published in ‘Response’ July 2 2020 — from the Parliamentary Advisory Office of the SA Catholic Bishops’ Conference
Two days ago, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo delivered an unexpected lecture. It came at the end of testimony by Popo Molefe, former chair of the board of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), before Judge Zondo’s Commission of Enquiry into State Capture.
Month after month, the Judge has been hearing evidence of pervasive corruption in virtually every corner of the state; and even though his Commission still has some way to run, he has clearly heard enough to be able to put his finger on the problem.
“[I]t may be that part of the problem is that if a senior official within the governing party, for example, is aware that another senior member of the governing party or a leader, one of the leaders, is involved in wrongdoing, he or she will be afraid to do what is right and say: ‘But you can’t do this and the organisation must take action when you as a member of the organisation do this, because we are bringing the name of this organisation into disrepute.’”
And he went further, referring to ANC Members of Parliament:
If I stand up and do my job properly in Parliament, in keeping with the oath of office that I’ve taken when I became a Member of Parliament, which effectively says, the country first; the people first, I decide not to do my job properly because I can’t be minister; I can’t be deputy minister; I can’t be chairperson of the portfolio committee, if I displease these people. If I ask them difficult questions, they are going to ask me: Are you a member of my party? Or are you a member of the opposition?
And further still, referring to the party’s leadership:
[I]f I am the president and I see that a certain department is not run properly, and that minister is not doing a proper job, maybe I won’t fire them because they have a constituency that I’m going to need when next time I want to be re-elected as president. If I take action against that minister who has got that kind of support, he or she is going to go out and mobilise support so that when next I want to be elected or re-elected as president, I won’t succeed. Other people, somebody else will be put up.
This analysis of the issue of corruption is not extraordinary, but the fact that the country’s second most senior Judge saw fit to articulate it in this way, with all the weight that attaches to his office, is. It is a measure of the seriousness of the matter. On the same day that Judge Zondo identified the problem, the person charged with tackling it, National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi, told Parliament: “I have to be candid. At the moment, we are not winning the battle [against corruption] yet. Unless government deals with [understaffing of prosecutors and investigators] in a serious way, we are not going to win this fight.”
The kind of corruption that Judge Zondo and Adv Batohi are attempting to combat is not just a matter of ethics and public morality; neither is it a question of a few odd bribes here and there to avoid a traffic fine or to win a municipal tender. It is stuff that threatens to wreck our economy entirely.
By way of example, during a CPLO webinar on Eskom yesterday, COSATU’s Parliamentary Officer, Matthew Parks, itemised how corruption has brought the power utility to the brink of collapse. It has been looted, as he put it, by its coal suppliers, its own staff, its outside contractors and by parts of its management. If it fails, it will take the whole economy with it.
Last week there was a fairly rare piece of good news in the fight against corruption. The Hawks arrested and charged a number of executives of the Venda Building Society (VBS) with various corrupt offences. VBS had persuaded a number of poor municipalities to deposit money with it, contrary to municipal finance legislation, and the executives then allegedly pocketed most of the money. Their trial may implicate a number of politicians at local government level.
All of this is happening while the country’s attention is occupied by the Covid-19 crisis, and there is a real danger that this will allow corruption to thrive in the background. We may be worried, understandably, about the economic effects of the virus, but unless we continue to insist that the governing party takes corruption seriously, we will not win the battle, as Adv Batohi puts it. When we emerge from the virus, there may not be an economy worth reviving.
Judge Zondo’s analysis indicates a way forward: the power of political party hierarchies must be reduced, so that public representatives – MPs – can do their work properly, without fear of retribution from a self-serving leadership. Only some form of electoral reform can achieve this, and it is a fortunate irony that the Constitutional Court, on which Judge Zondo sits, has recently opened the way for this in its judgement allowing independent candidates to stand for Parliament.
But it is not going to be easy. Among the people implicated in the VBS crookery are two senior ANC office-bearers in Limpopo – the provincial treasurer Danny Msiza and the former Vhembe Municipality mayor, Florence Radzilani. Both of them stepped down from their positions in 2018 when they were implicated in an independent report by senior advocate Terry Motau into VBS’s collapse. The Hawks are continuing their investigations and it is more than possible that these two, among others, will face charges.
Two days before Judge Zondo delivered his lecture and Adv Batohi explained outlined her uphill battle, the National Executive Committee of the ANC reinstated both Mr Msiza and Ms Radzilani to their previous positions. The excuse? Being implicated in a forensic report is not the same as being found guilty in court.