Helen Zille: Inside out – how corruption and crime have infiltrated SA’s institutions

Helen Zille reflects on the state of South Africa’s institutions and how they have ceaselessly been vulnerable to corruption and criminal syndicates. Zille draws on several examples, including the assassination of public officials, the closure of the University of Cape Town due to threats from student leaders, and the halting of low-cost housing projects by construction mafias. Zille’s piece below emphasises the importance of institutions’ commitment to the rule of law, ongoing maintenance, meritocracy, and common values to prevent their decline and gradual disintegration. Zille concludes with a call to balance growing inclusion whilst maintaining our nation’s integrity and fundamental attributes.

How did it come to this?

By Helen Zille

Now and again, I read something that haunts me for weeks. That’s what happened on 13th January when I read a Jonny Steinberg column in Business Day.

It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. But the way it joined the dots sent a shiver down my spine when I extrapolated the implications across our society. Now, every time I read about some dystopian development in South Africa, I see it through this lens.

Steinberg’s column recalled the sense of hope of the 1990s when the vast informal taxi industry, that transported a majority of working-class commuters, was finally legalised.

It would, we all believe, herald the birth of a commercial giant, and end the brutal methods of law enforcement (including multiple contract killings) typical of industries that operate outside the protection of the country’s laws and regulations.

But the opposite happened. In Steinberg’s words: “The story did indeed come to pass, but inside out. Organised crime did not wither and die through exposure to state institutions. Instead, state institutions were infected by organised crime.”

Although South Africa’s growing “hitman industry” was born in the criminal underworld of the taxi industry, it has now extended its tentacles across society.

It hardly makes major news anymore when a Mayor is assassinated (17 have died in this way). Many more councillors or aspirant councillors have met a similar fate. It is routine for people competing for tenders and contracts in local municipalities to take out hits on their rivals.

Just this past week the renowned musician, AKA, and his friend were assassinated at point blank range outside a Durban night-spot.

And, by all accounts, there was an assassination attempt (by poisoning) against the outgoing CEO of Eskom, Andre de Ruyter.

This, tragically, is now a stock-standard story of the new South Africa. In almost every field we had great ideals for inclusion and development — only to find that all too often, when the story came to pass, it was “inside out”.

Not too long ago I watched a viral video called “The Death of Johannesburg”. It traversed many of the landmarks of my youth; I was born in Hillbrow and lived between Berea and Yeoville as a young, working adult. Back then, these once-apartheid suburbs were just beginning to throb the vibrance of multi-culturalism as the Group Areas Act eroded.

Today my favourite haunts, so full of hope back then, have been reduced to derelict, dangerous monuments to a derailed dream.

As a student at the University of Cape Town, we worked hard and protested hard for an inclusive non-racial campus welcoming all who met the admission criteria.

Today, as the wheels of the new academic year should be gathering momentum, UCT is closed, with classes conducted “on-line” for the foreseeable future because of threats from student leaders to shut down the campus by force until their demands are met.

And far from becoming a bastion of non-racialism, the University is now a by-word for extreme, racialised identity politics, in which ideological conformity is enforced, and in which racial bullying has reached levels of unimagined toxicity — starting in the Vice-Chancellor’s office. Once again, the one vibrant vision was turned “inside out”.

This evening, in Business Day, I read a column about construction mafias halting low cost housing construction projects in Cape Town, to the value of R1-billion.

And of course, the great Eskom dream of “affordable electricity for all” has turned into the nightmare of increasingly expensive privately-generated electricity for the few, while what was once the world’s most efficient Electricity Utility, continues in its death spiral at the hands of criminal syndicates.

How did it come to this? How have once strong institutions succumbed all around us.

The truth is, no matter how powerful they may seem, Institutions are profoundly vulnerable. It takes decades to build them but a few short years to destroy them.

They cannot survive without a commitment to the rule of law, ongoing maintenance, meritocracy, and a core set of common values that define an institution’s culture. This is true for companies, cities and societies.

Growing inclusion, while essential, dare not destroy these attributes, without which decline, and gradual disintegration, become inevitable.


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