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My friends elsewhere in Africa – for example Zimbabwe – tell me that South Africans generally come across as a little arrogant and smug. We think we know how to run businesses better than other people across the continent do in their own countries, perhaps because we have been operating in an environment that is more economically developed. In the UK, on the other hand, I come across the widely held perception that South Africans lack modern skills, are out-of-touch with best practice in the developed world and are generally crooked. I used to think that this was an idea in the heads of uninformed people who’d never visited South Africa. Or people who had only seen headlines about race-fuelled political clashes, brutal murders and the endless BBC documentaries that depict Africa as a continent of starving peasants sheltering from the beating sun under wilting trees in remote areas. But this in-depth analysis by an international political expert Stephen Chan, a professor at SOAS, University of London, puts paid to my notion that it is uneducated people who believe South Africans and South Africa in general aren’t up to much these days. In this article, penned for The Conversation UK, Chan outlines how a ruling elite, led by a silly-looking president, is ransacking the nation. In Chan’s picture, South Africa has gone so far down the tubes that no-one in the developed world looks at the country as a beacon of modernity or progress. Those days are gone as South Africa slides on a seemingly unstoppable journey into obscurity. – Jackie Cameron
By Stephen Chan*
A special judicial report into the “capture” of South Africa’s state institutions has found that President Jacob Zuma is at the very least associated with corruption, if not just as deeply embedded in it as many South Africans believe.
He never seems to learn. After the scandal of his grandiose home improvements, his unsavoury association with the supremely wealthy Gupta family, and after his failed first effort to tar his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, with dubious corruption charges, Zuma might be expected to be wary, to attempt circumspection – but he’s clearly determined not to back down, even as the political tide and South African civil society alike turn against him and his party.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation called for him to be removed from office. The opposition has been elected to take over the country’s great municipalities. Even the ANC chief whip called upon him to resign.
To add to the tawdriness, Zuma has now failed for a second time to get rid of Gordhan, whom he almost certainly regards as an obstacle to unfettered corruption. Gordhan is standing firm, which makes him a problem – although there are indications he could be hit with more corruption charges again soon.
Nevertheless, as far as Zuma’s concerned, it’s business as usual. He has come up with no solution or compromise for the increasingly furious student protests roiling the country’s campuses, no plans for expanding and improving healthcare, improving the delivery of public services, and no plan for ensuring electricity. He doesn’t seem to care if the value of the rand falls because of his machinations, which serve himself and his cronies above even the ANC, much less the nation.
And that’s precisely the point. Zuma goes on, and knows he can go on, because the ANC itself – no matter what people say about an internal struggle – has been captured by an elite cabal of corrupt people. They have firmly ensconced themselves at the top of a trickle-down structure of corruption and patronage, one that extends to the most remote parts of the ANC apparatus in South Africa’s outlying provinces. If you want a contract for public services or delivering public goods, you have to have it sanctioned by the ANC.
All this could certainly work without Zuma, but he is simply too useful for his cronies to depose him. The corrupt elite he enables are anxious to safeguard their personal revenue-raising schemes. The president is a lightning rod: as long as he’s the focus of public attention, most of his dubious associates are not.
It looks like the ANC is beginning to think about its own survival, for the longest time, it seemed to only care about Zuma's.
— Khaya Dlanga (@khayadlanga) November 2, 2016
And so they prop up an unpopular president, one who looks increasingly silly, so they can continue go about their business – which amounts to nothing less than the slow ransacking of the nation.
Gordhan might be able to keep making a stand, and he’s no doubt trying his best. But a pebble in a river is not a dam. South Africa’s corrupt elite are too lazy for their pillage to be especially sophisticated or elusive, and in one sense, that’s just as well. But in another, it simply adds to the disaster engulfing the South African body politic and body economic.
Nobody thinks any more about modernity, internationalism, South Africa’s disappearing place in the sun. Nobody thinks of complex engagement with the rest of the world. The theme of the moment is plain and simple theft on a national scale by those who control the party and the state alike.
- Stephen Chan, Professor of World Politics, SOAS, University of London. This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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