Vavi on SA: ‘A kleptocracy led by thieves’ – corruption cost R700bn in 20yrs

Zwelinzima Vavi tells Tim Modise that corruption poses the biggest threat to South Africa’s democracy. In a scathing interview, Vavi says the current rate of corruption and the disregard for the Public Protector’s findings on Nkandla show that South Africa is on a march to ‘kleptocracy led by thieves’. He says the appointments to senior positions in the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks, as well as the golden handshakes paid to the former heads, suggest that government is committed to blunting the instruments that citizens and the State have in dealing with crime and corruption. Vavi says democracy has been hijacked by ‘political hyenas’.

Mr Zwelinzima Vavi, thank you very much for joining today on Transformation.

Thank you very much Tim, and I’m quite pleased to be on your show.

You are working on a big mission, this time around. You’re making an announcement, that South Africa should take a day off and go on a protest march against corruption. When is the date and how is it going to work?

Well, the date is the 30th of September on a Wednesday. We’ve organised two marches. One march will be in Cape Town. We will march around 11 o’clock/noon to the Parliament. There are two assembly points in Pretoria. Our march will proceed to the Union Buildings around the same time – 11 o’clock/noon. We think that South Africa must, yet again, make a sacrifice and take the time off from work. Sometimes even at the cost of the application of the principle of ‘no work, no pay’. We think that at this moment, it’s absolutely critical that we do it just like that. If we don’t, I believe that 20/30 years down the line, if things go according to where the pointers are telling us, our children and their grandchildren will spit on our graves. They will ask us where we were when things turned in a manner in which they’re turning at this particular moment and why we didn’t even raise a finger outside of just complaining in the safety of our dining halls/in the safety of conversations with our friends.

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We think that the South African people are not a helpless, hapless crowd that could be directed into any direction by the powers that be. They have the power. They have demonstrated that power in a struggle against the Apartheid system. They are, by nature, fearless. They speak their minds. If you look at the dictates of the Constitution, South Africa’s democracy is one of the most celebrated ones in the word. We cannot develop a culture and that’s partly the reason why we’re organising this march. We cannot develop a culture right now – only 21 years – where we suddenly fear our rulers so much that we cannot even demonstrate our unhappiness.

Yes, but why are the marches going to Parliament and the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and what is troubling you about the state South Africa at the moment? This is not a Zwelinzima Vavi march. Right? There are other organisers (I suppose), who are working with you on this project.

Thank you very much for raising that because those who sought to discredit the march, sought to paint it as just one individual marching against the state. That’s not the case. At the last count, there were between 150/more than 300 organisations that have endorsed the march. They range from civil society organisations, the NGO’s, and the religious-based organisations to the Trade Union movement. Everybody who genuinely cares about South Africa and want to safeguard its future, have committed themselves to joining the march and get their voices heard on the 30th of September and beyond. We’re targeting the Cape Town Parliamentary Buildings and the Union Buildings because that’s where the people whom we elected, are residing and doing their business – supposedly, on behalf of the nation.

These were the people who went out and mobilised 18-million South Africans to believe in the vision of a corruption-free, transparent government that will root out corruption; both in the public sector as well as in the private sector. When things go wrong in society, the people who have a responsibility are those who are in Parliament and it they who are in the Union Buildings that must turn the situation around. Yes, we don’t want to send a message that says ‘corruption must only be an issue that we should root in the public sector only’. The root cause in our view, of corruption, is the very capitalist system itself because that’s what encourages the culture of individualism of ‘survival of the fittest’, of the ‘dog eats dog’ and it’s that culture, which has turned every other working class culture on its head. Whilst we believe that an injury to one is an injury to all, these guys believe that an injury to one is an opportunity to the other.

Yes, we will make specific demands that the private sector must stop offering bribes to our public officials and public representatives. More importantly, they must take steps to ensure that their own governance processes inside every company is such that it can inspire the confidence of South Africans to believe that the private sector is also participating in an effort to root out corruption in society, as a whole.

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The government leaders would tell you ‘we’re doing the best we can to fight corruption’, so why take the whole story to them? Do you think that the public sector or government is corrupt?

There’s no doubt about the fact that both the private sector and the public sector are corrupt. Look at the figures. The Institute of Internal Auditors only now, in January 2015, published a report that indicated that in South Africa, we’ve lost R700bn in the past 20 years. R700bn could have been used to address the principal challenge of South Africa, which is industrialisation, building of the manufacturing base, creating decent work for our young people, and for the unemployed in general. That money could have been used to build better schools and liberate our children from the classes that are being conducted under the tree, as we speak. It should have been used to build infrastructure in the schools and the public hospitals, to make sure that no hospital looks like the hospitals that we visit when we take our sick/ourselves to the public hospitals.

That’s what that money should have done. The linkage between corruption and stealing of the public resources, and the stagnation in the economy cannot be missed because it is such a direct linkage. That’s why, as part of taking up this fight against corruption, we are simultaneously raising the demands workers are raising for decent work, better education systems, and healthcare that works for ordinary people and so forth.

What is your view of the appointment of the new Hawks Chief, Berning Ntlemeza and secondly, the fact that the powers of the Public Protector are being questioned?

I’m very happy that you’re raising this question. This Friday, we’ll be hearing arguments in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein wherein the Public Protector, together with the Democratic Alliance (if I’m not mistaken) are challenging a decision of the Western Cape High Court that said certain statements about the powers of the Public Protector as being ‘not absolute’, not being the same as court judgment. At the same time, I must say that court judgment said that no government can ignore willy-nilly, the remedial actions of the Public Protector without cordial reasons. However, the matter is going to be heard and we think that that clarity is needed in South Africa because many people have deliberately been using (even wrongly) the Western Cape High Court judgment to suggest that they can ignore altogether and that Parliament can ignore the remedial action. The President can simply appoint one of the members of the executives that he has appointed to absolve himself from implementing the remedial actions that have been made by the Public Protector. It’s a crucial week for South Africa because clarity in that, which I suspect may end up in the Constitutional Court, is absolutely necessary. That’s the first point I wanted to raise. The second one is that the appointment of Ntlemeza as the Head of the Hawks (in my view) must be looked at in a total context. Here is the context. The previous Head of the Hawks…

Anwa Dramat.

Anwa Dramat was removed and offered a golden handshake, if we were to believe the Minister’s report to Parliament, of more than R3m. You can only offer taxpayers’ money to the tune of R3m if you have no case against the person – if you only have a political case where you want him removed. If you remove a person at the cost of more than R3m for political reasons instead of the fact that he is no longer fit and proper to hold that position, it then falls squarely into the conspiracy theory (if you’d call it that) – into the belief that we have, that the removal of Dramat and replacement by Ntlemeza forms part of a strategy, which is cooked in some dark corners, to transform the institutions that should hold executives to account from being the ‘Hawks of the nations’ into the ‘Hawks to protect the interests of those in high offices’. We believe that this transformation of Hawks has been completed.

It has been domesticated. It has been hollowed out. It has been blunted so that it can never, ever be a reliable institution in the hands of our people, to do what it was meant to be. Secondly, it falls right after a similar operation has been conducted in the National Prosecuting Authority. Nxasana, the previous Director, was offered more than R17m to leave his position. Clearly, you can only do that when you have no case against the incumbent but you’re so determined to remove him for political and other considerations that have nothing to do with taking forward the prescriptions of the Act in terms of why we have a National Prosecuting Authority in South Africa. He has been replaced by Abrahams who is a middle layer leader in the NPA, certainly not of the senior persons who were there and his first operation was to drop the charges against Nomgcobo Hiba, in the most controversial way – in a manner that has left a bitter taste in the mouths of millions of South Africans.

They’re now making the connection: okay, R17m was given as a golden handshake to Nxasana so that Abrahams can come in, and Abrahams’ first responsibility would be to drop charges against somebody whom everyone believes has a case to answer in the court. This combined with the frontal attacks on the Office of the Public Protector, which has been raging – including circulation of false intelligence reports, which suggest that the current Public Protector is somehow linked to some imperialist plot to overthrow the regime/government and all manner of rubbish. In addition, the frontal attack on the judges to put them under pressure so that they may not be independent and may now accommodate what is clearly, unsubstantiated criticism aimed at them is all, in our view, meant to…and we’re not all soldiers.

Let me just say this. This is not just an issue about Chapter 9 institutions/other institutions of democracy. The fact that COSATU itself has been divided and remains a pale shadow of what it used to be, the fact that the youth leaders themselves are a pale shadow of what it used to do, seemed (to us) to be perfect strategy to ensure that all institutions that can hold leadership to account, are being muzzled. They’re being hollowed out. They are being blunted and domesticated, and that’s the most worrying part where South Africans of all origins, must be standing up on the 30th of September, saying that we can’t allow our democracy that we fought so hard for to be stolen from our hands by the powerful in society, for their own interests instead of society’s interests.

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Are you suggesting that democracy is being undermined, and do you use a stronger word? You are saying that it is being stolen. What do you mean?

Our democracy is under threat. Let me explain this again, in summary. These are not recommendations. When an investigation is conducted by the Chapter 9 Institution in the form of the Public Protector to say ‘here is your remedial action. Do the following’ and the person implicated in the remedial action in the form of the President ignores that, ask a Minister appointed by him to investigate himself. When the Constitution says ‘the Office of the Public Protector will investigate the executive as part of taking forward its responsibility to the citizens;, the Minister appointed by the President investigates the President and of course, the results are now known. They are whitewashed, presented in Parliament and again, unfortunately, the ANC as the majority party in Parliament endorses that. They kick the remedial action of the Public Protector in the mouth and simply endorses a whitewash.

Then you must know. It looks small. It’s not small. This is absolutely fundamental. It’s a direct threat because it then tells South Africans ‘in future, don’t even dare report your issues to the Public Protector because she doesn’t have the power to hold the executive/the President to account. That’s the end of the story of accountability in any democracy. That’s the point, which we are raising. The second point is that when you offer golden handshakes to leading officials of the state without taking your citizenship into any confidence as to why you’re paying R17m and the R17m is leaked, because we accidentally came to know about that Nxasana was given R17m. Government can’t deny it because this had leaked and was confirmed by Nxasana’s lawyers. That’s why Corruption Watch is taking the matter up by the way, because we think we cannot allow this culture to deepen.

It’s a culture, which seeks to undermine the very tenets of our Constitution. The National Prosecuting Authority is a body that must prosecute without fear and favour and when the people who are appointed must suddenly be investigated and clearly, the allegations against them cannot stick, they’re given in excess of R17m to walk. Surely, that’s an assault on the tenets of the Constitution of South Africa. When the head of a supposedly independent (supposed to be independent, according to the ruling of the Constitution)…the Hawks are supposed to be a replacement of the Scorpions and the Constitutional Court is very categorical in terms of what it should do and how it should be independent. In fact, some people still believe that the Hawks in the current context are not as independent as the Constitutional Court has demanded. Be that as it may…

When you suddenly make allegations against the Head of the Hawks and instead of pursuing disciplinary actions to prove your case against them, you give them more than R3m to walk away; then surely, there have to be other political considerations that lead you to be desperate enough to go to this extent of what I call ‘stealing’, because that’s corruption of a special kind. It’s authorised corruption by the State – R17m/R3m. In response to a question in Parliament, the Minister of Police says that over the past five years or so (if my memory serves me well) they have spent more than R33m/R34m in golden handshakes. Surely, something is wrong. South Africa must wake up and smell the coffee. We’re marching – and this is not an exaggeration – towards a failed state if our institutions are unable to hold the members of the executive to account.

We’re marching towards a kleptocractic, capitalist order ruled by thieves – the most corrupt – and where there will be no accountability whatsoever. The 30th of September is a march against all of these practices. It’s a march to protect the Office of the Public Protector and a march to say ‘hands off our NPA. Hands off our Hawks. Hands off our judges. Hands off our police’.

Your views are very strong and they differ from those expressed by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. When he spoke about the ANC Youth League conference recently, he said the Youth League must defend the leadership of the ANC and the President, in particular. Your thoughts?

Let me answer one question you asked, which is fundamental. ‘Is the government doing enough to root out corruption?’ Ask South Africans, who believes that the South African government is doing a good job in terms of rooting out corruption in the state or in the private sector? No one. Government can beat its chest as much as they are. I was pained when I was looking at the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, beating the drums about the extent to which the government is doing its part to root out corruption. R700bn stolen from the taxpayers. Look at the Auditor-General’s report (the recent one). Scary, billions of Rands going to waste and fruitless expenditure. Tell me. How many political leaders are behind bars? We can’t even look at China because in China, they can say ‘Minister X has been hanged’. I’m not saying, in any way, that people must be hanged in South Africa but I listened to the State of the Nation Address by the President. I can’t remember.

Two hundred or so civil servants are arrested. Hold on. The scale of corruption in South Africa is such that we are seeing lots of political leadership in trial, answering either for them stealing, in cahoots with the private sector to steal, or doing little to protect the resources of the Republic. Let’s take the Nkandla issue, for example. The budget for that was R27m. The Mail & Guardian exposed the fact that the expenditure had run to R60m—odd in totals, already. Thereafter, we were told it had gone to R110m or so and now, R246m. We are being told, cheekily and very arrogantly, that this is not the end. We’re still going to have to pay more. Who is being blamed? The poor public servants. Of course, if they have stolen they must be held accountable. However, where was the Cabinet? Where was our ANC National Executive Committee?

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Where was everybody in power when the Mail & Guardian said the budget had overrun to over R60m, then to more than R100m and now, to R246m and more? Who thinks we are that naïve, that we’d believe them when they say ‘we are taking disciplinary actions. It’s all the fault of the public servants’? We elected them all into the office to protect our resources. They have failed. Elsewhere, they would have been dismissed – all the Cabinet Ministers – by the Electorate, if that were to happen because unfortunately, we can’t say, “The President must dismiss”. He would have to start by dismissing himself because he too, would have read and heard the controversy about the overrun in Nkandla. He should have asked questions. R27m. When he saw the massive dig of the hole in his house, he should have asked, “What is this?” A fire pool. Where have you heard that in the world?

When you saw a double-storey visitor centre being built, he should have asked the question, “This is my private home. What will happen to this when I’m gone?” When he saw the amphitheatre, he should have said, “What is this soil retention? Why is the State concerned about soil retention in a private residence, which will then be a legacy of myself and my children?” This is not on. This is just, not on. We are gatvol Tim, and we don’t think that our government is protecting us. It is not protecting our future and we’re not surprised that this is reflected in the state of the economy today. We have grown by one-point-two percent in the second quarter and we’ve dropped by one-point-three in the previous quarter. We are being told that we may be heading towards a recession. We will pay. Workers are already paying.

Those 50,000 jobs in the steel industry are on the line, as we speak and we know that if you include the value chain, 190,000 workers are going to be thrown into the streets to join the other 8.4-million South Africans who are unemployed in this country. They are in a structural unemployment. It’s a long-term unemployment. There is no hope of them getting out of that hole. We’re adding more. We’re not liberating sufficient numbers out of that crisis. Yes, we are very angry that 21 years down the line, we’re turning our democracy in that direction. Fifty-four percent of our population is living in poverty. We are angry that 14-million go to bed without anything to eat and that another 14-million are facing hunger. We’re very angry, that we have become the most unequal society in the world and unfortunately, we see a very strong relationship between this selfish culture that has erupted in our organisation and has divided them, and the failure to address the needs of ordinary people to build a better life for all, which Nelson Mandela promised us.

Zwelinzima Vavi, thank you very much for talking.

Thank you very much.

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