đź”’ WORLDVIEW: Petty corruption dulls any hope the ANC can change

This week, I read yet another news story about the endless, petty, tedious corruption that seems so endemic to South African public life. It brought into focus why it can be so hard to believe that the ANC-led government will ever manage to turn things around for our corruption-riddled, crisis-hit country.

On Monday, City Press reported that Mpumalanga politician and MEC Lindiwe Ntshalintshali allegedly ran up a R348,000 hotel bill – on the taxpayers’ dime – while she waited for her allocated housing (apparently she was “finicky” and rejected six houses that were offered to her).

Now, I don’t know if Ntshalintshali is as bad as she’s made out – she says that she’s being targeted by political rivals and that the houses were rejected on legitimate security grounds. But it does seem inarguable that the former eMalahleni mayor ran up a six-figure, taxpayer-funded hotel bill while waiting to be given a taxpayer-funded house. What’s more, this is not her first corruption scandal. In 2016, she got in hot water for allegedly trying to use R1.5 million of eMalahleni’s service delivery money to buy herself a mayoral Lexus. Then, in 2017, she attracted criticism for spending R21 million of taxpayers’ money to protect her private home. Again, I don’t know the truth of these various corruption scandals. But at some point, one must at least wonder about smoke and fires.

Such stories are, of course, a dime a dozen in SA. Politicians of all stripes like to get what they can from the public purse. What made this story so depressing is, however, its very banality.

You see, I was not able to find any discussion of Ntshalintshali’s accomplishments.

The eMalahleni Local Municipality, which she led as mayor, is nothing to write home about. It has yet to enjoy a successful audit – its auditors suspect substantial financial misstatements – and apparently it is technically bankrupt. It has somehow lost millions of rand’s worth of electricity and water (what?) and reported hundreds of millions of rands in wasted, irregular, or unauthorized expenditure. The whole thing looks – at least to the untrained eye – like a serious mess. At the very least, it’s not clear what Ntshalintshali did for the people of eMalahleni during her tenure.

Read also: The Editor’s Desk: Why corruption charges are so slow to arrive

And in her new role as MEC for the Mpumalanga Department of Culture, Sports, and Recreation, she has so far failed to rack up any notable achievements – even her bio on the Mpumalanga Culture, Sports, and Recreation website is lavish with generalities and very light on specifics. Essentially, she looks like – at best – a mediocre employee.

Yet to all appearances, Ntshalintshali is bullet-proof. No matter how lavish her lifestyle, no matter how many scandals follow her, she continues to advance up the ANC hierarchy. She is doubtless an able politician, good at building alliances and outmanoeuvring rivals. Those are important skills, and ones possessed by any given leader, be they a CEO, a president, or the head of your local school’s PTA. She may also be a competent administrator – there’s no real way to tell given what I could find about her. But there is no real record of her actually doing anything substantial for the people of Mpumalanga who she serves.

And this is what’s so depressing. In the ANC, it’s enough simply to be in the ANC. Being in the ANC, being a part of its structures building relationships with decision-makers – that is enough to advance a person up the political hierarchy. Scandals don’t matter. Performance doesn’t matter. What matters is being connected and knowing how to stay connected.

And thus, we have what we have: a government filled with mediocre employees, unequal to the tasks set before it. As the coronavirus ravages the country, as the economic disaster metastasizes daily, as the government’s finances meltdown, a mediocre, middling, unexceptional group of politically connected cadres fills the ranks of the state. Focused on maintaining their positions and soaking the public purse for all they’re worth, these unremarkable people simply do not have what it takes to solve the problems they are faced with. And as Ntshalintshali’s career illustrates, the situation is not going to change.