Voices

The damage of state capture

2018-09-30 22:01

The ethics of service need to be reviewed by those of us who still subscribe to those values. Only then is the new dawn possible

As the helicopter kicked up dust, preparing to land, primary schoolchildren quickly assembled. Walking from the helicopter to the marquee – set up for a wedding he was attending – President Nelson Mandela broke away from his entourage to greet the assembled schoolchildren.

After shaking hands with each of them, asking how they were and whether they were listening to their parents, the children asked to speak to him. He agreed, eagerly. “Tamkhulu, abasiph’iRDP [school-feeding],” (Grandpa, they do not give us food at school), they told him.

Mandela immediately turned to then premier of the Eastern Cape Raymond Mhlaba and the ANC chief whip Reverend Arnold Stofile for an explanation. 

After discussions between the children and the politicians, an agreement with time lines was reached. School-feeding would resume as soon as possible. The family of the bride was asked to liaise with Bhisho, should any problems arise. Within two months, school-feeding resumed in all the schools in the area. This was in mid-1995.

Fast-forward 23 years. In March this year, following news of another child, Lumka Mkhethwa, drowning in a pit latrine at school, President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga to conduct an audit of sanitation and a plan for eradicating unhygienic and dangerous facilities in schools within one month.

At the time of Ramaphosa’s instructions, the department in Limpopo was already embroiled in litigation regarding Michael Komape, a grade R pupil who suffered the same fate as Mkhethwa in 2014.

Two months after Ramaphosa’s deadline, the department submitted a highly contested audit, refusing to cooperate with social movements, such as Equal Education, which have a close acquaintance with and well-researched understanding of what pertains in schools.

The same department is appealing the judgment of the Bhisho High Court, which found there were no reasons to avoid immediately implementing norms and standards for school infrastructure, whether they were dependent on other departments or service providers.

Speaking at the launch of Sanitation Appropriate for Education, Ramaphosa not only failed to mention infrastructure regulation, he told the nation, unsafe sanitation would be fully eradicated by 2030 – 36 years after the first democratic elections and 34 years after the adoption of the Constitution, which makes hygienic and safe sanitation facilities a right for all citizens.

As the complaint of the children who welcomed Mandela shows, failure to take steps, in good faith, to meet basic needs did not start with the Jacob Zuma administration. It is true the nature, scope and texture of corruption in the Zuma era was pervasive, systemic in its manifestations, execution and effect on society. We witnessed the creation of a patronage network which took over or influenced key functions and the authority of institutions and state-owned entities for the sole purpose of enabling, executing and institutionalising plunder. Shadow networks around the president and the Gupta family displaced the decision-making authority of formal and constitutional structures.

South Africa witnessed a practice called state capture.

To be sure, from the onset, Zuma introduced a highly personalised form of leadership. Shortly after the 2007 Polokwane conference, which elected Zuma as president of the ANC and paved the way for his presidency of the country, we saw senior politicians and public servants making their pilgrimage to his homestead in Nkandla. It was reported the newly elected “man of the people”, received visitors in his homestead, some of whom went to apologise for supporting Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane or to pledge their support to the newly elected leader. Zuma was said to have shown “characteristic” magnanimity and understanding at those visits, embracing everyone.

And so, a culture that centred on Zuma and his homestead emerged. Even after he became president, Zuma routinely received ministers at his home and sent a message that power was centralised around him as an individual and had shifted from the headquarters of the ANC and his office in Pretoria.

As we try to make sense of the revelations in the Gupta leaks – and now in the Zondo Commission – it is important to understand state capture goes beyond who got what contract and the individuals involved. The full extent of state capture and its multiple meanings and effect need to be fully understood through the prism of its social, political and economic influence on our society. This is manifested not only in terms of the financial resources that disappeared and positions gifted to those who made state capture possible.

It goes much deeper and wider than these and affects the very quality of South African life and social fabric.

State capture regularises factionalism within political parties. Internal democracy is suppressed. Positions in the Cabinet, Parliament, public service and state-owned entities are awarded to ensure servicing of the patronage networks. Individuals who are financially or morally compromised, as well as megalomaniacs, are often drawn into the networks because of their vulnerability or attraction to power. That is why the language of blackmail was a common feature in former president Zuma’s era.

He threatened to expose people if they “pushed him too far”, while Minister Bathabile Dlamini, who was believed to be close to Zuma, made the infamous statement “we all have smallanyana skeletons in the NEC [national executive committee]” – a crude threat directed at those who were speaking out against rampant corruption. Individuals who are not yet compromised have to contend with ongoing pressure and possible entrapment in the form of promised cash and positions.

With such high levels of preoccupation with enrichment, cover up, diversion of resources and fighting off calls for accountability and factionalism, failure to attend to the core business of state and institutional weakness is unsurprising. It is against this background that we must look at the functioning of the departments of basic education, social development and others. Politicians and decision makers have been distracted. Their primary preoccupation was not the service of the people. They were concerned with loot, covering up their practices and personal survival. The poor especially, have to live with the consequences of a state that has displaced its primary duties to address selfish concerns.

Twenty-three years after Mandela’s encounter with the children of Ntshingeni village, in St Marks, their younger siblings and relatives have much more serious issues. Today they still relieve themselves in the open fields, at times braving the rain and cold. There are no facilities where these children can wash their hands. Every aspect of their lives is negatively affected by corrosive government corruption and the callousness of elected leaders. When they are not worried about sanitation, they are anxious about unsafe structures which “house” schools or school textbooks that may or may not arrive at the schools.

In a country like ours, the culture of greed has been reproduced at every level, not only by the Gupta network which extended to provinces and local government, but by others who have seen opportunities for self-enrichment.

In Ntshingeni village alone, we have seen conflict between neighbours and the breakdown of social relations during local government elections in 2016. To heal these divisions requires an understanding of what has been destroyed and how.

As citizens we cannot afford to watch the Zondo Commission from the sidelines. We owe it to our forebears in the struggle for freedom, and to the children who risk drowning in pit latrines to ask difficult questions of ourselves and those who stand accused of the nation’s plunder. The children deserve an explanation by the ANC which consistently facilitated and defended a wide-ranging assault on our nation’s health and dignity, affecting the young and the very old, all the most vulnerable members of our society.

These are issues that must be examined by the Zondo Commission if we hope to recover. But we, as citizens, need to look for other wrongdoings that need to be exposed to rebuild the hopes many of our people cherished in the early years of democratic rule.

Some of what has been lost during those years cannot be quantified, for it relates to the corrosion and erosion of moral values. When Mandela bent over to listen to schoolchildren wanting school meals, he manifested a type of leadership that represented the ethos of the struggle for freedom. It was within that set of values that millions of people had given everything to be free.

That notion of service, responsibility and accountability to the people, not simply because it is required by law, but because it had been embraced in the very marrow of Mandela, has been seriously damaged. Whether it can be recovered by the ANC remains to be seen. But that spirit, those ethics of service need to be revived by those of us who still subscribe to those values, whether or not we do so through the ANC.

Only then is the new dawn possible.

Gasa is adjunct professor of public law and a senior research associate at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town. Her work focuses on land, politics, gender and cultural issues

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October 13 2019