South Africa’s Widespread Corruption Is the Rotten Fruit of Apartheid

The endemic corruption in South Africa isn’t about a few bad apples — it’s the rotten fruit of an apartheid era that enriched self-interested political elites at the expense of the black masses.

President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa on November 15, 2018. (Thierry Monasse / Getty Images)

Every week in South Africa, corruption dominates the headlines — with new arrests or scandals ranging from the dysfunctional local government right up to the presidency.

A case in point is Makhanda, my hometown in the Eastern Cape. Makhanda is located in the Makana municipality, where service delivery has collapsed due to corruption prompting the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) to launch a successful court challenge against the municipality for its failure to meet constitutional obligations to provide sustainable services. Both the municipality and the premier of the Eastern Cape, Oscar Mabuyane, have appealed, and the case is now being heard in the Supreme Court of Appeal. Entrenched in the appeal is the culture of entitlement and self-enrichment.

Myriad reports on the extent of corruption in South Africa — from state capture to municipal malfeasance — have flooded print and broadcast media for the past decade. There has been a tendency to reduce the crisis of governance in South Africa to bad leadership and questionable ethics and to suggest that getting rid of the people in charge will solve the problem.

For example, the ascendency of Ace Magashule to the position of secretary of the African National Congress (ANC) encompasses what has become of the predatory political elite. In his recent book, Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture, Pieter-Louis Myburgh shows how Magashule, in his previous capacity as premier of Free State, drained the coffers of the provincial government to buy his political career while impoverishing and diminishing the people he was supposed to represent.

Meanwhile, the “new dawn” of economic growth and moral regeneration under the leadership of current state president Cyril Ramaphosa has come to little. The expanded unemployment rate is over 40 percent, and the black working class is drowning in a sea of hopelessness and despair (more so during the COVID-19 pandemic), while corrupt practices by political elites and their beneficiaries continue to be exposed.

Corruption in South Africa is systemic and must be placed in its historical context. Corruption is certainly not limited to the activities of postapartheid political elites. Although perhaps different in form, it was inherited from the apartheid era, particularly in regional administrations that were spawned from bureaucracies of the former network of Bantustan (“homelands”) administrations across the country.

In 1984 the prominent opposition politician Frederik van Zyl Slabbert called the homelands policy nothing but “a multiplication of bureaucratic disaster areas, consuming vast amounts of capital . . . to serve the wants and needs of small, privileged bureaucratic elites in seas of poverty and underdevelopment.”

Prior to the political settlement of 1994 at the core of public service was the corrupt public service. Louis Picard, in his book State of the State, writes, “By 1994 the South African government had become ensnared in its own bureaucracy, and an entitlement mentality had developed in the country. This culture of entitlement would be particularly strong at the provincial level where most homeland administrators ended up working.”

Yet as author Hennie van Vuuren notes in his book Apartheid Guns and Money:

In South Africa, the issue of grand corruption under apartheid has been the source of comparatively little public debate. Since the advent of democratic rule scant attention has been paid to the possibility that leading apartheid-era functionaries (in government and business) may have used the cover of authoritarian rule to illegally acquire vast sums of wealth in defiance even of the legal ‘norms’ of that time.

Thus, the culture of entitlement among the political elite and in the bloated civil services was embedded in the system and continued through the transition from apartheid. Due to decades of socioeconomic oppression, the majority of the aspirant black bourgeoisie had no access to capital. The ANC prioritized the development of a black capitalist class to deracialize industrial capital.

Black economic empowerment (BEE) initiatives flourished as did the entrenchment of a politically connected kleptocracy — from infamous arms deals to procurement and tendering irregularities at all levels of government. The new political dispensation, through the transition, prioritized the assimilation of the black political elite, rather than changing society and reorganizing the structural foundations of South Africa that would seek to minimize the weaponization of the state. And as Van Vuuren writes:

Individuals who entered the public and private sector after 1994 and were motivated by greed to act corruptly were likely to welcome the opportunity to work through, and with, influential people, often well networked, who had escaped criminal prosecution under apartheid for similar activity.

In South Africa, political connectedness and loyalty to the ruling party appear as pathways to the accumulation of wealth for black people. Rising up the ranks of the party is not achieved through good work, commitment, or capacity but through concealing or being part of corrupt activities and showing loyalty to the party above all else. This is evident particularly at the municipal level, where the appointment of officials is not based on competency and merit, and factionalism is endemic promoting abuses of power, while undermining access to and delivery of resources and services.

Frantz Fanon is prophetic in The Wretched of the Earth about the potential of a national bourgeoisie to appropriate liberatory movements for their own gains and of the possibility of liberation leaders succumbing to the corrupt and exploitative practices of colonial regimes:

There exists inside the new regime, however, an inequality in the acquisition of wealth and in monopolization. Some have a double source of income and demonstrate that they are specialized in opportunism. Privileges multiply and corruption triumphs, while morality declines . . . The party, a true instrument of power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, reinforces the machine and ensures that the people are hemmed in and immobilized. The party helps the government to hold the people down.

And as Van Vuuren echoes:

Access to power (and a monopoly over it) provides the elite in the public and private sectors with a unique opportunity to line their pockets. In so doing, the defenders of an illegitimate and corrupt system start to defy their own rules and laws that criminalize such behavior.

To radically change our society was not on the agenda during the negotiations for a transition to democracy in the lead-up to 1994. The arms deal of the Mandela era was the baptism of our political elite, many of who became millionaires and profited through their connections to the white business class.

To claim that corruption is the fault of individual leaders means that we will continue to pick the bad apples off the tree but not diagnose why the tree is producing bad apples. Corruption is South Africa’s pandemic — one that has been disenfranchising and killing people long before our transition to democracy. To claim that corruption is systemic in South Africa is to assert that until we challenge the established order, it is business as usual.