John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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South African President Zuma’s House and Corruption

by John Campbell
March 14, 2013

Supporters of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma prepare to prevent opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party members from walking towards Zuma's house in Nkandla November 4, 2012. (Rogan Ward/Courtesy Reuters)


Corruption is one of the most important public issues in South Africa and it receives exhaustive media coverage. And well it should. Transparency International ranked South Africa at sixty-ninth out of 176 countries in its 2012 “Corruption Perception Index.” Botswana, ranked at thirty, was the least corrupt African country, while Cape Verde (thirty-nine), Mauritius (forty-three), Rwanda (fifty), Seychelles (fifty-one), Namibia (fifty-eight), and Ghana and Lesotho (both ranked at sixty-four) are all considered less corrupt than South Africa. As is usually the case with such rankings, the countries that outrank South Africa are small, with the notable exception of Ghana. Nevertheless, corruption is a problem, and many South Africans fear it is getting worse.

For some South Africans, President Zuma has long been the face of public racketeering and corruption. At present, they focus on the president’s private family compound in Nkandla. The compound has been rebuilt in an elaborate, traditional Zulu style. How it was paid for is unclear; to say the least. In parliament the president said he paid for it with family money and a loan. However, the non-governmental organization Global Integrity, citing Mail and Guardian reports, which were in turn based on a KPMG audit, found that “a striking number of benefactors” were involved before the president spent any of his own money. On that basis, the leader of the opposition COPE party in parliament accused the president of “knowingly misled parliament,” which amounts to perjury.

At parliament’s request, the minister of public works prepared a report on the allegation that R206 million of public money was spent on security for the compound. The opposition Democratic Alliance is calling for the report to be made public. The African National Congress (ANC) majority in parliament could block that move, but it would thereby risk considerable embarrassment.

This episode illustrates once again that an independent parliament with well-organized opposition parties, is a check both on executive behavior and the ruling ANC in South Africa, even when the latter holds a substantial majority of the seats.


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  • Posted by Matthew Kustenbauder

    Thank you for this post, Mr. Campbell.

    Corruption is, indeed, a problem on the rise in South Africa. But I am afraid your closing paragraph is too optimistic. While I agree that “an independent parliament, with well-organized opposition parties, is a check both on executive behavior and the ruling ANC in South Africa” this assumes too much; namely, that South Africa’s parliament is independent.

    I have lived in South Africa on and off now for the past seven years, and I’ve watched with disappointment as slowly by slowly the ANC has used its parliamentary majority not as a check on the executive, but to do the executive’s bidding — weakening itself and the judiciary in the process.

    The chink in the armor, as it were, is South Africa’s indirect (proportional) system of representation in Parliament. Unlike in the US or, now, in Kenya, South Africans do not vote for their member of parliament. They vote for a party and an MP is assigned to their constituency based on a party list controlled by the ANC party bigwigs. Not only does this have a detrimental effect on local political dynamics, including effective resource allocation and service delivery, it also threatens to undermine the very democratic foundations of South African society.

    Because MPs are not directly elected by their constituencies, they are in Parliament first and foremost to do the bidding of party leaders and the executive branch, the people who put them there in the first place. Andrew Feinstein and many others have written about this phenomenon. If you cause trouble (Feinstein was forced out of the party after digging too deeply into the Arms Deal scandal) or break ranks, as ANC members Ben Turok and Gloria Borman did regarding the Protection of State Information bill (they abstained, urging the ANC to consider further amendments) you wind up being referred to the ANC disciplinary committee or you are purged.

    While opposition parties are essential, they have a Sisyphean task. No sooner have they staved off one challenge to South Africa’s young democracy than another arises, frequently in the form of ANC-proposed legislation designed to make it more difficult to uncover and punish corruption and mismanagement.

    What is troubling about this from a historical viewpoint is that today’s ANC leaders are stuck in a time-warp of “liberation struggle” unable or unwilling to consider addressing the country’s massive challenges any other way than through “historical redress” in the form of race-based redistribution. This is clearly not in the best interests of the nation, since it not only undermines the country’s moral and financial capital vis-a-vis the rest of the world, but it has also resulted in the departure of a significant number of talented and skilled workers, who South Africa desperately needs to spur economic growth.

    Perhaps most of all, one is struck by how out of step and retrogressive today’s ANC leaders are in comparison with their forebears. For instance, AWG Champion, who was president-general of the ANC from 1946-47, wrote in the newspaper Inkundla ya Bantu that he would like to see a woman president of the ANC. Over fifty years later, it seems that women in the ANC still have a long walk to freedom.

    Speaking in 1960, ANC president Albert Luthuli, commenting on the “materialistic outlook of the western way of life” expressed his hope for the future of South Africa in the form of a question: “Who knows but that the precise role of the African would be one day to restore to the whiteman his lost soul?” Yet today’s ANC leaders, it seems, have mastered apartheid’s lessons of greed and baaskap all too well. When it comes to South African public life — and with each scandal, murder, and corruption cover-up — Luthuli’s noble vision only recedes further and further from reach.

  • Posted by Simon Barber

    No question, corruption is rife in South Africa. We know this because we have strong, free, independent institutions — not just parliament, but a strong judiciary, a crusading free press, a robust and vigorous civil society and constitutionally created watchdogs who do not shrink from their duty. South Africa is an open society. It is also a hub for global media because is a wonderful place to live, has great communications and because it matters. Sure, we don’t fare too well in corruption perception indices but I’d argue that our ratings are lower that they might otherwise be for the very reason that we are so closely observed and so easily observable.

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