It is a long road to accountability under ANC rule, but its small sister of enforced transparency has gained momentum in recent weeks. A few small steps do not guarantee a spring of accountability in the organisation and government, but they are important nevertheless. Time will tell if the long road turns into a dead end.
South Africa is living through a moment of rare convergence of forces that could potentially help deliver a more transparent, perhaps cleaner ANC. The confluence could force the ANC to change its style of executing political power. Some of the building blocks have come in the form of denial, obfuscation and fumbling explanations – mostly at the Zondo Commission, but also through factionalism and associated leaks from the ANC. Accountability has been a problem for the ANC, in terms of feeling it needs to explain how it operates, especially in government. Its sense of accountability has often not extended beyond accepting responsibility to deliver a generally better life for citizens and conducting elections regularly.
Change in the ANC’s way of operating would depend, as I argue in my book, Precarious Power: Compliance and discontent under Ramaphosa’s ANC, on whether the ANC is prepared to practise political conscience and respond to public dismay, even in the absence of immediate electoral threat. Beyond this consideration, is it prepared to revise political and public sector operations that reveal low ethical and professional standards, if its hold on state power is diluted in the process? These are core questions that the ANC faces.
The pressures that have emerged in the past few weeks have been aerating ANC operations and codes that are rarely viewed by the outside world, unless they are mediated by organisational ideologues and appear in massaged public statements.
The Zondo Commission inputs emerged through inquiry and penetrating questioning, and leaks by ANC factions shed light on the granularities of ANC leadership unity. Court battles, investigative journalism and Jacob Zuma’s 20-plus page missives of attempted revenge contributed too. The questions were about the lack of ANC parliamentary oversight and decades of no consequences while aberrant “comrades” are given the status of “correctable”. Remarkably, the battles unfold between the ANC and public perceptions and expectations, mediated by commission staff, the judiciary, and disgruntled factions. Opposition parties were hardly seen, except when they came scavenging the carcasses.
The commission asked serious questions about who knew, under multiple variations of the Zuma regime, and what the ANC did to uphold democratic and constitutional values. The answers were wanting but significant, also for the very fact that they were insufficient. (Granted, this story will continue with the appearance at Zondo of President Cyril Ramaphosa.)
ANC Chairperson Gwede Mantashe tried to explain away cadre deployment, denying that the ANC applies a policy of deploying ANC cadres, never before disputed as ANC policy. The policy has been the subject of ANC conference deliberations. It has its roots in the ANC’s 1985 Kabwe conference, and is the ANC’s core instrument to control state power. Of course, as Mantashe argued, there is space for capability and the best candidate. That is, however, after the hurdle of cadreship has been cleared. And, far too frequently and as the current Magashule predicament illustrates, the ANC finds it exceedingly hard to enforce consequences when performances falter.
The months of leaks from angry, anti-Ramaphosa factionalists and the Zondo Commission’s penetrating questions about oversight and no consequences disrupted the mystique of the ANC movement. As the preceding points illustrate, the telling part is that it is often not about the questions asked, but rather the attempts to evade answering directly and sensibly. In South African politics, evasion and obfuscation count a thousand words.
The Zondo Commission’s pursuit to get to the bottom of who knew, and what was done about State Capture and corruption by the governing party was at the heart of the recent developments. South Africa had been ablaze with evidence, narratives and allegations about multiple politicians (and especially kingpin former president Zuma) while the ANC’s leaders were publicly silent and were shoring up internal resistance against silence. The exchanges revealed how despite his 10-year-stint (through the height of Zuma capture) as ANC secretary-general, Mantashe can deny that the ANC places party over state, yet objects to the Zondo Commission asking for an Integrity Commission document to corroborate that the ANC was doing something to hold Zuma to account.
The diffuse culture of personal skeletons complicates problems to get members to comply with “step-aside directives”. When the cadres across the factional divide defend themselves they latch on to legal technicalities and protecting individual reputations, rather than firming up the ANC’s reputation.
Similarly, Mantashe and Thandi Modise, speaker of the National Assembly, did not explain coherently how the ANC MPs could be forbidden from voting for a motion (introduced by an opposition party), to hold the former president to account. Modise said Parliament only became aware of State Capture in the wake of the Gupta Leaks. It was only when things became “really bad” that the ANC in Parliament became aware, she opined. The belated nature of the awakening was “regrettable”.
The Zondo Commission asked about the matter of Parliament holding the Presidency of South Africa to account. The Presidency today is a vast operation, as it was under Zuma. The only mechanism for accountability is a few hours of quarterly parliamentary questions and answers with the president. Mantashe argued that Parliament is not compromised by this reality. He reckoned that, combined with the national department-specific portfolio committees, it renders sufficient oversight…
The full and clear answers to these matters are still to be received. They are being extracted piecemeal, largely through judicial and commission actions. The role of the judiciary is complex. The factional contest of the Ace Magashule-Jacob Zuma axis has subjected the judiciary to notable delegitimation. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s entry into the politician-judiciary battle topped his contentious statements about vaccines and the devil, and Israel. There is little doubt that the judiciary has been useful in confirming the Ramaphosa faction’s predominance in recent years. Its battles were mostly anchored in the precepts of the law, not special favour – while many of the Magashule-faction actions, for example in manipulating branches, have been beyond the legally permissible.
At the level of transparency, a potential precursor to accountability, the factionally inspired leaks from the ANC delivered gems like nowadays pro-Ramaphosa Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte asking the ANC’s top six for sympathy for Zuma, and soon thereafter condemning the Magashule faction’s disregard for ANC discipline. The leaks revealed how Duarte expressed disappointment in the Chief Justice, and showed Magashule challenging Ramaphosa feebly, inadvertently revealing Magashule’s desperation.
The Zondo Commission is playing a role in moving the ANC towards both transparency and tentative accountability to the outside world. While these external accountability steps unfold, the internal steps follow, seemingly painfully. The diffuse culture of personal skeletons complicates problems to get members to comply with “step-aside directives”. When the cadres across the factional divide defend themselves they latch on to legal technicalities and protecting individual reputations, rather than firming up the ANC’s reputation.
The overall transparency-accountability steps are important, modest as they may be. They are the major form of accountability extraction that South Africans are likely to have over their politicians for some time. As this week’s local by-elections showed, dissatisfied voters do not punish politicians at the polls. DM