South Africa: Inquiry nation

Nhlanhla Nene, the former South African finance minister, probably now wishes he stayed away from public office after his unceremonious exit a few years ago…

Nhlanhla Nene, the former South African finance minister, probably now wishes he stayed away from public office after his unceremonious exit a few years ago from the administration of former president Jacob Zuma. His “integrity” was paying off. He had some lucrative board memberships and there were probably more on the way before he was beckoned upon again to serve his fatherland.

What did Mr Nene do? He lied about the extent of his association with the Guptas, a now infamous Indian family which rose to stupendous wealth on the back of the South African Commonwealth. This was revealed at the ongoing commission of inquiry into state capture led by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo. Malusi Gigaba, another former minister, whose video of himself engaged in a private indiscretion became public, had to resign as well. His exit from cabinet was not particularly due to the video scandal, though. The Public Protector, the country’s anti-graft body, asked President Cyril Ramaphosa to take action against him in late October for allegedly lying under oath.

The two-star politicians are a good study of contrasts. Their personalities are different. Mr Nene is ideally discreet, quiet and not one for the limelight if he can help it. Mr Gigaba, on the other hand, is attention-seeking, aims to be suave, and dresses flashily. And even as Mr Gigaba insists he has done nothing wrong, and that his resignation was not an admission of guilt, revelations since then suggest he may have likely lied about some of his activities in government. Mr Nene’s case is pitiable because there was really no need for him to lie in the first place. There is probably no senior member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party under Mr Zuma’s leadership who did not have to deal with the Guptas at some point in time. And it is to Mr Nene’s credit that he never succumbed to the pressure they put on him to do wrong.

Public interest is served by probes

Asked about his thoughts on the trend of inquiries under Mr Ramaphosa’s leadership, Darias Jonker, director for southern Africa at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, in London says, “This is a positive trend for Ramaphosa, in the sense that it is a safer tactic to use in his strategy to remove or neutralize his opponents within the ruling African National Congress. First, by building up a solid case against them there is less room for them to wriggle out of these allegations once they get tested in court. Second, because the inquiry is public the allegations against the Zuma patronage network are being aired in the open and the public is becoming increasingly aware of the scale and audacity of the patronage network. This will boost Ramaphosa’s image as a reformer. One downside is that the inquiries take time, and some people are impatient with the slow pace and want to see arrests and court cases: but Ramaphosa is playing a long game.”

Ronak Gopaldas of Signal Risk, a risk consultancy, in Cape Town shares similar sentiments. He believes the corruption inquiries are “definitely positive.” He opines further: “From a governance and institutional perspective, we have seen a positive shift since Ramaphosa took over. There is a clean-up being undertaken and these commissions are attempts to get information out in the open and to build consensus. It also provides Ramaphosa with necessary ammunition to act against those implicated without burning his political capital within the ANC, which remains tenuous given the narrow victory margin in December.”

But would it indeed help to curb corruption as envisaged? Mr Jonker believes so: “The inquiries are part of Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption reforms and will drastically reduce the grand scale corruption in national and provincial government and in SOEs [state-owned enterprises]. Smaller scale corruption will, however, persist across government and be a particular problem on the local government level.” For his view, Signal Risk’s Gopaldas says “the commissions themselves are simply a start – much will however depend on whether Ramaphosa is able to act decisively against corruption, reform the ANC and replace captured organisations with competent technocrats. In this sense, the commissions should be seen as the diagnosis rather than the cure.”

Simply put, these inquiries make a difference. And there is empirical evidence to back the claim. New research by Eric Avis and Frederico Finan, both of the University of California at Berkeley, and Claudio Ferraz of Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio de Janeiro published by the Journal of Political Economy in October finds in Brazil that “being audited in the past reduces future corruption by 8 percent, while also increasing the likelihood of experiencing a subsequent legal action by 20 percent.” Expectedly, there is now palpable hesitation on the part of some ANC politicians to testify before the Zondo commission. It is increasingly clear quite a couple of them lied about the extent of their malfeasance and misdemeanour under Mr Zuma. Could the revelations cost the ANC at the polls? What does Eurasia’s Jonker think? “Yes and no. The opposition will use the revelations to paint the ANC as endemically corrupt, which it largely is. However, other major opposition parties also have serious corruption allegations haunting them, and voters know this too.”

But Ramaphosa wins as well

There are other ongoing commissions of inquiry. One has just been commissioned to investigate the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), the investment manager of the state pension fund. There would probably be more. Consequently, Mr Jonker of Eurasia Group believes there could be inquiry fatigue at some point, “especially if there are no arrests of high-level state capture participants.”That said, even as the motivation for establishing these inquiries might not be entirely altruistic, they are inadvertently beginning to serve the public interest.

Ironically, some day in the future, there might be inquiries into how past inquiries conducted their affairs. But not yet; that is even as Mr Ramaphosa’s foes probably wish otherwise. Could the costs of these inquiriesbecome a subject of inquiry at some point, for instance? Eurasia’s Jonker does not think so. “No. Ramaphosa’s detractors are complaining about the cost in an effort to undermine him, but in reality, the cost of the inquiries are a fraction of the sums that were taken from the public purse through corruption and patronage. The public knows this and it is not keeping tabs on the costs involved.” Besides, “many voters who turned away from the ANC because of the corruption and mismanagement during the Zuma years will return to vote for Ramaphosa now that he is being seen as a fighter of grandscale corruption,” he adds.


Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji