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'It was disappointing to see how quickly we adopted the tawdry norms of African and global politics' - Battle of Ideas [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
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'It was disappointing to see how quickly we adopted the tawdry norms of African and global politics' [Nov. 18th, 2009|05:30 pm]
Battle of Ideas
Andrew Feinstein, former ANC Mp and author of After the Party: corruption, the ANC and Sooth Africa’s uncertain future is interviewed by Sharmini Brookes. Andrew spoke at the Battle of Ideas 2009 debate ‘South Africa: 15 years after apartheid’ chaired and produced by Sharmini.

SB: Andrew, your book After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa’s Uncertain Future is about how you, as an ANC MP and Member on the Public Accounts Committee revealed the corruption behind the ANC arms deal, your disillusionment with the ANC leadership when they refused to cooperate with the inquiry and your subsequent resignation from the government and emigration to Britain. Thabo Mbeki took over the leadership of the ANC in 1997 vowing that South Africa would not go the way of other countries on the African continent and that he would show the world that Africans can govern a democracy. Were you surprised to uncover corruption at the highest level of the government?

AF: Yes, very surprised. I had come to the ANC as something of an idealist (some would say a naive idealist) when working in squatter camps and townships on the outskirts of Cape Town in the 1980’s. I believed that the organisation was fundamentally moral and principled. Of course there were aberrations during the struggle, but I thought they were just that. When I discovered that there had been large-scale corruption by those in and around government in relation to the arms deal I was surprised and deeply dismayed. In addition, Mbeki had spoken of an African Renaissance in which Africa was governed to the highest standards. But then he allowed those around him to engage in corrupt activity of which he could hardly have been unaware. It was disappointing to see how quickly we adopted the tawdry norms of African and global politics.

You say Mbeki ‘allowed those around him to engage in corrupt activity of which he could hardly have been unaware’. Why would someone who is in principle against corruption allow it to go on? Where was the pressure coming from?

The pressure was two-fold: the first was the need to raise funds for the party which was in a dire financial state. When he took over as President of the ANC in 1998, Mbeki was determined that he would do better in the forthcoming election than Mandela had done in 1994. However, the party was virtually skint. Miraculously, by the time of the election we had enough money to hire Stanley Greenberg Associates, a US firm which had run the Clinton-Gore campaigns. This money came primarily from the almost $300 million in bribes paid on the very controversial 1998-99 arms deal. It was the beginning of a trend of the ANC benefitting from corrupt and/or dubious transactions. At the Polokwane conference in December 2007, without presenting written financial statements, the party announced it had a surplus of over R1.5 billion. The second locus of pressure was generated by Mbeki’s primary aim: holding onto power. He created a system of patronage where businesspeople and politicians who were close to him politically would benefit from state contracts and could engage in corrupt activities without consequences, while those opposed to him politically faced the full might of the state. The most telling comparison was between Joe Modise, an Mbeki insider and Defence Minister at the time of the controversial arms deal and his political nemesis, Jacob Zuma. Modise was protected from meaningful investigation by the Presidency, despite his direct involvement in the most corrupt aspects of the arms deal, while Zuma was (correctly) investigated for much smaller scale corruption.

Sadly, Mbeki was prepared to forsake his principled aversion to corruption in order to bolster party funds and maintain his grip on power within the ruling party. This marked the moment at which the ANC lost its moral compass.

Andrew, this raises an important issue about democracy and accountability. The pressure seems to be coming from business interests outside the country and from internal power politics within the ANC. What has happened to the voice of the people who put the ANC into power? How did they get so easily side-lined? For me, the issue of corruption is less about the paranoid personality of Mbeki and rather more about the distance of the Party from it’s mass base - a process which began with the compromise at the negotiating table.

There is no doubt that business interests from outside and inside South Africa played a huge role in “seducing” the ANC. Mbeki’s orthodox economic policies played into this acquisitive culture. The breakdown of internal democracy (which certainly characterised the internal mass democratic movement during the fight against apartheid) and the enfeeblement of ANC branches for a number of years enabled the leader to rule with little or no accountability to the membership. This was only reversed after over eight years when Mbeki was ousted by the membership of the ANC who largely united around the flawed figure of Jacob Zuma. Zuma allows more debate and internal democracy within the ANC, but he also tries to placate every faction within the broad church that is the ANC and seems incapable of making tough decisions that the country desperately requires. In addition, he is unable to lead on the crucial areas of the rule of law, fighting corruption or gender issues, because of his own tarnished history.

During the 1980’s, many previously non-political liberals like my mum and brothers and sisters got stuck in and were involved in protests, banned meetings and standing for elections. There was certainly more active participation in political life but the politics seemed very confused when I visited in 1988 so I guess it was no surprise to me that the more organised and focused returning exiles took control so easily and steered the ANC towards the more modest goal of Capitalism without Apartheid. This compromise impelled the ANC towards appeasing the business communities at home and abroad and turning away from the people. Mbeki represented that move towards consolidating capital. The other members of the tripartite alliance, the SACP and COSATU who had provided the link to the masses, felt snubbed by their exclusion from Mbeki’s policy-making cabinet. It is this disgruntled section of the Party that toppled Mbeki and put Zuma into power, despite his compromised background. Zuma has taken pains to involve this section of the Party in his cabinet discussions. I would argue that Zuma reflects the urgent need of the Party to include the alliance members in suppressing any revolt from the increasingly impatient masses. Will we see the re-emergence of civil unrest? What can the ANC offer the masses besides a clampdown by a new police state?

First , I think it is important to note that the Alliance is not quite what it seems in the sense that a number of those who championed Mbeki’s economic orthodoxy were senior members of the SACP, such as Essop Pahad, Alec Erwin and Jabu Moleketi, amongst others. Even today Blade Nzimande, the Higher Education Minister and General Secretary of the SACP, has workers up in arms after purchasing a Ministerial car at a cost of over a million rand. The increase in civil disobedience, in the form of protests about service delivery, etc, is a consequence not only of delivery that has been too slow, but also the expectations that Jacob Zuma raised in the election campaign by claiming that he understands the needs of the poor and is, therefore, the man to deliver for them. Since being in power he has honestly named the challenges facing the country but his administration has seemed incapable of doing much about them. Factional infighting requires a strong, decisive leader to make key decisions. Zuma is not that leader. Many at all levels of government seem more interested in the patronage and material benefits that power brings, rather than the good that power can do for the marginalised who most require an effective, honest state. The rhetoric about the need for the police to “shoot to kill” and the gradual undermining of the judiciary lead me to a real concern about an unsuccessful, populist government becoming a more authoritarian state in the future.

You have a new book out next year called The Merchants of Death revealing how the global arms trade subverts accountability. Has your recent expose of their dealings with the ANC government and the subsequent aftermath curbed their influence in any way? Can an independent judiciary or a strong constitution protect democracy without people power?

I think that exposing the corrupt South African arms deal (which was done by a small group of journalists, campaigners and politicians - the latter being Patricia De Lille, Gavin Woods and myself) has caused the SA government to be more cautious in relation to the arms industry, even while they continue to block a full, unfettered enquiry into the original deal. The government has very recently and commendably decided to stop the acquisition of military transport planes after the price ballooned from just under R20 billion to over R40 billion. This suggests they have learned from the previous experience. However, the modus operandi of the arms deal was used in a number of other very dubious transactions that benefitted political players and the party itself.

On the broader question I think you require both properly designed and robust institutions, as well as constant pressure from the people in whose name the government holds power. I have hope in the emergence of social formations, such as the Social Justice Coalition, which was founded by activist Zackie Achmat and others, specifically to mobilise ordinary people to hold their democratically elected leaders to account.
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