Mandla1 is a decent South African. He cares about his mother and aunt, likewise the community in which he lives.
Mandla wanted to talk. About his dreams and his increasing disillusionment that they would never become reality. About the government and how it was stymying his chances because he was neither politically connected nor willing to pay a bribe. He chattered indignantly about how the post-apartheid institutions set up to champion entrepreneurial spirits like his were corrupted. He ranted about the crony-connected company that had left an incomplete project in his ward despite allegedly sinking millions from the municipal budget.
Then Mandla stopped talking.
He stopped responding to WhatsApp messages or answering his phone.
He stopped blowing the whistle.
Word on his township streets was that he had finally given up, and given in. In exchange for a bit of business for his failing company, Mandla had agreed to shut up. He wanted something better than the zinc ceiling of a one-room shack, which he had begun to realise he would never break through.
After years of resisting, Mandla had finally felt too helpless to do anything but to join the kleptocrats, the corrupted, the rent-seekers and the self-interested. To borrow the language of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Ai Kewi Armah’s 1968 novel of post-colonial Ghana, he had smelt the “shit” of a system that had become corrupted with “obscene haste”.
Over the past two years, while writing about Accounting for Basic Services (ABS), a civil society project which sought to deepen participatory democracy in six wards around the country, I have met several Mandlas.
Locals followed all the steps of engagement that are allowed for by the rule of law and our democratic framework, all these things that go on between themselves and municipalities and councillors before the fires of protest are set alight.
Their engagements had mixed results, and incremental gains in several cases. These included the rectification of a dodgy stadium upgrade in the Eastern Cape and an agreement to provide electricity for an informal settlement in Mpumalanga.
Yet, for some residents, this is too little and too late.
Every day, there are more Mandlas in South Africa. People who have spent the best part, if not all, of the country’s life as a democracy seeking to build something before finally succumbing to the moral failure all around them. Citizens who have looked at every level of society – at presidents, police, business people, teachers, lawyers, councillors, the unemployed – and have been overwhelmed by the crushing sense that the only way up is by stepping on the throat of another. Rather than on the shoulders of the giants who came before.
Ordinary people are left with the despair that the only way to cross the ever-increasing gap between poverty and wealth is to join those at the trough. What was institutionalised during Jacob Zuma’s presidency was not just state capture, but the conquest of South Africa’s soul.
This mentality was slowly building before former president Jacob Zuma’s tenure, during the administrations of former presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe. But it was profoundly entrenched during the nine ruinous years he was in charge.
Zuma’s project to establish and maintain power within the ANC ensured the conflation of state and party to new levels of avarice and unaccountability.
It built networks of ethno-kleptocracy, derided “clever blacks” and constitutionalists, promoted mediocrity and ineptitude, and eviscerated almost all state institutions of independence and independent-minded patriots.
It had little place for excellence or independence of mind and dissent. Big constitutional ideas were replaced by Big Men. Political intolerance and personal interest led to violence and deaths.
This was most obvious in a ward in Pietermaritzburg, in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, where ABS was involved. Zuma’s extended family and network controlled the ANC at branch and regional level. The Moses Mabhida ANC region, which includes Pietermaritzburg, was one of the most vocal pro-Zuma areas in the country, as were the city’s councillors and municipal officials.
Local politicians were riled by an unattributed quote from a resident who was critical of how they promoted patronage systems rather than democratic ideals. It led to another resident, who had merely been pictured in the story, being moved to a safe house after receiving death threats.
As the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo attempts to unravel the familial networks at the top of the corruption foodchain – Zumas, Guptas, et cetera – the actions of people like Mandla clearly show that this rot seeps through every aspect of our society.
Local government – the most basic interface between citizens and the state – is broken. Successive auditor-general reports confirm this. In the 2016/17 financial year, only 33 of 257 municipalities obtained clean audits. In 2017/18, this already disastrous figure dropped to 18.2
Municipalities are eroded of the skilled people who can make them function and filled instead with gangsters and pillagers. This symptom of the Zuma administration was confirmed when Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu wrote to parliament in 2018. The letter detailed how his staff received death threats and were held hostage and otherwise intimidated at various municipalities across the country, to stop them from doing their jobs.3
South Africans are living an echo of what Armah wrote fifty years ago in Ghana:
True, I used to see a lot of hope. I saw men tear down the veils behind which the truth had been hidden. But then the same men, when they have power in their hands at last, began to find the veils useful. They made many more. Life has not changed. Only some people have been growing, becoming different, that is all. After a youth spent fighting the white man, why should not the president discover as he grows older that his real desire has been to be like the white governor himself, to live above all the blackness in the big old slave castle?
1 Not his real name.
2 Auditor-general flags lack of accountability as the major cause of poor local government audit results, Auditor-General South Africa, 26 June 2019, p.4. See: https://www.agsa.co.za/Portals/0/Reports/MFMA/2019.06.25/2019%20MFMA%20….
3 Auditor-general Kimi Makwetu’s personnel terrorised at municipalities, Business Day, 22 October 2018. See: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2018-10-22-auditor-general-k….