South African Leader Unveils Anticorruption Plans, but Doubts Follow

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JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s president has introduced long-anticipated measures to tackle endemic corruption, subjecting even himself and his cabinet to closer scrutiny of their personal spending and lifestyles. But some analysts question whether reforms that would help the government regain the trust of a fed-up public will ever be carried out.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking on national television Sunday evening, said that his government would, among other things, establish a permanent anticorruption unit in the national prosecutor’s office, create transparency in the granting of public contracts and increase protections for whistle-blowers.

“As a country,” he said, “we are emerging from a dark and difficult period.”

But Mr. Ramaphosa deferred much of the work to root out corruption to Parliament and other government entities. He also did not say how he would tackle some of the most controversial issues closest to home, like what to do about senior officials within his government who have been accused of corruption.

“It’s so unserious, it’s almost a joke,” William Gumede, a professor of public management at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said of the president’s proposals. If he wanted to show that he was serious about dealing with corruption in his orbit, Professor Gumede added, Mr. Ramaphosa should have suspended the ministers accused of corruption.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s proposals came in response to hundreds of recommendations by a judicial commission that spent three years hearing evidence from more than 300 witnesses about how officials had gutted public enterprises to enrich themselves and their friends. The commission, led by South Africa’s chief justice, Raymond Zondo, focused mostly on the nine years that Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, led the country.

But the current president’s reform efforts also come at a particularly fraught time, with Mr. Ramaphosa facing his own corruption scandal.

As the country confronts a breakdown in public life, with frequent blackouts because of an overwhelmed electricity grid and increasing water outages, several investigations are underway into whether the president had sought to cover up the theft of potentially millions of dollars in cash from a game farm he owns.

During a news conference last week, Mr. Zuma said that Mr. Ramaphosa, his staunch foe, was corrupt, while another former president, Thabo Mbeki, questioned Mr. Ramaphosa’s future as a leader amid the farm theft inquiry.

Mr. Ramaphosa also faces a serious challenge to his leadership of the African National Congress, or A.N.C., South Africa’s liberation party, which has governed the country since democracy began in 1994. One of his cabinet ministers and a former minister are among the main contenders attempting to unseat him in the party’s elective conference to be held in December.

At stake is the future of the A.N.C.: With many of its leaders implicated in corruption scandals, the party’s electoral support has slid drastically in recent years. Many believe that it could fall below 50 percent of the national vote for the first time when elections are held next year.

Some observers say that Mr. Ramaphosa may be attempting to bolster public perception of his party by taking a bold stance on corruption, his hallmark issue since becoming the country’s leader in 2018.

“It’s very strategic for him to pay lip service to the whole issue of corruption,” said Hlengiwe Ndlovu, a senior lecturer at the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, a political science professor at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, said that Mr. Ramaphosa was caught “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

Pushing hard against corruption, she said, could endear him to a public that is disenchanted with A.N.C. leaders. But it could also alienate him from officials in his own party who might be taken down by anticorruption efforts and who accuse him of using corruption as a cover to sideline political opponents.

Neither his party nor the country has “much faith in him right now for various reasons,” Dr. Schulz-Herzenberg said.

Mr. Ramaphosa came to power after the scandal-plagued Zuma years and was seen as someone who could right the ship, but much of the country seems to have lost confidence in his ability to make things right, she said. A survey released last year by Afrobarometer, an independent research network, found that about two-thirds of South Africans believed corruption had increased under Mr. Ramaphosa’s watch.

Among the loudest criticisms of Mr. Ramaphosa’s anticorruption plan is that he did not address a system used by the A.N.C. to appoint public-sector leaders, often leading to choices based on expedience rather than competence. The judicial commission found the practice unconstitutional.

Some analysts also raised skepticism about the establishment of an anticorruption unit in the prosecutor’s office. Such a unit was disbanded under Mr. Zuma. And analysts note that without proper funding, resources and room to operate independently, the new unit may find it hard to hold any perpetrators to account.

Susan Booysen, a political analyst who has written a book about Mr. Ramaphosa’s tenure, said the problem with many of the president’s proposals was that they took the long view.

“In South Africa,” she said, “it’s not enough anymore to give assurances that we are looking at things or we are attending to matters.”

Still, some political analysts say, the president has placed the anticorruption fight front and center, and that could lead to change despite any shortcomings in his agenda.

“We came from an era where we had a president who went out of his way to protect those that are corrupt,” said Ralph Mathekga, a Johannesburg-based political analyst. “I don’t think Ramaphosa’s going to protect anyone.”


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