Recent political discourse in South Africa has been characterised by a preoccupation with allegations of sleaze and government corruption. Senior government bureaucrats and party officials are alleged to have received kickbacks in return for favours; there were allegations of an internal ANC plot by black businessmen to undermine the President; and Deputy President Jacob Zuma has been accused of taking bribes. Director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka has in turn been accused of being...read more
Recent political discourse in South Africa has been characterised by a preoccupation with allegations of sleaze and government corruption. Senior government bureaucrats and party officials are alleged to have received kickbacks in return for favours; there were allegations of an internal ANC plot by black businessmen to undermine the President; and Deputy President Jacob Zuma has been accused of taking bribes. Director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka has in turn been accused of being an apartheid agent by Zuma's allies, giving rise to a spate of accusations and counter-accusations which threaten to destabilise the ruling ANC.
While South Africans concentrate on their homegrown scandals, it is important to understand that an obsession with sleaze and corruption is today an international phenomenon. There is a worldwide dynamic to 'scandal politics', which runs far deeper than the latest allegations. Today scandals seem to be one of the central features of politics throughout the world. The political classes in Japan, Italy, the USA, Britain and even Germany are no less immune to the disease than our local politicians. While scandals take different forms in different countries, if we look beyond the specifics, there is a broader pattern at work.
Politicians everywhere have power but usually not wealth. They are therefore often tempted to translate the one into the other. Given the history of apartheid oppression and black exclusion in South Africa, it might be argued that the power-wealth gap - and hence the temptations - are even greater than usual in this country. This form of corruption – an abuse of political power that might be termed “the corruption of politics” is however a very different thing from something that increasingly characterises politics everywhere today: the politics of corruption.
In the Western democracies this phenomenon usually started as a public crusade by opposition politicians or the press against government. While there was often some substance to allegations against government politicians, there was also a lot of hypocrisy. Longstanding petty corruption that had always been accepted as part of the everyday business of politics was suddenly cast in a new light. What had up to then been seen as perks of the job was now presented as evidence of corruption.
The politics of corruption has since transformed public life in a number of countries. In Britain it destroyed the Conservative Party and then came back to haunt the new Labour administration which had previously gained by playing the corruption card. Throughout the 'nineties and into the new millennium, a succession of political scandals accelerated the dislocation of traditional party politics in the West:
* Italy: In 1992 corruption charges were brought against leaders Craxi, Andreotti, and Silvio Berlusconi;
* Britain: The ‘Cash for Questions’ scandal 1994 – 1997; the recent resignation of prime minister Tony Blair's director of communications Alastair Campbell in the middle of Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of David Kelly;
* Ireland: A beef scandal rocked the administration of premier Albert Reynolds;
* France: In 1998 the ministerial flats scandal damaged Jacques Chirac;
* United States: President Clinton was exposed in the Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater affairs in 1998; the current Bush administration remains tainted by allegations of voting irregularities;
* Belgium: A ministerial cover-up in a child torture case shook Jean-Luc Deheane’s government in 1998;
* Switzerland: 1998-2000 saw a sustained campaign over Jewish bank deposits;
* Germany: The CDU was hit by a funding scandal in 2000.
For the opposition, crying “corruption” was a way of attacking governing parties while essentially leaving their politics uncriticised. There was, after all, usually little significant difference between the political programmes of any of the major parties. Making an issue out of their opponents alleged corruption or immorality was a way of criticising governments whose politics the opposition largely agreed with. The cry of “corruption” allowed politicians to reap votes where they had not sowed a political alternative. For the media, corruption exposés seemed to be a way of demolishing governments with a strong grip on power. As was the case with the exposés of SA's ANC government, digging the dirt on a scandal seemed to be a way of breaking a powerful grip on parliament, which was based on the popular vote.
In many parts of Africa so-called 'structural adjustment' also encouraged an obsession with the corruption of African elites. The structural adjustment 'package' imposed on the majority of sub-Saharan African countries since the early 'eighties consisted of privatisation and an attack on state spending. Given the high level of dependence of the African elite upon the state, this further frustrated their advancement. Western obsession with 'good governance', conducted in the name of anti-corruption, was a frontal assault upon the networks that were necessary for the ruling elite to rule.
In most Western countries the crusade against corruption has transformed the political landscape. The reputation of parliament can no longer merely be restored by a change of government. Through campaigns around issues of corruption and personal rectitude, opposition parties and the media have changed the nature of politics. In the absence of genuine political differences, personal morality becomes the only basis on which politicians can be judged. Under these circumstances the meaning of politics has become more and more narrow. Neither government nor opposition even bothers to pretend that significant principles are at stake in their little debates. Unsurprisingly, many people have become cynical. They are ready to put the knife into those who are seen to have responsibility for the mess in which ordinary people have to live. There are no strong opposition parties to provide a voice for the angry and alienated, or to suggest political, economic or social alternatives to the problems of the modern world.
In the absence of an alternative standpoint from which to criticise, it is difficult to criticise at all. In these circumstances it seems as if the only thing open to scrutiny is the individual behaviour of politicians. Personal character has become the substance of modern politics. Given the dominant discussion and debate here in recent months, it seems that South Africa will be no exception to this trend.
Even progressives have been swept along with this disastrous approach to politics. Many seem to harbour the illusion that the ruling classes can be stopped in their tracks as long as the dirty secrets they hide are exposed. This fantasy arises out of a passive relationship between the governed and the governing. And it side-steps the difficult business of building political alternatives to government policies.
Even worse, this kind of outlook encourages a growing reliance on the high and the mighty to decide on issues which should be left to democratic political contestation. In Britain an unelected official, Ulster Judge Lord Hutton, is relied on to sort out the Kelly scandal. South Africa promptly follows suit with the appointment of Judge Hefer to look into the Ngcuka spying allegations. In the process the scope of authority of judges over elected government is enlarged. This is unlikely to be in the long-term interests of the people. Thus is democracy downgraded in favour of enlightened despotism.
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