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- Together with increasingly incoherent pandemic management, corruption scandals threaten to weaken President Cyril Ramaphosa.
- They could cost the ANC at the ballot box in 2021, though few established opposition parties are well placed to gain from this; apathy may emerge as the biggest winner.
- Unless managed decisively yet delicately, the corruption scandals could fuel questions over whether Ramaphosa will be a one-term president.
ANC beyond redemption?
Pandemic-related corruption and procurement fraud threaten to puncture once and for all the myth of a ‘new and improved ANC’ under Ramaphosa – one that differentiates the administration from the ‘state capture’ rot of the Zuma years. Even if it was always clear that Ramaphosa would struggle to root out corruption within his party, the latest scandals provide hard evidence of deeply ingrained corruption: numerous public officials, private sector players and fake NGOs have reportedly benefited unlawfully from overpriced procurement of PPE and other medical supplies, the distribution of food parcels, and even social relief and Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) payments.
In response, the government has created another inter-ministerial committee, which will supposedly publish a report on all contracts awarded during the Covid-19 state of disaster. Ramaphosa has also signed a special proclamation authorizing the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) “to investigate any unlawful or improper conduct in the procurement of any goods, works and services during or related to the national state of disaster in any state institution.” To date, 36 investigations are under way. Significant, if only in the long run, may be the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC)’s call to recreate a multi-disciplinary investigative agency, marking a major U-turn more than a decade after the party resolved to disband the independent ‘Scorpions’ in 2007 over the politicization of then-president Jacob Zuma’s arms deal corruption case.
Within the ANC, the latest scandals will reinforce divisions between the factions of Ramaphosa and ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. In the Free State province, Magashule’s fiefdom, his sons, Tshepiso and Thato, reportedly won ZAR 2.7mn for Covid-19 goods and services. Such news is no surprise given Magashule’s state capture scandals (yet to be proven in a court of law). The case that carries the sting is a scandal involving Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Khusela Diko (now on leave). Diko’s husband, Thandisizwe Diko, won a ZAR 125mn PPE contract with the office of Gauteng Health MEC Bandile Masuku. The two couples are close, fueling perceptions of a conflict of interest and allegations that Thandisizwe Diko’s tender was intended to fund the mayoral aspirations of Masuku’s wife Loyiso.
Khusela Diko, a member of the Gauteng ANC’s provincial executive committee (PEC), was supposed to represent a new, professional generation of ANC leaders. Sagas like hers tarnish Ramaphosa’s ‘New Dawn’ narrative and threaten to weaken the president vis-à-vis internal enemies like Magashule and within his own faction. This is bad timing given that Ramaphosa is already looking weak amid the cabinet’s incoherent and contentious pandemic lockdown regulations.
Unless he tackles corruption decisively yet delicately, the scandals could also fuel questions over whether Ramaphosa can govern for two terms. Presidential hopefuls are already emerging ahead of the ANC elective conference in 2022, including Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and Minister of Human Settlements, Water & Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu. The risk of a divisive, contentious electoral conference in 2022 is anything but reassuring, though one current positive is that the star of controversial Deputy President David Mabuza seems to be waning.
Local elections – will apathy be the main winner?
The pandemic corruption scandals threaten to rob voters, particularly the middle classes, of any illusion that the ANC can be redeemed. The pandemic’s economic toll, combined with the climbing death toll and the latest corruption frenzy, should dampen the ANC’s voter support ahead of the 2021 local elections, particularly in urban hubs where millions of jobs are being lost and voters are more concerned about corruption. In 2016, the ANC suffered an unprecedented loss of voter support (sinking to 54% nationally), which cost the ANC the rule of three crucial cities. The ANC’s prospects appeared to have improved slightly ahead of 2021, on the back of Ramaphosa’s takeover of the party and amid the Democratic Alliance (DA)’s internal struggles. However, the pandemic, its economic toll and fresh corruption scandals threaten this slightly improved outlook for the ANC.
For its part, the DA is trying to make political capital out of the latest corruption scandals and Ramaphosa administration’s pandemic mismanagement (by opposing incoherent lockdown regulations and advocating for a faster reopening). However, this may not be enough to bolster the party’s position after the devastating break-ups of 2019, in which party leader Mmusi Maimane and Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba quit the DA, reinforcing popular perceptions of the DA as a ‘white’ party. Struggling to offer a once growing black voter base a home, the DA could drop sharply below its 2016 record of nearly 27% of the vote.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), meanwhile, are sometimes portrayed as the party best placed to capitalize on South Africa’s crisis. However, on the corruption front, the ‘Fighters’ themselves are embroiled in the VBS Bank scandal. As for the pandemic, the EFF has called for a stricter lockdown, exhorting workers to refuse to return to work to bring the ‘white monopoly economy’ to its knees. It is uncertain if its stance will appeal to voters struggling to eke out a living. It is thus premature to assume spectacular growth for the EFF beyond its 8.2% overall vote share of 2016.
By contrast, Mashaba could be an important player to watch as his new party could eat into ANC (and DA) votes, particularly in Johannesburg and could emerge as a coalition kingmaker in cities like Pretoria. Nevertheless, one of the biggest winners of the local elections could be apathy, as voters fail to register or turn out. A final crucial factor will be whether the ANC makes serious legislative attempts to postpone the municipal polls, to align them with the next 2024 national elections.