The problem of corrupt political leaders

Six months shy of its twentieth year in office the African National Congress (ANC) has had to relinquish much of the moral high ground which it had held in May 1994 when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first black President.

The experience of having to abandon lofty ideals and carefully choreographed, high-sounding slogans after only brief periods in political office has been common among political parties that assumed office in the post-Cold War era. With hindsight it is striking how cliques of politicians parading the noblest of ideals and seemingly worthwhile credentials as paragons of moral virtue became immersed in cesspools of corruption so quickly. The ANC is perhaps the most glaring example, its historic fight to remove the apartheid regime in South Africa having earned it a fortune in moral currency.

South Africans accuse Jacob Zuma of spending much of that currency. Just over a year ago eight opposition parties led by the Democratic Alliance (DA) tabled a motion of no confidence in Zuma in the country’s National Assembly, a hugely embarrassing moment as much for the ANC as for Zuma. Interestingly, the considerable number of blacks who supported the call for his removal from office removed what might otherwise have been the ANC’s excuse to dismiss the demand as being racially inspired. Zuma had been caught in many public scandals ranging from an accusation of rape and an ensuing sordid court trial, to charges of having the state treasury placed at his disposal.

The charges of corruption that have been levelled at Zuma notwithstanding, there is no real threat to the ANC’s grip on power. Again, South Africa is by no means the sole instance in which politicians and political parties linked to corruption hold a comfortable political majority. The real concern here reposes in the fact that an increasing number of politicians are inclined to disqualify themselves at a time when countries need leaders who can serve as moral role models. There are those, of course, who will argue that it is the strength of political popularity possessed by the leader rather than the strength their moral reputation that counts, which is the same thing as saying that the moral fabric of political leaders and, by extension, of governments really doesn’t matter.

The problem with corrupt politicians, of course is that, invariably, their greed becomes incremental. More than that they come to see themselves as being capable of ‘walking on water,’ so that over time plundering the state becomes routine and considerations of either morality or the consequences of corrupt practices for the fate of the country as a whole become a peripheral issue. The truth is that corrupt politicians quickly drift into mindsets of barefacedness and cynicism. It is, his critics say, the same with Jacob Zuma, so that threats of impeachment and being held up to public ridicule no longer trouble him in the least.

Having long earned a reputation for the profligate spending of state funds he has now been fingered by the Office of the Public Protector in a US$21 million ‘security upgrade’ of his private residence which reportedly includes a visitors’ complex, amphitheatre, two helicopter pads, cattle enclosure, marquee area, paving, new houses and a swimming pool. It is the sheer lavishness of this latest expenditure that has shocked South Africans.

For all the support he has attracted from the ANC and from his ministers, Zuma has been unable to secure the court’s authority to have the report on the spending on his residence suppressed ‒ reassuring evidence of judicial independence which, again, is altogether absent in other jurisdictions where corrupt practices invariably go undisclosed.  Nor, for that matter has Mr Zuma or the ANC been able to restrain sections of the media from publishing photographs of the President’s upgraded Nkandla, Natal Province private home. Here is evidence that the media are able to play their watchdog role in South Africa, again if not in other countries where corrupt politicians continue to cast long shadows.

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