April 1994 promised freedom and democracy but this promise remains unrealised because of government corruption and the secrecy used to try and conceal it. Away from the spotlight of Nkandlagate and Guptagate ongoing endemic corruption continues to kill people in different ways and is also killing the democracy we are still trying to build. While corruption was part and parcel of the apartheid state, the first few years of democracy held some promise of greater transparency, which is lifeblood of democracy. This transparency has steadily decreased, especially over the past decade, with an increasingly unaccountable government ignoring its own legislation and the Constitution which informs it.

The very nature of the government which has developed since 1994 facilitates corruption. Increasingly the proportional representation system, viewed as a counter to the constituency gerrymandering of the Nationalist government, has thwarted democracy. Deep rot has taken root in grassroot level party structures where threat, intimidation and even death may result from contestations over candidacy. That is because the economic stakes are high, with candidates who are successful in elections (even if unemployable in an open labour market) gaining access to well-paying jobs and’, with them, business opportunities, especially tenders.
Nepotism is the handmaiden of corruption and political allies are employed in high positions in increasingly inflated – and inefficient – government bureaucracies. Owing their jobs to their patrons, beneficiaries of nepotism become puppets to their benefactors’ will, including by carrying out instructions from, and covering for, elected politicians who should not be interfering in the civil (or increasingly uncivil) service. Corruption busters inside or outside of government live in fear of their lives. Currently the Chief Financial Officer of Richmond is facing 92 charges, including theft and money laundering. Co-incidentally, the man thought to have initiated the investigation, Richmond manager Sibusiso Sithole, was gunned down in March 2017.
Some forms of gross government corruption kill more slowly. Millions of rand of government money set aside for the maintenance of the Addington oncology machines remains publicly unaccounted for, while an unknown number of patients with easily treatable cancer have died slow, painful deaths because they have been unable to access radiotherapy treatment. While an estimated fourteen million South Africans go to bed hungry, and 27 per cent of children are stunted, corruption in school feeding schemes is rife. Corruption in the Ministry of Water Affairs and Sanitation deprives people of access to clean water, and – like inadequate nutrition – increases their vulnerability to life-threatening illnesses.

Too much taxpayers’ money goes on too many levels of over-staffed government and all the unnecessary perks that go with it. One of former president Jacob Zuma’s parting gifts was a R1,2 billion bill for backpay for izinduna (headmen). For historical reasons KZN has a large number of them so this largesse will mean a cut back in other services for years. Like some politicians and amakhosi, headmen may receive money for breaking the law, like one in Mpumuza(Hilton) who has locked the public gate which allows residents access to the main road and has turned the only other access – a footpath – into a grazing area for his cattle. Taxpayer supported authoritarianism rules in rural areas and attempts to democratise the colonial system of traditional leadership face an uphill battle. It also rules in urban areas where most councillors remain unaccountable to their constituencies and fail to consult with them.
COGTA should be ensuring that traditional leadership adheres to the provisions of the Constitution, but Monitor records reflect its abject failure to do so, as in the case of the induna at Mpumuza. In Matiwane’s Kop, a land restitution area controlled by a trust, COGTA employees have allegedly been bullying trustees to accept as a ‘chief’ a man who has been terrorising the community, despite the area being freehold.
The police, too, have failed the Mpumuza and Matiwane’s Kop residents – just as they have failed so many victims of crime, including that linked to politics. Like all dysfunctional government departments, the problem starts with management and the way it is linked to politics and nepotism. There are far too many people at this level and, with exceptions, most of them are not fit to manage. Relatively junior members risk their lives to fight well-armed criminals (some armed with police issue guns because of poor management), or doggedly investigate dangerous cases despite being under-resourced, while the province has six deputy provincial commissioner generals (there was at most one in the 1990s), and their spokespeople (whose information may not even be accurate) are at the rank of colonel or brigadier. The same applies to the Department of Health, where there is a chronic shortage of medical personnel and an over-inflated and grossly inefficient bureaucracy.
Because nepotism rules these bureaucracies lack the independence which is a crucial component of democratic governance. Since they need to cover for their corruption and inefficiency they have, for the past decade, been making it increasingly difficult for citizens to access information held by the state, as is their right in terms of Section 32 of the Constitution. Most lack the courtesy to respond to emails, and the quality of information on government websites, including contact details for state functionaries, has deteriorated. Compared to the first fifteen of democracy, the quality of our government has deteriorated markedly and become increasingly opaque.

Like a breath of fresh air, a prompt response by the revamped Presidency to a media release about Department of Health corruption raises hopes that the tide may slowly be turning. Hopefully the recent conviction of Bulwer area PR councillor Magaso for violation of the Public Service Act will be the first of many, and the prosecutions and recent convictions linked to the Glebelands carnage is encouraging. The Public Service Commission, the Treasury and Auditor-General, and the Criminal Justice Cluster have their work cut out for them – but it is ultimately up to the public to ensure that they are up to the job.