In Defense of South Africa

The young democracy has real problems with crime and corruption, but calling it "dysfunctional" is a vast exaggeration.

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JOHANNESBURG -- The word "dysfunctional" as it relates to South Africa continued to stick in my craw several days after I was interviewed on a U.S. radio program. The lead-in to the interview mentioned South African "dysfunction" in the context of stories (and I think some opinions) about crime and corruption in the country. And if you live here, as I do, it's hard getting around the almost daily dose of stories in the local media about both crime and corruption, along with nepotism, gangsterism and a new term coined for contracts -- called "tenders" in South Africa -- being awarded to the politically connected without benefit of bidding: "tenderpreneurs."

The stories of corruption involve local and national political figures, mostly in, or related to, the ruling African National Congress Party. And corruption has become so widespread that even some of the party's coalition partners, like the Congress of South African Trade Unions, have been on a highly vocal, public tear about it.

There are too many examples to detail here, but here's a recent, widely publicized one. A Cabinet minister made front-page headlines for spending hundreds of thousands in taxpayer money in luxury hotels and flying first-class to Europe to visit a girlfriend in jail on drug charges. The media found records that showed he took his personal assistant on the trip and that he also hired a limo to visit the prison. The minister claims that some of the information in the documents was doctored and fabricated, but defends the thousands he spent at a five-star hotel during a session of Parliament.

At another level, one local South African newspaper centered on what the Sunday Independent called "an ugly battle in police and spy circles" that, the article insisted, "must worry us all." The cases involved Richard Mdluli, the head of the crime intelligence division, who, it is alleged, was involved in a love-triangle murder back in 1999.

The defiant anti-crime boss and three co-conspirators are now facing prosecution, but Mdluli insists he has a dossier implicating the current police commissioner, Bheki Cele, in other corruption cases. That accusation has yet to go anywhere, but only a few months ago, Cele, who militarized the police and calls himself "general," was accused of negotiating a multimillion-dollar deal for a new police headquarters without going through the tender process. 

But while some of these actions may indeed "worry us all," the response of institutions, including the judgment on Cele by the special prosecutor, give lie to the notion of a "dysfunctional" country. After all, Cele is in the job because his predecessor, Jackie Selebi, at one time head of Interpol, was found guilty of corruption. Selebi is facing 15 years in jail and his case is on appeal.

Where else on the African continent has a police commissioner been not only fired for corruption but actually tried and convicted and sentenced to jail? Additionally, South Africa's highest authority on the constitution -- the constitutional court -- is functioning quite well. The court recently ruled that the disbanding in 2008 of the Scorpions -- an elite crime-fighting unit some believed was being used for political purposes by then-President Thabo Mbeki -- was "inconsistent with the constitution" and that the unit that replaced it -- the Hawks -- "was insufficiently insulated from political interference."

The media have produced stories looking at whether the president's family and friends were getting lucrative business deals not available to others, as well as how the president of the ruling party's Youth League could live as large as he does on the modest salary he makes, thereby drawing the ire of those and others on which they focused. Yet no newspaper has been closed, and proposed legislation aimed at restricting media freedom has all but died after major protests from civil society and media organizations.

And finally, at least for now, despite unrest in many local communities over the government's failure to deliver basic services, widespread unemployment and massive poverty -- and despite the political landscape "hotting up" as the days dwindle down to local elections in early May -- elections are, in fact, on track, as they have been since 1994, when the black-led government came to power.

South Africa may be full of challenges -- and some daunting ones since the ANC came to power, as Moeletsi Mbeki, a businessman and political analyst, laid out: the decline in life expectancy from 65 to 53; the country becoming a net importer of food in 1997 for the first time in its history; the loss of thousands of farmworker jobs and subsequent evictions between 1997 and 2007 after the elimination of agricultural subsidies, among others. "The ANC inherited a flawed, complex society it barely understood … , " Mbeki, a brother of former President Mbeki, recently wrote. "Its tinkering with it is turning it into an explosive cocktail."

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