In Defense of South Africa
The young democracy has real problems with crime and corruption, but calling it "dysfunctional" is a vast exaggeration.
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.
According to Mzilikazi wa Afrika, the Sunday Times reporter in Johannesburg who broke the story: "Cele's choice of landlord suggests political considerations trumped efficient use of taxpayers' money at a time when the government claims it can't afford pay hikes for striking public servants." The reporter was picked up and detained by police but later released. Cele insists there was nothing untoward. But the public prosecutor has found General Cele guilty of improper conduct and maladministration in the case of the nontendered lease. He is appealing.