Tuesday, November 18, 2014

It’s Just Africa: Corruption Threatens Two Decades of Democracy in South Africa

For the first time in the 20 years since the end of apartheid in South Africa, riot police entered the National Assembly to break up a brawl that erupted between members of parliament (MPs) during the heated Nkandla debate. The police removed MPs from both opposition parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), from the chamber, to the delight of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) MPs. The DA asked law-enforcement authorities on Monday to charge an ANC MP and the police with assault against four of its members. The opposition and critics of the ANC decried the forcible removal of opposition MPs as another instance of ANC’s blatant abuse of power. 

There are two factors at play that led directly to Thursday’s parliamentary brawl. The first is that the composition of the South African parliament is changing, with not only a greater representation of opposition parties, but also with stronger relationships developing between those opposition parties against the ANC. For the past two decades, the ANC has enjoyed essentially unchecked power in the parliament as well as majority support in eight of South Africa's nine provinces. Opposition parties were represented, but were unable to combine their power against the ruling party. The Western Cape province is the only one that has been and continues to be controlled by an opposition party (the DA).

In the face of the ongoing Nkandla scandal, South Africa’s opposition parties have found common ground to unite against the governing party with unexpected coordination and energy. In this year's elections, opposition parties took a greater percentage of the vote in all provinces, while the ANC lost a percentage of the vote in more than half of the provinces. 

This second factor, the Nkandla scandal, is the public controversy surrounding the use of public funds to pay for upgrades to the Nkandla homestead of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. According to leaked documentation, the improvements, which included an amphitheater, helipad, underground bunkers, a cattle enclosure, and other security improvements, reportedly cost R200,000,000. The South African ministerial handbook allocates R100,000 to the government public works department for security improvements to public officials’ homes, and stipulates that any costs in excess are to be covered by the officials themselves. This apparent misuse of state funds to support Zuma’s lavish lifestyle at a time when South Africa is already struggling economically is only one of several factors that explain the increased popular support for the EFF and the DA.

On top of these stresses, the ANC is facing a threat to its long-standing strategic alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), as social and political factors have led to the biggest trade union in the country, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), being expelled from Cosatu. A more independent trade union movement reflects general sentiment in the country that perhaps the government, business, and labor interests need to reevaluate their agreements in favor of economic development that benefits ordinary South Africans.

While the reduction of the ANC’s influence in national politics is most likely good for South Africa’s political integrity and economic stability, it’s not surprising that the ANC is fighting back against its slipping grasp on power. However, unless the ANC wants to risk compromising democracy by ignoring the will of the people and disrespecting its colleagues in parliament, to put it lightly, the party should take an active route in tackling corruption to ensure the survival of the institution that has kept South Africa stable since the end of apartheid in 1994.

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