Cape Town — When the novel coronavirus hit South Africa harder than any other African nation earlier this year, the government's handling of the pandemic became a rare good news story for President Cyril Ramaphosa. But then the bad news story of the past decade caught up with him and the governing African National Congress (ANC), triggering new debate about whether the party is capable of reforming itself and ending corruption.
When the virus struck, Ramaphosa's decisive action in late March won praise at home and abroad. Giving the country three days' notice, the government imposed one of the world's most stringent lockdowns. All but emergency and essential workers were ordered to stay at home, allowed out only to buy food and get medical treatment. Businesses, shops and services except those providing food and medicine were closed. The sale of alcohol and cigarettes was banned.
The lockdown – since eased – slowed the initial growth of the virus, allowing health authorities to prepare for the looming surge that was predicted . Emergency hospitals were opened in conference and sports centres.The alcohol ban, while unpopular, relieved pressure on casualty wards in established hospitals.
The surge began in July, and by early August the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases had grown to half a million – at one stage the fourth largest number in the world. But hospitals were not overwhelmed, the 3.4 million tests conducted compared well with global figures and there were encouraging signs that infections were peaking in a number of provinces. At August 17, 11,982 South Africans had died – relatively low by international measures.
As the different levels of lockdown dragged on, the country tired of the restrictions, particularly those on cigarette sales, which were questioned by some experts, resulted in substantial losses in tax revenue and fuelled a lively black market. Alarm grew as businesses closed, jobs were lost and it was reported that two in every five households had lost income as a result of the lockdown. However, public discontent was mitigated – first by the government's extension of its social security net for those who had lost jobs, giving assistance to businesses and introducing special Covid-19 grants, and later, on August 16, by a relaxation of the lockdown which included an end to the ban on cigarette and alcohol sales.
The first signs of political crisis for the party that has been in power for 26 years came when the virus exposed the rot in parts of the public health system, notably the poorly-managed Eastern Cape provincial health department. A story first covered by local media gained international attention when a BBC investigation reported on "Port Elizabeth's 'hospitals of horrors '".
Concern turned to public outrage when revelations began late in July that family members of politicians were being given tenders for the supply to government health departments of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical staff, apparently irrespective of whether they had any expertise or experience in the field.
Since Ramaphosa and his supporters eased former President Jacob Zuma out of office in January 2018, he has vowed to rid the government of the corruption that flourished on Zuma's watch.
Speaking to potential investors in London last year, Ramaphosa estimated that corruption during the nine years that Zuma was in power robbed the country of around U.S. $30 billion, and said the figure could be double that. The cost of corruption had been "much bigger than I think most people could ever have imagined", he told a Financial Times Africa Summit.
Ramaphosa has replaced the Zuma-era leadership of the National Prosecution Authority and appointed a commission under Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into government and private sector corruption.
It came as a double shock, therefore, when it emerged that the husband of his own spokesperson, Khusela Diko, had received a tender for the supply of PPE. She took a leave of absence , but within days another scandal – involving a more predictable source of controversy – broke when the daughter of Zuma-era Cabinet minister Nomvula Mokonyane was revealed to have received a PPE tender from Gauteng province, of which her mother was previously the premier.
A day later, an investigative journalist revealed that two sons of ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, one of the party's "top six" leaders, had received tenders from the Free State province, of which their father was formerly the premier.
Ramaphosa responded angrily. "Attempting to profit from a disaster that is claiming the lives of our people every day is the action of scavengers. It is like a pack of hyenas circling wounded prey," he said in his weekly presidential newsletter.
The ANC's national executive committee (NEC) reacted in similar vein. The party was deeply embarrassed by allegations that people including its members and leaders "have sought to benefit unlawfully from the devastating suffering and impoverishment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic", it said.
" These developments cause us collectively to dip our heads in shame and to humble ourselves before the people," it added. "We acknowledge the justifiable public outrage caused by the depravity and heartlessness displayed by some elements in government, our organisation and the private sector."
But Magashule – the most prominent pro-Zuma survivor in the party leadership, who has been deeply embroiled in scandal in the past – defended his sons, saying there was no law preventing family members of politicians from securing contracts with the state. He told a journalist , "Tell me of one leader of the ANC who has not done business with government..."
This sparked new anger, including from within party ranks. One of the party elders who has been calling for internal reform since Zuma's term of office attacked Magashule directly.
Cheryl Carolus, formerly an ANC deputy secretary-general, told a television interviewer that it was "just shocking" for people to profit from the pandemic.
"There is no excuse for it," Carolus said. "It is immoral... I'm just outraged, and for the Secretary-General of the ANC to start going down that road, how do you not know it is unethical to make money out of Covid? ... Mr Magashule's son was not in this business of [supplying] PPEs, he went into it purely with a profit motive, and his father encourages him. That is just shameful."
Bloomberg News reported that despite the NEC's strong words, the body had rejected a proposal by Ramaphosa that former President Kgalema Motlanthe, a Zuma critic who is widely respected in the country, should review deals secured by party officials.
The committee instead asked the party leadership to prepare "an audited list of cases... with recommendations for action" and suggested that those listed "may be expected to step aside from their positions". But Magashule's attitude to those accused of corruption being asked to step down before they are convicted of a crime in the courts raises questions over whether this will happen.
"Step aside, step aside, step aside..." he told a recent interviewer . "That's how the enemy is planning to finish the ANC. Some of us will never accept such a simple understanding because I'm saying to you a member of the ANC is entitled to be treated like a citizen. Fairness, the rule of law, the law of natural justice is what you and I expect. You just come tomorrow and say Magashule was involved in this and therefore I must step aside. I will never do that. I will never."
Ramaphosa's Cabinet might offer better prospects of action. While what might follow is not stated, the Presidency announced soon after the NEC meeting that Ramaphosa was appointing an inter-ministerial Cabinet committee to deal with corruption, including the procurement of PPE. And the Treasury, which has spoken out forcefully in the past, has instructed the government's auditor-general to audit spending on a daily or weekly basis, rather than every six or 12 months.
ANC leaders and members in the Zuma camp stand by their narrative that "white monopoly capital" determined to retain control of the country's economy are behind the opposition they face to what they purport to be their policies of "radical socio-economic transformation". This was demonstrated last week when a Zuma-appointed finance minister appeared before Justice Zondo's commission.
D. D. "Des" van Rooyen, who served only four days in 2015 before business and market reaction forced Zuma to replace him, began his evidence with a presentation accusing white capital of forming an "evil alliance" with the ANC to " to continue with their exploitative wealth accumulation programme".
He went on to tell the commission of his effort to contact the Guptas, the family at the heart of Zuma-era corruption, two days before he was appointed as finance minister, and after Zuma told him his predecessor was about to be dismissed. He did not explain why he wanted to meet the family.
Later last week, Van Rooyen's evidence was followed by the dramatic testimony of a ministerial police bodyguard/driver and two drivers of former executives of a state-owned enterprise. All three gave evidence of seeing a Cabinet minister and the executives take bags of cash away from the Guptas' home in Johannesburg. All three gave evidence without their identities being publicly disclosed after telling the commission their lives had been threatened.
The developments of recent weeks have cast doubt on whether Ramaphosa has the power within the ANC to defeat corruption.
From a position as a party insider, columnist Raymond Suttner writes that "the state and the ANC face a crisis of confidence, credibility and legitimacy" and asks about Ramaphosa, "How... can one lead the country, if one does not control one's own organisation?"
Suttner, who spent seven years in prison for fighting apartheid as an ANC member, expresses the fear that "the ANC may not be able to hold onto its previous support base and will gradually disintegrate or continue to exist, but as a political organisation devoid of political content... It will be without the ideas and vision that drew people in earlier times, certainly without an emancipatory vision."
The sympathetic but independent commentator Ferial Haffajee of the Daily Maverick writes of her sense of relief at reading Ramaphosa's attack on the PPE contractors quickly being replaced by cynicism. Counting up the major corruption cases of the ANC's time in office, she concludes that in only one case has there been "significant justice".
"Ultimately, though," she says, "what is clear after 25 major scandals... in 26 years, winning the fight against corruption does not lie with Ramaphosa but with the people whom it affects."
The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, the NGO founded by the archbishop who campaigned against apartheid, pointed to the consequences of ordinary South Africans taking up the fight.
It said in a statement that "the window of opportunity is closing [for the state] to demonstrate the courage and the muscle to act decisively and hold the culprits in its ranks accountable." If this window does close, it added, "we must brace ourselves for turbulence. For, in democracies, when the people are ready, governments change."