South Africa: Professor Njabulo Ndebele On Corruption During the Pandemic


On Monday 24 August 2020 the Nelson Mandela Foundation was part of a delegation of civil society organisations which met with the African National Congress to discuss the question of COVID-19-related corruption. Other organisations represented were the South African Council of Churches (SACC), the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, the Foundation for Human Rights and the Council for the Advancement of South African Constitution (CASAC). This is the presentation made by the chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation

It is my honour and privilege to be part of this most important meeting representing the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

We believe that corruption flourishes in the absence of accountability, transparency and good recordkeeping: noble but elevated concepts. What do we mean by them in practice?

Taking each one in turn:

Accountability. We stand no chance of fostering cultures of accountability within all tiers of Government, even more in local government communities that are located at the base levels of the broader society, unless those accused of corruption, after having been identified, are investigated, charged and taken to trial. Here the role of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is of critical importance.

We know how the NPA was systematically compromised by being hollowed out and disabled during the Zuma years and we hoped and believed that under new leadership, the NPA was to be renewed. There seem to be some encouraging signs there. But South Africans want to see robust interventions by the NPA leading to implicated people, no matter who they are, or what offices they occupy, are arrested and tried. Public sentiment in this regard is patently clear.

Transparency. In the 1990s the ANC tried to build a governance model founded in the principles of Open Democracy and Freedom of Information.

From our own experiences we have seen how legislation such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) is being used by structures of the state not to facilitate public access to information but to hinder it. This must change. We congratulate the President on sending back to Parliament for review the Protection of State Information Act. We opposed this reactionary instrument of state secrecy, disconcerted that it was proposed by a supposedly progressive Government. We urge Government to work with civil society and other constituencies to generate a piece of legislation which will instead foster transparency, good governance and effective reckoning with the past. For too long state secrecy has been used to block public access to apartheid-era records in state custody. We encourage Government to support the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) in deeds rather than merely in words. The OGP initiative is potentially extremely valuable, but poor implementation by government thus far has meant a loss of confidence and of trust on the part of civil society.

This issue of transparency has been foregrounded over the weekend and I seize the opportunity of this meeting and the central subject of corruption that preoccupy us as I speak, to request clarity on a weekend City Press news report.

Is it true that the ANC "has launched a party-wide investigation into corruption allegations, where all provincial branches and leaders are required to draw up lists of every person accused of, or facing charges of wrongdoing. These lists must then be delivered to the office of the party Secretary General, Mr. Ace Magashule"?[i] While this may be laudable, the optics of some aspects of the process are deeply concerning, and may cast doubt on the credibility of the process.

It would be good to receive confirmation on the actual state of affairs as the public is likely to cast doubt on the credibility of a process in which lists of suspected persons would be submitted to an Office of the ANC overseen by an officer whose name many in the public domain would expect to be listed. The optics of this would condemn the process even before it began. Natural justice dictates, Mr. President, that in such a situation, an implicated person, or a person about whom numerous questions have been asked and which need answers, can not preside over an issue in which their credibility and fairness would be in question.

It would be good to know how the ANC itself under the current circumstances of its intention to do good, would on the grounds of transparency, integrity, seriousness of purpose, intend to apply the measures announced in the President's letter to Members of the ANC in a specific situation in which the purity of the organisation's intentions would otherwise be put under a heavy cloud of doubt. The proof of the ANC's words would be in the integrity of its actions.

Lastly, Recordkeeping. Those who are corrupt thrive in the absence of accurate, reliable, authentic and comprehensive records. In 2014, together with the University of Cape Town, we published a report titled State of the Archive. It detailed the state of government record-keeping in South Africa. What we revealed was, in short, a national disgrace. And the state structure responsible for overseeing and auditing this record-keeping function, the National Archives, has been rendered toothless and paralysed in face of the challenge. No wonder there is so little forensic evidence available for use in corruption investigations.

Government has to address this as a matter of urgency.

If the ANC as a political party is itself mired in corruption then it will not be surprising that such a party, in its obvious influence on Government and its workings, will work to ensure that Government itself serves corrupt ends.

In this regard, it is incumbent on Government to demonstrate that it is not in the clutches of the corrupt; and that it is a Government of people of South Africa.


If I may be permitted to end on a note of optimism. We recently proved as a people that we could have a decisive government and citizens willing to be led by it following the decision to implement the Lockdown in March. We saw a solidarity across the country unprecedented since 1994. Law were generally obeyed. South Africans crossed many barriers of the past to show compassion and togetherness. Even if it may not have lasted long, we showed it could be done. Decisiveness in prosecuting the corrupt will restore public solidarity. People will obey the laws if the Government and the Governing Party and all parties, respect and obey the laws.

[i] It should be noted that in the meeting the ANC indicated that this report was not accurate.


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