Lessons from Nelson Mandela Bay

December’s ANC elective conference proved that money is not always decisive in the movement’s politics. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory was a double-edged sword for party modernisers, however. He supports their cause, but his win has relieved pressure for change in how the ANC is run.

Activist and former environmental affairs and tourism director-general Crispian Olver’s insightful 2017 book, How to Steal a City, sets out the scale of the reformists’ challenge. While SA watched aghast as state capture unfolded, at provincial and local levels “money-politics” and patronage have become most deeply entrenched. Olver was part of a “regional task team” assembled to render a discredited local ANC electable in Nelson Mandela Bay in 2016. He was also reporting directly to the prominent anticorruption fighter and minister Pravin Gordhan on what had caused the rot in the city.

Olver’s diagnosis begins from the insight that factions “are not born out of money”. A left-oriented ANC grouping, under the moniker “Stalini”, started out promoting pro-poor upliftment. Licensed by ANC doctrines that dismiss the border between party and state, the group interfered in the appointment of city officials and in the management of council affairs. Pretty soon it was doling out contracts, jobs and money to those whose support it, to win political battles. Criminal syndicates recruited participating city officials and politicians, serving as “bankers” to the dominant faction. Money was made available to win internal power struggles, only to be repaid in contracts and jobs. Along the way, many players amassed tidy personal fortunes.

Olver is keen to present positive news about the turnaround operation. A well-organised intervention group with political protection successfully expelled corrupt officials. Criminal charges and civil claims will eventually bring financial ruin and imprisonment to many offenders. With better support from state security agencies and the prosecutions authority, still more might have been accomplished.

Olver does not explore how the ANC’s loss of power in the city in 2016 affected outcomes. After all, the impetus to investigation and prosecution is strong in part because it brings political advantage to the city’s new governors. A “cleaned-up” ANC under candidate mayor Danny Jordaan might not have undertaken lasting reforms to financial control or supply chain management systems.

While the Gauteng ANC has shown that transparent planning, housing and staff appointment systems are not intrinsically alien to the movement, it remains an open question whether such practices can take root in the ANC elsewhere. One key problem, as Olver observes, is that the ANC is ideologically opposed to any clear dividing line between the governing party and the state. This makes it hard to establish an expertise-valuing and performance-based culture.

He links this challenge to the still uneasy relationship between citizens and public authority. The state is still widely viewed as an alien and hostile entity that can justifiably be evaded, outsmarted or even looted. The partial clean-up of Nelson Mandela Bay, on Olver’s account, would not have been possible without the energies of civic organisations, whistle-blowers and journalists. Rooting out the ANC’s deep-seated hostility towards just these civil society actors is another massive challenge.

The deepest conundrum for ANC reformers is that its own powerful provincial and local leaders are unlikely to rally behind a modernisation programme. Politicians who have risen by means of rigged internal elections and patronage will need to be persuaded that wide-ranging reforms are in their best interests. This is not impossible in principle; but it is not yet clear how it might be accomplished in practice.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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