The real victims of Eskom looting

For the most tragic victims of the great Eskom robbery, look to ordinary households


First published in BDLive

8 June 2018

The Eskom crisis is sometimes presented as a series of mild and victimless misdemeanours.

True, SA’s public finances have been imperilled and the country’s energy security has been threatened, but surely a revamped board will set the finances straight? And the nuclear sideshow has surely drawn to a close?

Most of Eskom’s looting beneficiaries remain remarkably sanguine about the results of their actions.

Many of the parastatal’s problems were highlighted two decades ago, when the then department of minerals and energy launched its vaunted energy white paper.

Governments around the world were moving away from vertically integrated and monopolistic power monoliths. The recommended pattern of reform was to separate power generation, the transmission grid and distribution systems.

Independent power producers (IPPs) would bring competition and cutting-edge technologies to generation. An independent grid would be overseen by a powerful regulator. Big energy users and regional electricity distributors, made up of aggregated municipalities, would purchase electricity in a competitive wholesale market.

Thabo Mbeki’s government at first seemed quite serious about these reforms. A national energy regulator was created in 2005. New electricity regulations, eventually promulgated in 2009, gave the Cabinet powers to plan the energy mix and to force Eskom to sign contracts with IPPs.

In the end, however, vested interests blocked change. High energy users, just 17 of whom accounted for half of all electricity consumption in 2010, lobbied to keep their cosy — and often seemingly corrupt — confidential purchase agreements with Eskom.

Municipalities fought to retain control of distribution. A recent report by Deloitte indicates that municipalities today earn a quarter of their total income (R22.5bn) from selling power. R15.7bn is paid to Eskom, and the R7bn surplus is used to cover general expenditure. Poor municipalities often stop paying at all.

Eskom managers battled to retain their generous salaries and benefits. Even before the employment and remuneration boom of the Zuma years, one parastatal manager defended her free golf lessons during working hours on the grounds that she was excluded, by her historically disadvantaged background, from participating in strategic meetings on golf courses.

The coal supply chain increasingly became a vector for patronage and elite profit.

With so many beneficiaries, it is easy to forget that there have been many more victims.

Prices have increased threefold in recent years, directly hitting consumers’ pockets. Unreliable and expensive electricity, moreover, discourages economic growth. Compelling research by Johannes Fedderke suggests that low growth directly drives high inequality in SA.

Meanwhile, the ANC’s economic transformation committee is still busy trying to work out how to convert public servants’ pension savings into Eskom debt — and the clever money is on them succeeding.

Despite all the hot air government exhales around the theme of small business development, some of the biggest constraints on small entrepreneurs are expensive electricity and low amperages that cannot support commercial refrigerators or power tools.

For the most tragic victims of the great Eskom robbery, however, we need to look to ordinary households. It is true that more than 85% of dwellings now have some access to electricity, up from 60% in 1996. Three-quarters of families use electricity for lighting, televisions and cellphones.

But, despite a free basic electricity allowance of 50kWh/month, the poor spend a far greater proportion of their income on energy than the rich.

Affordability, or rather unaffordability, is a real constraint on the uses to which electricity can be put by the poor.

By some estimates, electricity accounts for only 20% of household energy consumption. In rural areas, wood continues to be used for heating and cooking. In peri-urban areas, coal, wood and paraffin — and not electricity — remain the key energy sources for families.

The prevalence of coal generation has long resulted in generally poor air quality outside the breezy white suburbs. The use of wood and coal inside homes dramatically increases the incidence of lung diseases, especially among the women and children whose exposure is greatest.

Firewood collection is an arduous and costly burden, shouldered primarily by women. The ingestion of paraffin by children, and the 50,000 fires that occur annually in SA’s poorer residential areas, are responsible every year for thousands of deaths and an appalling number of horrific burns.

There have been crimes committed at Eskom, and there is no excuse for pretending they have been victimlesss.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Long, winding road to a reformed state


Anthony Butler

1 June 2018


President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged in his first State of the Nation address to streamline the cabinet.

The Democratic Alliance has since called for a long-delayed overhaul of the “Ministerial Handbook”, which details senior politicians’ entitlements.

The handbook is a wonderful comic creation. The only obvious obstacle to profligacy it presents is that ministers and their spouses can only pick flowers planted for ornamental purposes on ministerial estates “after consulting the horticulturists of the Department of Public Works”.

Although disruption of the gravy train would indeed be welcome, Ramaphosa has indicated that he is more interested in the capacity of the whole current “configuration of government” to deliver on policy objectives.

A proactive, strategic and joined-up system of government is unlikely to be fashioned easily out of the current partial shambles. Democratic governance is always messy.

Two decades of tinkering – including a cabinet cluster system, national-provincial “MinMecs”, implementation forums, and a planning commission – have not yet resulted in passably effective coordination of the activities of national government departments, provinces, municipalities, and parastatals.

Different parts of the state machine continue to impose unnecessary costs upon one another — and on the nation’s long-suffering citizens. Treasury’s cost-containment has been a poor – if essential — substitute for a well-functioning state.

A recombination of government departments is one likely reaction to the proliferation of ministries under President Jacob Zuma. Departmental minnows such as small business development, sport and recreation, science and technology, water, arts and culture, and military veterans are likely to be absorbed into larger entities.

Strangely redolent of the divorce and remarriage of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the mid-1970s, the departments of our dashing telecommunications minister, Siyabonga Cwele, and his glamorous communications counterpart, Nomvula Mokonyane, are likely to be joined together once again in unholy matrimony after next year’s elections.

Perhaps more improbably, “governance” departments could be more or less eliminated. The work of Department of Public Enterprises could be allocated to functional departments such as energy and transport. The management of the public service could be absorbed into the presidency.

Such structural reforms save less money than might be expected, and often simply transfer cross-departmental coordination problems to the inside of larger departments.

Where, then, can we look for more productive reforms?

Half of the national budget moves more or less directly to the provinces, ostensibly to provide high quality education and health services. The discretion of provincial governments to spend this money as they see fit could be reined in.

An asymmetrical settlement – no doubt politically hard to impose — might oblige provinces like North West to demonstrate a capacity to allocate resources productively before they are progressively freed from Pretoria’s conditionalities.

There is a real communications challenge across the public service. Policy proposals need to be translated into ordinary (or at least intelligible) language so that they can be understood by the public servants who are supposed to implement them, and by the citizens who are supposed to benefit from them.

The Presidency, meanwhile, has been getting bigger without getting much better. It needs to provide a strategic counterpoint to treasury, which is most properly concerned with efficiency and value for money.

The establishment of a Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, has built a promising foundation for an effective “information state”. But the presidency probably needs a more nimble and political trouble-shooter, to bring to bear the authority of the highest office in the land on the most intractable conflicts between government departments. In particular, there is a case for a small and high profile delivery unit to focus on unblocking implementation bottlenecks.

Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town



Making a difference

President Cyril Ramaphosa will soon conclude his first 100 days in office. Debate continues to rage about the likely impact he will have on the future of the country he now leads.

Supporters of the president claim that his rise represents a turning point for the nation. Sceptics counter that Ramaphosa has once again this week shown himself to be a weak leader who is unable to confront the inexorable forces tearing SA apart.

All this brings us to the most imponderable question of leadership: what difference can he make?

Social scientists and historians tend to discount the influence of leaders. They prefer “structural” explanations for events that focus on what is likely to happen in the longer term, regardless of the intentions and actions of particular political figures.

FW de Klerk astonished the National Party politicians in February 1990 when he announced the unbanning of opposition parties and the release of Nelson Mandela. But the economic and political forces driving the National Party to negotiate were so powerful that any other leader would, sooner or later, almost certainly have had to take more or less the same steps.

Few scholars would venture that the broad character of the post-apartheid settlement would have been dramatically changed if a leader other than Mandela had been at the helm of the ANC. In most scholars’ eyes, leaders are the vectors of wider historical forces rather than the “makers of history”.

Even in more narrow fields of human endeavour, great leaders rarely alter the course of human affairs for long. The replacement of one business leader by another does not usually change the share price of a major global corporation. Great generals such as Hannibal, Napoleon Bonaparte and Rommel won stunning victories but were ultimately swept aside by lesser opponents who could deploy greater resources.

The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has brought the “question of leadership” back to global prominence. The late historian Eric Hobsbawm once reflected that the US has “probably elected to its presidency … a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic”. No matter how feeble the president, however, “the great US ship of state has sailed on as though it made very little difference”.

If the US political system is “foolproof” as Hobsbawm claims, this is because every leader is embedded in a strong system of institutional constraints. When it comes to Trump’s America, we will have to wait and see if such institutions are as robust as the historian assumes.

At least Ramaphosa’s political history should give us some cause for hope here at home.

Jacob Zuma’s tenure confirmed that it is far easier for a political leader to do harm than to do good.

There is absolutely no reason to suppose that Ramaphosa will initiate disruptive programmes of factional enrichment or institutional destabilisation of the kind that marked Zuma’s two terms. Ramaphosa’s primary accomplishments across his career have been in the creation of new and enduring forms of authority. The National Union of Mineworkers testifies to his ability to build an enduring institution. The final Constitution of 1996, forged in extremely trying circumstances, continues more than two decades later to shape national political life for the better.

The true value of Ramaphosa’s leadership should not be measured in terms of the hasty purging of factional opponents or in his success or otherwise in staging show trials of the agents of state capture.

Ramaphosa will make an enduring positive difference to this country only by rescuing and constructing enduring institutions and by entrenching effective and impersonal systems of good governance.

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

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.

When a crisis is not a crisis

It sometimes seems that SA is inherently unstable and beset by calamities that threaten to unravel the whole fabric of society. However, in a conservative and deeply resilient country such as SA, an apparent crisis is usually not a real crisis.

At first sight, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ambitious drive to boost foreign and domestic investment cannot be reconciled with his calls for land expropriation without compensation. Surely a crisis of confidence in property rights will destroy investor confidence?

The trouble with a real catastrophe is that once it strikes it is usually too late to do much about it.

The most astute politicians and business moguls recognise this fact. For this reason, they try to identify the potential solutions to major challenges in advance. Only then do they engender a sense of crisis that allows a chokehold on policy change to be released.

SA’s apparent crises are often the creations of canny politicians and businesspeople working in cahoots.

Take the democratic transition, in which Ramaphosa played such a crucial role.

The negotiators on both sides could see what a sustainable political settlement would entail. Their real challenge, however, was to bring their own constituencies into line.

How could white racial extremists, leftist anticapitalists and African nationalists be persuaded to support a constitutional settlement based on human rights and commerce? Only by creating a sense of historic crisis.

This admittedly violence-fuelled uncertainty encouraged unexpected compromises to be reached. Ultimately, it resulted in a settlement that could never have been sold to either side based on rational dialogue alone.

Less than a decade later, an HIV/AIDS calamity threatened fiscal crisis, social disintegration and the destruction of democratic politics. A crisis-awakened country responded with massive prevention and care interventions and with the world’s largest treatment programme. Conflict over HIV entrenched the legitimacy of an activist judiciary and established the fallibility of overbearing presidents.

It is arguable that the greatest challenge for AIDS policy in SA today is that the HIV epidemic is no longer viewed as a crisis. New HIV infections have fallen by half since 2010.

However, SA still has the largest epidemic in the world, with more than 7-million people living with the virus.

A little more than half of HIV-positive people are receiving antiretroviral therapies, rather than the nine out of 10 that is the government’s stated goal.

In SA, a crisis is sometimes needed to get the right things done. A land expropriation crisis may therefore be the opposite of what it seems: an opportunity rather than a threat.

Ramaphosa doubtless had little choice but to act on the resolution adopted by the ANC at its conference last December, but the political energy that has been unleashed by the “land question” may now be channelled towards long-anticipated and benign policy changes that have been blocked by entrenched interests.

Vested interests take many forms: traditional leaders who deny their subjects control over their own land in much of rural SA; commercial farmers who have used evictions to reduce their exposure to perceived political risks; municipalities that have failed to document ownership in peri-urban areas; parastatals and government departments that have blocked the use of their land for housing and economic development; and property owners who have used political donations and litigation to protect their private economic advantages.

Engendering a sense of crisis always carries risks, of course.

Having a land crisis in SA, however, may ultimately be far less hazardous than not having one.

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

Public sector wage freezes

As the government and trade union negotiators lock horns in the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council, there has been a growing clamour in the business community for the public sector wage bill to be slashed. After all, the ANC describes SA as a “developmental state” in which investment should take priority over consumption. Diverting a third of government spending into wages suggests precisely the opposite tendency.

The government has been forced to cut key grants for municipal infrastructure, water services and urban settlements to accommodate higher pay for more numerous public servants. A growing public sector payroll, meanwhile, forces the finance minister to borrow more, thus crowding out private investment.

Unilaterally imposed public sector pay cuts or freezes offer a tempting route to fiscal consolidation. An across-the board 10% wage cut could, in theory, reduce public spending by a whacking 3%.

But governments elsewhere have accumulated a wealth of experience about the risks of sweeping cuts or freezes. The “conditionalities” imposed by international lending institutions have often damaged countries’ longer-term economic and developmental prospects.

Since the global economic crisis unfolded in 2008, numerous countries have experimented with “austerity budgets”, featuring public sector pay freezes or cuts. The results have been at best mixed.

SA can learn the following lessons from these experiences:

• Wage cuts tend to affect aggregate demand unexpectedly hard because public sector workers have a high propensity to consume. Cuts should therefore be concentrated among highly paid public servants. Government negotiators’ current proposals, which favour employees on levels one to seven and mildly penalise levels 11 and 12, do not go anywhere near far enough;

• Increased taxes tend to promote better distributional outcomes than spending cuts. Carbon taxes, sin taxes and perhaps even land taxes can also contribute to meeting wider policy objectives;

• Approaches that spread the pain around, such as general recruitment freezes and pay cuts for the workforce as a whole, tend to result in suboptimal outcomes. Pay rises should always be linked in some way to productivity gains. Freezes of frontline posts in education, nursing and policing invariably have negative long-term consequences for human and economic development. Cuts should instead reflect a considered strategy to streamline government operations. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s pledge to “review the configuration, number and size of national government departments” is thus welcome;

• The public service is the key motor for class mobility and it has been the vector through which hundreds of thousands of black citizens entered the middle class. The government needs a clearer sense of what such sociohistorical gains are worth to the country and of how to price them; and

• The less tangible costs of freezing recruitment and pay should not be underestimated. When downsizing or cost-cutting, the best private firms prepare detailed implementation and communication plans, and follow these up with employee care and retraining programmes. Downsizing, however, still affects motivation, institutional memory and performance. In the public sector, pay or recruitment freezes that are experienced as essentially arbitrary will similarly undermine employee loyalty and engagement to the detriment of work quality and performance.

The government needs longer-range strategies for improving the quality of state spending and the performance of public servants.

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

The DA’s crisis

The DA is in crisis. There are challenges to the chairman of the party’s federal council, James Selfe, who has guided the party for more than a decade.

The effectiveness of party president Mmusi Maimane has been questioned by the DA’s own researchers. Controversies swirl around senior party figures, including Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and City of Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille.

The DA’s strong performance in the 2016 local government elections was built on hypermotivated white voters in Gauteng and their coloured counterparts in the Cape. It is ironic that tribalism in politics is now exhibited most visibly by the DA. But it is wrong, if tempting, to attribute all the party’s problems to racial politics.

Ideas matter. Some party activists remain wedded to the curious variant of liberalism that guided the Democratic Party. The current leadership includes one prominent proponent of creationism and homophobia, a black consciousness activist, and a champion of xenophobia and free market access to hair products. No wonder electors are confused.

 The underlying cause of the DA’s problems perhaps lies in SA’s one-party dominant party system. The liberation movement is everywhere, telling voters what they want to hear, dominating policy debates and belittling opposition politicians. It is curious that the ANC has survived its own appalling governance record and the incoherence of its current policy proposals. It is even more puzzling why no opposition party or coalition has come close to defeating it at national level.

Certain key factors explain the resilience of swaggering, dominant parties such as the ANC. They make full use of the advantages of incumbency, shamelessly allocating jobs, contracts and state resources to party supporters. Their seemingly inevitable victory discourages office-seeking politicians and energetic volunteer activists alike from supporting any other party. Right now, it is still the ANC that offers a route to national office. What rational, young politician would join a party that cannot reliably deliver a seat?

Opposition parties such as the DA and the EFF adopt “noncentrist” policies that do not appeal to typical voters. Because candidates and activists joined with little hope of winning, they tend to be a bit crazy: many of them are ideologues, extremists or sociopaths, such as Julius Malema or Zille. Socioeconomic concerns preoccupy most South African citizens. The DA is obsessed by corruption and a narrow swathe of urban and peri-urban policy issues. Opposition leaders such as Zille indulge in ideological posturing that they must know is damaging to their parties’ electoral prospects.

The DA is also trapped by its funders. It has allowed commercial farmers to waste water resources at great cost to the Western Cape’s economy. The party has bowed and scraped before these dinosaurs, and such grovelling can only be explained by party donations.

The DA’s credibility will rest on its coalition-building strategy. It has benefited handsomely from previous liaisons with the Inkatha Freedom Party, the National Party and the Independent Democrats. But the DA’s alliance of convenience with the EFF is destined to fall apart in the very near future, generating great animosity.

The ideological distance between the two parties will grow if Cyril Ramaphosa keeps occupying more of the political middle ground. Who will be the DA’s partner now?

The DA and the EFF will have to be more ruthless if they are to continue to grow. They need to find out where the rough centre of ground in SA politics lies, drag themselves towards it, message smartly to different constituencies and silence their egregiously self-indulgent leaders.

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

Energy system reform hurdles

The challenges facing new Energy Minister Jeff Radebe were thrown into stark relief this week by the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) report on Fostering Effective Energy Transitions.

The report highlighted a global need to reach a billion people currently without access to energy, to keep costs affordable, to reduce carbon emissions, and to accommodate and exploit new technologies.

The Forum’s Energy Transition Index (ETI) measures how well national energy systems promote inclusive economic growth, secure reliable access to energy, and advance environmental sustainability.

It also assesses “transition readiness” — the ability of a country to secure the capital, skills, effective regulatory mechanisms, stable institutions, and supportive infrastructure required to facilitate a transition to a low-carbon economy.

Like many such composite indices, ETI rests on questionable methodological foundations, but it can, nevertheless, help governments understand how they are performing relative to peers and learn lessons from others.

It is worth reflecting on why SA placed second to last out of 114 countries in WEF’s league table.

SA’s energy challenges encompass coal production and the governance of the liquid fuels sector. But the most pressing problems lie in electricity. These problems were worsened by, but did not originate in, Jacob Zuma’s two dismal terms as president.


These market-friendly proposals reflected international trends, and were driven by environmental considerations, new technologies that reduce capital intensity in generation, and advances in computer-based control systems that undercut conventional “natural monopoly” justifications for energy dinosaurs such as Eskom.

An unholy alliance in SA blocked desirable reforms. Unions bewailed “privatisation”. Energy-intensive businesses protected their opaque — and often apparently corrupt — long-term contracts with Eskom. ANC elites had already begun to use parastatals such as Eskom as a source of patronage and rents.

In this way, a sadly predictable ANC alliance of leftists, crooks, and big business empowerment partners insisted that Eskom must be left in control of generation and the grid. Private investment was effectively blocked.

The key consequences, in short, have been an absurdly inefficient parastatal, a tripling of electricity prices that has hit economic growth and the poor, load shedding, cash flow crises, debt junking, and systemic risks to the entire economy.

The one bright light has been some investment in renewables by private power generators.

The Electricity Regulation Act of 2006, and associated regulations promulgated in 2009, empowered the energy minister, in 2011, to formulate an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that set out a proposed generation mix in the light of demand and cost projections.

In consequence, the government invited R150bn of private investment in wind, photo-voltaic, and concentrated solar power in the years that followed. This represented just 3% of energy supplied to the grid — but it set out a potential future path to a sustainable economy.

Eskom adopted its usual blocking strategy, generating dubious statistics, menacing private generators, and eventually, in 2016, threatening to exclude private generators from the transmission grid.

The IRP became a political football. Zuma’s five morally challenged energy ministers, shadowy energy officials, and wily Eskom senior managers, together defended apparent abuses of procurement powers and perpetuated Zuma’s personal project of nuclear power procurement from the Russian Federation.

While Zuma’s ministerial underlings were undermining SA’s prospects of sustainable and affordable energy, the rest of the world had woken up. Renewable prices fell globally as a result of technological breakthroughs in solar and wind generation, and falls in the cost of storing electricity.

While some South African “expert” consultants promoted coal and nuclear generation, and disparaged renewable “utopias”, international orthodoxy was radically changing. As Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance observed last year, renewables will probably account for 72% of global power-generation investment by 2040.

Renewables are already cheaper than coal and nuclear by any sane measures. Renewable generation costs are likely to drop by two thirds for both solar and wind power over the next two decades.

It is little wonder that even in nuclear-friendly China, wind-power investments have outstripped nuclear since 2012.

The real motivations for nuclear power generation have disappeared with Zuma’s resignation. It will, however, take time for propagandist and compromised officials to be removed, and for the disinformation campaign that government officials and industry consultants have engaged in for more than a decade to be neutralised.

Reason and evidence will hopefully now play a more decisive role in decisions about SA’s future energy mix.

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

Zombie MPs

What on earth has happened to ANC MPs? Two decades ago, the party’s legislators helped forge SA’s new Constitution and overhauled a vast swathe of apartheid-era legislation.

Soon after these triumphs, however, many of the governing party’s MPs moved into a dormant or even vegetative state. Party whips and the caucus code of conduct damped any enthusiasm they might have felt for parliamentary oversight.

Any committee chairman showing abnormal signs of intellectual activity was quickly appointed a deputy minister. The quality of ANC MPs steadily declined as the legislature became a retirement home for divisive provincial politicians.

Even the arrival of the noisy EFF in 2014 did not rouse most ANC members from their slumbers. But almost all parliamentary zombies have now been jolted into life by the shock of Cyril Ramaphosa’s elevation to the presidency.

Every day now, a torrent of statements pours out of the parliamentary media office. Earlier this week, the portfolio committees on police and on justice and correctional services castigated ministers and former ministers for “inadequate responses” to questions about the prosecution of alleged state-capture malefactors.

The portfolio committee on social development also hauled South African Social Security Agency directors over the coals for inadequate audit processes. The portfolio committee on public enterprises said it was “not happy or impressed” by how former Eskom board chairman Ben Ngubane had responded to its questions.

There are four possible explanations for the extraordinary revitalisation of once lethargic committee members and chairmen.

First, we may have arrived at a genuine watershed moment with regard to the moral character of SA’s political elites. MPs may have been shocked by how close the country came to full-scale state capture. Recognising how little they did to avert such a disastrous situation, ANC MPs are now driven by a redoubled personal determination to serve the people and by a deeper than ever moral rectitude.

Second, the ANC still lies in a post-conference interregnum. Since Ramaphosa has yet to secure an electoral mandate, party activists are now free to “follow their conscience”, although sceptics may feel that many MPs may not know what this entity is or where to find it.

Third, the reanimation of zombie MPs may have been initiated by paranormal clairvoyance about their presence on or absence from future candidate lists. After the Polokwane conference in 2007, when Jacob Zuma became ANC president, even doddery ANC parliamentarians staggered to their feet to lambast Thabo Mbeki’s loyalist ministers — often in the hope of future rewards from Zuma. Today, a Ramaphosa-controlled list process for the 2019 elections is again concentrating MPs’ minds.

Finally, ANC MPs may have been recruited to perform walk-on roles in the most ambitious theatrical performances yet conceived in post-apartheid SA. Given that state capture and parastatal looting were instigated and realised by multitudes of ANC politicians and their allies, these numerous malfeasants simply cannot all be punished without putting much of the party behind bars.

For this reason, a spectacular drama of parliamentary interrogation, castigation and humiliation is required to avert the need for a comprehensive (and also bourgeois-liberal) programme of prosecution and punishment.

Such a drama will smooth the way for a more thorough and legalistic covering of the tracks, one that can be accomplished only by a presidential commission of selective inquiry into state capture.

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