Foreign Affairs

Corruption and Press Freedom in South Africa

Freedom of the media is essential to the honesty of a democracy. The South African media exposed the evils of apartheid thirty years ago but, now that the African National Congress no longer needs help, it is apparently clamping down on media freedom.

Journalism in the 1980s often put reporters in grave danger of being sent to prison, most of them in solitary confinement. Journalists’ phones were tapped en masse. The only up side was that no reporter paid his or her phone accounts. Within ten minutes of the landlines being switched off, back they’d come.

Jane Duncan, Highway Africa Chair of the Media and Information Society, School of Journalism at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, says there is certainly no evidence that journalistic corruption is rife; au contraire. There is proof that the South African print media play their role with vigour. In spite of the ANC’s protestations to the contrary, it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that the party has revived the silencing of the press because some of the leaders have recently been subject to embarrassing exposés, raising questions about their fitness for office.

What has become apparent is that the South African government is corrupt, and so is the governing party. This is no longer merely the opinion of the parliamentary opposition or disaffected whites or a hostile media, but of the ANC itself. It has now admitted that corruption is a chronic problem in the party, which is a startling admission from the government. In the face of successive media disclosures of corruption among politicians and civil servants, it had until now steadfastly denied that the problem was widespread, let alone chronic.

Corrupt government is not new to South Africa, of course. The National Party, which introduced apartheid and an attendant slew of repressive laws to apply it, was as corrupt a government as existed anywhere in the world. But it was institutional corruption of a nation’s morality, not the venal variety which now pervades government institutions, many NGOs and a very large portion of the civil service. Fifteen years ago, while reporting on the election which saw the appointment of Thabo Mbeki, who followed Nelson Mandela, I found the stories around the Sunday barbecues centred on car hijacking; five years ago it had moved on to home invasions; and now the chief topic of conversation is corruption; everyone, it appears, has a story.

At a Sunday lunch in Johannesburg recently, for instance, a group of forty-somethings, including an ordained minister, were discussing how easy it is to bribe traffic policemen. A couple of hundred rand paid directly to the arresting officer would get you off a speeding fine; a drink-driving charge might cost R1000 or more to persuade the officers not to proceed with the breathalyser. Of the dozen or so at the table only one said he would not, as a matter of principle, try to bribe a public official, while one woman said she would be too scared to do so, lest it came back to bite her. The rest, including the minister, said they would happily hand over a couple of thousand to avoid the inconvenience or embarrassment of a drink-driving charge.

The irony seemed to escape them. They had earlier been inveighing against the culture of corruption and yet they didn’t seem to understand that in their complicity they were ensuring its survival.

So venal policemen, prosecutors and magistrates are not helping the government to stamp out crime, but neither is the example of South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma. His financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of bribing Zuma, with whom the judge said he had an “improper relationship”. He was sentenced to fifteen years in jail. The head of the prosecuting authority did not charge Zuma, who was then deputy president, on the grounds that the prosecution would fail. It cost Zuma his job but did nothing to prejudice his presidential ambitions, despite a senior judge saying it was bizarre to charge the briber and not the bribee.

Jacob Sello was appointed South Africa’s police commissioner in 2000. He said at the time he would be tackling corruption “so that we can fight crime with clean hands”. Unfortunately for the country he did make corruption a priority—just not combating it. In July this year he too was sent to prison for fifteen years for taking bribes from a drug lord and murder suspect. When sentencing, the judge described the ex-minister—also involved with Interpol—of being an embarrassment to all right-thinking citizens.

The ANC has been in denial for so long that the admission of rife corruption surprised commentators, who pointed to the litany of media stories detailing examples of egregious behaviour. But the jury will remain out until the government and the ANC start tackling the problem and not continue just to talk about it.

Good does sometimes come into the equation. The forces for good have a powerful ally in Zwelinzima Vavi, the boss of COSATU, the trade union movement which, in a triple alliance with the Communist Party and the ANC, forms the government. Vavi has spoken repeatedly about corruption and greed, calling for a lifestyle audit on ministers and public servants. He says he is tired of explaining to his members why greedy ministers and senior officials have become conspicuous consumers of products such as German cars, Bentleys, Armani suits, Chivas Regal whisky and mansions in the affluent suburbs. These men are known as the Black Diamonds. A visit to the lobby lounge of a five-star hotel will explain what he means.

And meanwhile, on the outskirts of the major cities are the ghettos; overcrowded tin shanties with no running water, no electricity, poor health, little expectation of a steady job, and no future to dream about. These are the people who have voted for the ANC and now are a showcase for the drama which has led to the once-oppressed becoming the oppressors.

The venality which offends Vavi is ubiquitous but not nearly as harmful to the fiscus as the government’s reputation of awarding contracts worth billions to a new class of South African businessmen: the tenderpreneur. These are people whose only qualification seems to be a close relationship with a senior civil servant who can shift government contracts their way in return for a kick-back.

More recently there have been widespread strikes, many of them violent, by citizens who are fed up with the widening gap between the haves—which now includes a substantial black component—and the have-nots. So far there is no evidence that the poor will swing away from the ANC at the poll, but if COSATU runs out of patience Vavi might take his supporters out, with serious political consequences for the government.

Meanwhile it is a moot point as to whether Zuma will succeed in silencing the press. There is no doubt this is a move to stop information which embarrasses the government. The constantly threatened legislation would certainly dry up the whistleblowers and put journalists at great risk of being sent to jail for twenty-five years. Benjamin Pogrund, a former journalist at the now defunct Rand Daily Mail who now lives in Israel, was jailed and had his passport taken away by the apartheid government and thus knows about these things, said: “I am saddened that all the sacrifices made by so many people who fought for freedom are being betrayed. Even the bravest journalist will quail at the thought of a quarter of a century behind bars.” He also asked: “What has Mandela said?”

Sadly, nothing; since he retired from politics over ten years ago. He may still be the icon of the world. Young children are sent off to stand in front of his house and sing “Happy Birthday”. But he’s yesterday’s man. He was trundled around the arena at the World Cup Final, but didn’t speak. He must weep into his pillow at night at seeing his dream come so brutally unstuck.

But the answer to Pogrund’s question would be that if he did know, he would be appalled. The introduction of legislation to silence the press would badly damage the democratic reputation earned under his leadership and would resonate badly with South Africans who remember John Vorster, the most brutal of the country’s apartheid leaders, saying, “Rights are getting out of hand.”

In his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, the saintly but human Madiba wrote: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” Words that would have come back to haunt him. 

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