Political Watch

ANC political patronage takes SA into dangerous state capture

2017: Democracy or revolution?

Capture of the state and its institutions by the ANC, on the back the age-old phenomenon of patronage by the powerful, has South Africa in very dangerous space at year’s end.

The process which has started before his time in power, and with himself almost a victim of it, has come into full bloom since Mr Jacob Zuma in 2007 became leader of the ANC and president of the country in 2009. State capture, as it has done throughout history, has grown into an extremely poisonous plant.

And that, under some circumstances, is almost literally the case. In a recent article on The Conversation website Mike Muller, visiting adjunct professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, wrote: “A lot of what is being presented as radical economic transformation initiatives in South Africa is simply state capture by a corrupt elite.” “The consequences (in provision of water infrastructure) will be dire if the situation is not addressed,” he added as he indicated how “billions of rands are at stake in a story that threatens the lives and livelihoods of all water users”.

Patronage, which have developed into state capture, has seen contracts associated with water infrastructure awarded to political well-connected companies to do work well beyond their capabilities. In the process “at the most basic level, the number of people whose taps no longer provide a reliable water supply grew by almost two million between 2011 to 2015”.

While black economic empowerment, in a positive sense of the word, can also be described as a form of patronage, businessman and convenor of the Save South Africa campaign, Sipho Pityana, said over the weekend “the entire black economic empowerment project has regressed” under Mr Zuma’s leadership. And he ascribes it to state capture.

Pityana’s comments came in reaction to the publication of The Sunday Times of a “rich list” of the country’s 200 richest individuals. It revealed that the only ‘black’ person who made it into the top ten is Atul Gupta, whose family with Mr Zuma is central in the Public Protector’s recent “State of Capture” report.

The list also indicated that black ownership’s percentage share of the economy is shrinking rather than expanding.

Historical and broader background

Political, or if one looks back in history, ruling class patronage, is not a modern phenomenon. To this day there is hardly a country in the world that does not have patronage of one kind or another.

One of the oldest recorded instances of ruling class patronage dates back to the early 17th century when the Cardinal de Richelieu, the First Minister of France during the reign of Louis XIII, began his political career as a client of Marie de Médicis, the mother of the king and regent during Louis’s minority.

By the time of de Richelieu’s death, he had managed to establish a vast circle of ‘créatures’ (protégés), which, among many other functions, helped to propagate his lasting image as ‘le grand Armand’.

  • It is also important to note that the system of patronage is not unique to South Africa of even Africa. At times it takes on troublesome forms in developed 
  • In June 2011 the Los Angeles Times reported: “It has been clear for some time that President Obama has followed the time-dishonored practice of rewarding campaign contributors with cushy jobs in government and other benefits. But a new report by the Center for Public Integrity documents the outrageous extent to which the president's financial benefactors are being installed in important positions, including ambassadorships”; and
  • British author, futurist and keynote speaker, Patrick Dixon, in a 2014 article about the politics of patronage in the United Kingdom wrote: “A colleague of mine was recently offered a possible place in the House of Lords, if only she would reverse her previous decision and agree to support a government policy by heading up an important project.”

He, however, also warned: “Patronage is a powerful system which allows favours to be given to ‘friends’ as rewards for support or loyalty, or offered in advance to buy their co-operation in the future. It creates an elite where the only route to power lies in finding favour with ‘the powers that be’.

“Patronage destroys a society based on merit and rots the democratic process. Patronage gives power to patrons and takes it away from everyone else. Patronage thrives on secrecy because the process is so shameful that even its greatest enthusiasts are loath to have to justify each decision.”

How easily patronage can morph into state capture is also illustrated by the Dixon article: “Every extension of the power of patronage is a step further towards centralisation of authority, a step nearer to a totalitarian regime.”

Patronage was also not introduced to South Africa post-1994. The writer, in 1993, as MEC for local government in the old Transvaal had to institute a judicial enquiry to investigate into instances of the mayor of small North West Town buying, what turned out to be prime properties, on inside information prior to the publication of a new town development plan.

The patronage system created by the ANC by centralising power in the party, assisted by the possible constitutional ‘weakness’ of a purely proportional voting system, has facilitated the process of state capture.

And it did not start on Mr Zuma’s watch. He only perfected it.

He once almost became a victim when in 2008 a judge quashed corruption charges against him and found that then President Thabo Mbeki had used state institutions to execute a political strategy to get rid of him.

Dangers of state capture

There are numerous examples of instances where the economies, and often the social fabric, of countries have been destroyed when patronage systems develop into state capture. And, again, not all those examples are from Africa.

In December last year the Inquirer carried an article in which a visiting political scientist from Harvard to the Philippines referred to the ills brought about by “political patronage – vote-buying, corruption, political dynasties – which hinder attempts to foster an ‘inclusive’ economy that will benefit others besides the rich and the well-connected”.

The politics of patronage, in the battle for control of state resources, is, more often than not, the source of factionalism and when it morphs into state capture it can become lethal.

In September this year in an article on The Conversation website Co-Pierre Georg, senior lecturer of the African Institute for Financial Markets and Risk Management at the University of Cape Town, wrote: “South Africa has reached a critical point. If patronage politicians win the battle within the ruling ANC and complete the capture of the state, the country will slip from stagnation into the abyss.”

How this battle, almost a war, inside the ANC develops over the coming months is not only bound to dominate the political news scene, at least until the ANC’s elective conference in December 2017.

As the taps run dry, food prices climb, news of a political elite lining their pockets to the tune of millions mount, and frustrations of the masses increase, the ANC, the government and organised society at large run a serious risk of what one commentator calls the “revolution of the poor” becoming unmanageable. The danger of increasing violence in our streets has become real.

by Piet Coetzer

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