Why patronage and state capture spell trouble for South Africa

08 November 2016 | Story Co-Pierre Georg
South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and President Jacob Zuma. Ramaphosa has described the ANC government as being at war with itself. <a href="https://www.flickr.com/" target=" _blank">Flickr</a>
South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and President Jacob Zuma. Ramaphosa has described the ANC government as being at war with itself. Flickr

South Africa has caught the world’s attention with an epic battle between two powerful factions within the governing African National Congress (ANC) which has spilt into government. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has aptly described this as a government that wages “war with itself”.

On the one side there is the largely rural based faction of patronage politicians around President Jacob Zuma. The other side is less well defined, but it can be safely assumed that the beleaguered finance minister Pravin Gordhan is among them. It is also a safe bet to say that the chairperson of the Gauteng ANC, Paul Mashatile, and ANC chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, are not in camp Zuma anymore. What makes this battle within government different from the usual political quarrels is the viciousness with which the patronage politicians are fighting to get the upper hand.

The World Bank’s Joel Hellman has defined state capture as "the efforts of firms to shape the laws, policies, and regulations of the state to their own advantage by providing illicit private gains to public officials".

In South Africa, obtaining government tenders should be added to the channels through which unscrupulous firms and individuals can benefit from state capture.

It is necessary to understand the system of patronage politics and the state capture that fuels it to understand why replacing Gordhan is so important to Zuma. So important, that Zuma is willing to risk the unity of his party and losing South Africa’s investment grade sovereign debt rating, which would have devastating effects on the economy and the budget.

The South African captors are reported to be the wealthy Gupta family. Their capture of the government is so deep that they even dared to offer finance minister Nhlanhla Nene’s job to his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas. And not only that: to sweeten the deal, one of the Gupta brothers, Ajay, is reported to have offered Jonas a bribe of R600 million. 

This, and other bombshells were revealed in former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's outgoing report on state capture. After Jonas turned down Ajay Gupta's offer, Des van Rooyen, now Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister, went to the Saxonwold compound seven days in a row before President Zuma made him Finance Minister for four days in December 2015.

South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan
and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas. Flickr
The money provided by the Guptas fuels the patronage machinery that Zuma and his cronies use to fight for dominance in the ANC. The family has denied the allegations against it.

South Africa has reached a critical point. If the patronage politicians win the battle within the ANC and complete the capture of the state, the country will slip from stagnation into the abyss.



Institutions that have been compromised

As part of their fight for dominance, patronage politicians have attacked the freedom of press as well as the rule of law.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng, chief operating officer of the SABC, turned the public broadcaster into a propaganda machine by telling its journalists “do not focus on negative stories”. The resulting mess at the SABC even triggered scathing criticism from some within the ANC’s top leadership.

Institutions that guarantee the rule of law have suffered severely. The reputation of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), for example, has been shredded by its decision to appeal a high court ruling to reinstate the 783 corruption charges against President Zuma.

The charges were dropped in suspicious circumstances in 2009. This paved the way for Zuma to become president.

Similarly, the Directorate for Priority Crime, (known as the Hawks), has been used to create a narrative that would allow Zuma to replace Gordhan with someone from the patronage camp. University of Cape Town legal expert Cathleen Powell argues that the Hawks' continuing attacks on Gordhan are “not only nonsensical, but are obviously nonsensical”. The Hawks, she says, are behaving in a way that “is blatantly outside their powers under law”. NPA head, Shaun Abrahams, himself must have come to a similar conclusion when he decided to drop the cooked-up charges against Gordhan, only days before the Finance Minister was due to appear in a high court in Pretoria on 2 November.

In September, a new front has been opened against an institution most would have believed was beyond the reach of the patronage politicians. First, ANC Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte questioned the independence of the Reserve Bank saying that its private ownership posed a “difficulty”. Then, Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane suggested to cabinet that the right to grant banking licenses be moved from the Reserve Bank to the National Treasury. The National Treasury has been a key target for capture because it controls the government purse.

From an economic perspective, the comments by Duarte and Zwane are obvious nonsense. The Reserve Bank’s independence is enshrined in the constitution. And the bank has been lauded for its independence, for maintaining price stability and for ensuring the health of the banking sector. 

ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte. Flickr
To suggest, as Zwane has, that National Treasury should conduct banking supervision is contrary to international best practices and would only weaken banking supervision in the country.

Through the foolishness of their suggestions Duarte and Zwane reveal their true colours. Zwane has been linked to the Guptas since his appointment as minerals and energy minister while Duarte’s son-in-law has been linked to the family.

The economic consequences of state capture are devastating for the economy. South Africa’s dysfunctional state owned enterprises, from South African Airways to the national power utility Eskom, are weighing heavily on the economy. In a recent evaluation the IMF emphasised the need for South Africa “to improve SOE performance and strengthen their governance”.

South Africa’s mining minister Mosebenzi Zwane. Flickr
The parlous state of the state owned enterprises was amplified when Futuregrowth, Africa’s biggest private fixed-income manager, announced that it would no longer be lending money to any of them, including Eskom.

Madonsela's damning state capture report revealed how prudent Futuregrowth's decision was. It turns out that Eskom CEO, Brian Molefe, approved a highly unusual and irregular pre-payment of R600 million to Tegeta, a Gupta-owned firm who needed the money to purchase the very coal mine that should produce the coal for which the Guptas received a pre-payment.

Everything about Eskom's behaviour raises corporate governance red flags and might eventually lead to criminal charges being laid against Molefe and the Eskom board.

Losing the confidence of Futuregrowth and other institutional investors will significantly exacerbate the country’s economic woes. South Africa will not only lose access to much needed funding for infrastructure projects. It will also increase its chances of being alienating international investors as well as rating agencies.

This is something it can ill afford given its large and persistent current account deficit. Without investment, and without its current sovereign rating, the country’s currency will plummet even further, exacerbating inflationary pressures.

There is, unfortunately, no quick fix to the current crisis. The only way of getting rid of patronage politicians is through a political process. A government needs checks and balances from a strong civil society. Recently, the #SaveSouthAfrica movement led by ANC stalwart, Sipho Pityana, was trying to organise various groups within civil society to stand up against state capture and to hold government accountable. However, the ANC has not understood the warning voters sent during the last municipal election. Let’s hope it will understand the warning international investors are sending before the damage to the economy becomes irreversible.

Co-Pierre Georg, Senior Lecturer, African Institute for Financial Markets and Risk Management, University of Cape Town.
This article was updated by the author on 8 November 2016 to reflect the latest developments, following the release of the state capture report. The original article first appeared on 1 September 2016 in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from carolyn.newton@uct.ac.za.

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