Nietzsche has likened corruption to the annual arrival of autumn. In some countries, this changing season may be manufactured by a coup, the potential beginning of democratic backsliding. In others, it could be a hasty effort by the government to sweep up this corruption by electing new leaders.
The South African government seems to have engaged with both tactics. The State Capacity Research Project published a report, describing a “silent coup,” with the African National Congress’ (ANC) repurposing of state institutions to “suit a constellation of rent-seeking networks,” spanning the “symbiotic relationship between the constitutional and shadow state.” Seemingly to address this “silent coup” wrought from corruption slipping through the cracks, the government decided to sweep it up, with Jacob Zuma’s recent resignation from his 8-year post as South African president. Headlines range from “ANC Scrambles to Shun Zuma Ahead of His Corruption Trial” to “Business forums ‘100% behind Jacob Zuma.” The “business forums” in the second article are described as groups that have used violence and intimidation to access government tenders. Post-Zuma, the ANC has responded to his charges, supporting the idea that he must be held accountable, through “equality of all before the law.” Does holding Jacob Zuma accountable and exposing him for his corruption show South Africa’s first step in dismissing corruption?
Perhaps. But, the real question is whether this action will actually have impact in counteracting corruption and informing the opinions of the electorate for future change. Before Zuma’s eventual resignation, there were multiple attempts from the National Assembly to oust him, mostly from opposition parties. Few ANC members would break up party ranks, emphasizing a stronger allegiance to parties than to voters. Peter Mair discusses how early democracies instituted parties to act as representatives of constituent interests, translating collective preferences. Over time, however, parties have moved their centers of gravity from civil society to the state (Katz/Mair 1995) and strengthening their governmental roles. In other words, parties have moved from representing interests of the citizens to the state to representing interests of the state to the citizens. While the image of the ANC has been tarnished with a lack of credibility, it is still the party in power. While the politician was punished, the party was not, so is it possible for the corrupt networks within the ANC created during Zuma’s reign to rear their heads again?
Circling back to the theoretical notions of corruption and democracy, these two concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A critical link between corruption and democracy is the ability for corruption to undermine support for democracy. While a country with a long standing history of democracy, voters may proceed to elect the opposing party; in a country with widespread polarization, with the electorate ranking partisan values over democratic ones, this cannot always be the case. The ANC has won majorities in every election since the first multiracial contest in 1994, but through the course of Zuma’s presidency, the party started losing control of cities, such as Johannesburg in a 2016 municipal vote.
Corruption is not necessarily anti-democratic, especially if it can be kept in check or if it is actually praised by constituents. However, if the electorate is uninformed, could it actually be an indicator of democratic backsliding? In her report “Explaining South Africa’s Racial Census,” Karen Ferree suggests voting along racial lines may be a solution to uncertainty, i.e. an informational or “cognitive” shortcut. Voters take easily acquired information, such as race and socioeconomic identity, which they use to determine what is most likely to benefit them in the future. In this report, Ferree provides a definition of the term “racial” to indicate voting, either on the basis of prejudice or on the basis of racial clues. Milan Svolik suggests the ability for incumbents to subvert democracy in polarized societies; when voters have strong preferences for their favorite candidate or party, it makes it costly for them to punish an incumbent by voting for a challenger. This seems to convey a manipulated democratic facade borne from misinformation, rather than true freedom and fairness. Furthermore, when racial politics leads to unchecked violence, there is even greater cause for concern.
Since taking office, Cyril Ramaphosa has fired a number of Zuma appointees in the cabinet and has suspended the head of the national tax agency. Law enforcement officers have cracked down on graft, particularly targeting the Guptas, allies of Zuma and complicit in past corruption scandals. South Africa now has an ANC representative that is cracking down on corruption, but how long will this last? If voters are voting along racial and partisan lines, and a corrupt candidate represents a certain set of racial issues, will corruption then be punished? Only time and a close watch of the ANC will tell.
*Photo by Linh Do, “President Zuma,” Creative Commons Zero license.