South Africa’s anti-corruption march hit by government dirty tricks

On Wednesday the South African public will take to the streets, in spite of efforts to silence anti-corruption activists.

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Anti-corruption campaigners in South Africa are complaining that plans to hold giant marches across the country this Wednesday have been hit by government dirty-tricks. “It’s the first time I can remember the government trying to suppress a public demonstration since the end of apartheid,” Dave Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, told the New Statesman. “You would have thought they would have learnt lessons from the 1980s – it’s futile to ban expressions of public opinion.”

Coming from someone like Lewis, a trade unionist who served the non-racial union movement from the 1970s until after the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, these are serious allegations.

Plans for the demonstrations have been under way for months. Careful lobbying has brought a huge range of organisations on board, from churches to the South African chapter of the writer’s guild PEN international.

More than 650 people in the arts have pledged their support, from comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys to authors like Zakes Mda and Margie Orford, the PEN SA President. “Corruption is, in my view, a poison that affects a whole society eventually,” explained Orford.

The aim – say the organisers – is to mobilise 100 000 people to march to the Union Building in Pretoria and Parliament in Cape Town to protest against the country’s rampant corruption. The campaign group, Unite Against Corruption, says that a staggering £33bn has been misappropriated in one form or another since the end of white rule.

But months of planning received a setback when an official body granted workers official protection from dismissal on Friday for 8 October, well after the planned protest. As a result many ordinary union members will not join the march for fear of losing their jobs.

Lewis believes the ANC government and its allies in the communist party were behind the decision. “They should learn that you can’t bottle up this kind of frustration,” he said.

Entrenching corruption

The apartheid authorities were notoriously corrupt, diverting public funds to everything from bribes for oil and arms shipments to paying money into the personal Swiss bank accounts of the political elite. But since the ANC came to power corruption, far from being stamped out, has become even more entrenched.

President Jacob Zuma still has more than 700 allegations of corruption hanging over his head, which have never come to court. Attempts to bring corrupt officials to justice have been met with the removal of key officials. Lieutenant-General Anwa Dramat, the head of the Hawks, which targets organised crime and economic crime, was sacked in 2014. In his letter to the Minister of Police, Dramat said complained that he was pushed out because he was trying to fight the scourge of corruption which – in his words – has reached “epic proportions”.

Others have paid much higher prices.

In March this year an NGO – the Open Democracy Advice Centre – published the accounts of the persecution of ten whistleblowers. Some have been killed.

Xola Banisi, a member of the South African Municipal Workers Union, uncovered tender irregularities in the procurement department of the parastatal BloemWater. He took these to the police and was shot three times outside his girlfriend’s house in Bloemfontein’s Hillside Township shortly after handing in the dossier. No one has been arrested for his murder.

His brother, Bernard, is convinced this was an assassination – Xola had received several death threats before being killed. But Xola’s uncle was a veteran of the struggle, who had spent 15 years on Robben Island with Mandela, and he refused to be intimidated.

Anger at the unwillingness or inability of the authorities to halt the corrosive effects of corruption has undermined trust in the ANC and in the system of government in general. On Wednesday the South African public will take to the streets. The question is just how many will back the call of the many movements that have supported this protest.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.