Long Walks to Where? The Limits of Popular Protest as an Anticorruption Tool in South Africa

Anticorruption popular protests seem to be having a moment.  From Brazil to Guatemala to Malaysia, citizens have taken to the streets in response to allegations of bribery and graft. Now, a group of South Africans is hoping to add their home to the list of countries where direct action has taken hold.  A loosely knit coalition of groups calling itself Unite Against Corruption has scheduled marches in Cape Town and Pretoria next week, on September 30.

The group has good reason to believe that South Africa is ready for this kind of popular movement, given the country’s many recent corruption scandals: despite the Public Protector’s best efforts and significant initial public outcry, the “security upgrades” at President Zuma’s home in Nkandla have been brushed off (though the Constitutional Court has agreed to take up the issue); a 1990s arms deal continues to have spillover effects; the Public Protector recently released a report highlighting widespread corruption and improper conduct at the nation’s rail agency.  The list could go on and on.

Nevertheless, even if high-profile events like these may have primed the general South African public to be open to a popular anticorruption movement, there are reasons to be doubtful that these marches will have meaningful long-term effects. The obstacles that Unite Against Corruption and its marches are likely to face are not necessarily unique to South Africa, but worth noting in an attempt to analyze this particular situation:

  • The likely politicization of anticorruption efforts. Unite Against Corruption is explicitly non-partisan, which in theory should have several advantages: ideologically, it acknowledges the reality that corruption can be found in any party and outside of the world of high-profile politicians; practically, it seeks to sidestep being identified with or against a particular party and therefore to be more welcoming to South Africans of all backgrounds. However, in reality, the dominance of the South African political scene by the African National Congress (ANC) means that criticizing government corruption is likely to be seen as criticizing the ANC. The current administration has a tendency to frame any such criticism as anti-patriotic and, sometimes, racist. It’s only a few small steps from being anticorruption to coming across as anti-government, then anti-ANC, and then pro-Democratic Alliance (the main opposition party)—and that kind of association would greatly limit the movement’s potential base. Widespread disgust with the recent scandals, and with everyday corruption more generally, may give Unite Against Corruption some breathing room in this regard, but the movement will still have a difficult balancing act ahead of it.
  • Lack of clarity surrounding its goals. Unite Against Corruption has at times seemed unsure of exactly what the implementation of its “end corruption” goal would look like. It has since suggested that it is in the process of drafting demands to be delivered to “authorities” at the end of the march. These demands are to include “party political funding to be made transparent, that those accused of corruption face the law and are not relieved of their positions with golden handshakes, that corruption whistle-blowers are protected, that the office of the Public Protector be respected, and that lifestyle audits of those seeking public office be undertaken.” Regardless of whether or not these ideas are the most effective anticorruption tools available, they still lack implantation-level specificity. To take just one example, who will qualify as a whistleblower and how will s/he be protected? On the other hand, these goals also suffer from not having the dramatic heft or clarity of, for example, calling for President Zuma to resign. Avoiding such a demand may be part of Unite Against Corruption’s effort to remain non-partisan. It may also be the case that “boring” measures are actually the most effective way to fight corruption, especially if one is seeking true systemic change. However, campaigns centered on such measures do not as easily lend themselves to inspiring mass protests. Perhaps Unite Against Corruption can successfully ignite public passion by focusing on the costs of corruption, which can—in the hands of a smart campaigner—be viscerally powerful. Nevertheless, as it currently stands, it’s not certain that Unite Against Corruption really knows what it wants or that it’s prepared to translate those desires into a vocabulary that captures the public’s imagination.
  • The importance of the judiciary in past South African civil society campaigns and the limits of electoral pressure. South Africa has a strong civil society, and, despite the many problems that still haunt the country, it has made important progress on many issues taken up by non-governmental organizations. However, outside of the anti-apartheid movement, many of those victories have taken the form of court cases. Since South Africa’s courts have already weighed in on issues of corruption, it’s not clear that the mass movement element of this campaign will succeed in bringing about any further change. If anything, the main value-adds of the campaign would seem to be the potential to decrease public resignation to the existence of corruption and either vote out current, corrupt politicians or prompt demands for new, stricter anticorruption legislation. In terms of the latter, the ANC’s domination is likely to be a hindrance. In order to create change, one of two scenarios would have to occur: enough current ANC supporters would need to be persuaded to vote for another, less corrupt party for that other party to win (unlikely for now, though not impossible over the longer term) or the ANC would need to be so scared of the aforementioned scenario occurring that they chose different candidates through their own internal selection processes (and with the ANC likely to be aware of the unlikeliness of the first scenario, this scenario too seems improbable). With regard to new anticorruption legislation, bills targeting politicians seem unlikely to be supported by politicians who would be more strictly regulated and who don’t feel their electoral lives are at stake. Perhaps there is some room for stricter laws regarding non-political figures, but many top businesspeople have strong political connections that might allow them to block such legislative proposals.

None of this is to suggest that efforts to fight corruption are inevitably fruitless. Perhaps a public engaged by the marches will be more likely to bring cases challenging corrupt acts, particular at lower levels. Furthermore, there have recently been moves by political figures—an anti-corruption speech by the Deputy President (and possible future president), an effort by a firebrand opposition party leader to memorialize an assassinated whistleblower’s house—that indicate an anticorruption posture could have some political value. Still, it seems far from certain that United Against Corruption’s march will force South Africa’s politicians to turn their token gestures into effective actions.

9 thoughts on “Long Walks to Where? The Limits of Popular Protest as an Anticorruption Tool in South Africa

  1. Thank you for this great post, Katie. I was particularly interested in your comments on the shortcomings of potential anticorruption legislation. I agree with your presumption that a politician is unlikely to support legislation restricting her activities absent some consequence for voting against the measure. That same dynamic might prevent legislation that focuses on non-political actors from being enacted, particularly if the non-political actors impacted are closely allied with the elected officials who would vote on the legislation (which I assume would be true in many cases).

    Given the difficulties in achieving legislative reform—even against non-political actors, I wonder what economic pressures the Unite Against Corruption coalition might put on private people and firms it considers complicit in corruption to move reform efforts forward. For example, are there particular non-state companies that the coalition could organize a boycott against? Certainly, boycotts are a slow path to reform, requiring a great deal of organization, patience, and alternative resources to replace those offered by the boycotted firm. Still, these potential reform efforts that do not require any action by any branch of government might be an effective route in South Africa given the political obstacles you highlight in your post.

    • Your point about clear goals, Katie, is also an important one. I really like Nathan’s idea of boycotting the non-political actors that engage in — or maybe just enable — bribery and corruption. Don’t just call President Zuma and Julius Malema to task for their lavish homes, boycott the people who built them. If they don’t do so already, perhaps Unite Against Corruption could publish a list of non-political actors that engage in corruption and try to encourage companies and people both nationally and internationally not to do business with them.

      Relatedly, I think investigating and revealing corruption should be a goal for Unite Against Corruption (again, if it isn’t already). The number of scandals surrounding President Zuma and the members of the South African Parliament and the fact that many of these abuses have been well documented can perhaps result in some “investigation fatigue.” If we have all this information and there’s no change, we should shift our focus away from investigations and onto something else. That does make sense — but we shouldn’t go too far.

      In particular, I think Unite Against Corruption (or a more extreme offshoot?) should pay careful attention to the power of audio and video to inspire outrage and therefore change. Rick Messick’s 9/16 piece on corruption in the Ghanaian courts notes that prosecutors have 500 hours of tape of judges taking bribes. While there was obviously a formal investigation in the Ghanaian case and therefore a will to prosecute, I think that type of evidence would be hard for an individual to overcome regardless of the context. The recent US example of the Planned Parenthood footage — while obviously a different situation and one where there are some serious questions about editing — demonstrates just how powerful video can be. While video won’t solve everything, I think a focus on headline grabbing, outrage generating investigations could be worthwhile.

      • Courtney, I think in this case a lack of outrage generating investigations hasn’t been the problem. As you mention, many of the scandals have been pretty well-documented, and not just by the media: the Public Protector has been pretty active and strong, publishing some important investigations, and really only limited by the government’s failure to follow through. Take Nkandla, Zuma’s house–it’s not in dispute what state money was spent on there, and the information was featured in a report by the Public Protector and widely covered by the media (leading to substantial public outrage). I’m not sure additional media would have made a difference.

        Another major problem in terms of investigations is that the government effectively neutered the special anticorruption investigation unit. If you’re suggesting that Unite Against Corruption activists should, in the style of the Planned Parenthood footage, go undercover and, say, attempt to bribe an official and videotape the process–setting aside any moral and legal issues for a moment, I’m not yet convinced that they could get anything on record than would be more shocking than is already available, at least not to get to any “big fish”–and as long as those fish are in place, I think they may be able to keep re-infecting the system. This all sounds too pessimistic, though; part of me thinks it may just be a matter of waiting until the political cycle naturally leads to new figures in power (perhaps for other reasons), and thinking that it’s not a completely futile hope that they might be less mired in corruption.

    • Nathan, I think your ideas about trying to target non-state actors have a lot of potential, and one Unite should further investigate–but the trouble is that in South Africa, most of the corruption seems to be on the part of political or government actors. I should probably refine that: corruption on a large scale. Sure, it takes two to tango, but it’s difficult to boycott, say, the two person student transport operation that bribed a principal to receive a contract. Even when it is a “company” at fault, it’s often a public utility or something of the like, which makes boycotting difficult. Still, I suspect someone more expert than I could, with the aforementioned digging, come up with some good ideas about some feasible candidates, and that’s something worth pursuing.

      • I also really liked Nathan’s point raising whether the movement may be more effective by targeting private companies, because doing so might have addressed another one of the concerns in the blog post. With an organized protest or boycott of non-state actors, Unite could have put teeth behind the position that the organization is targeting corruption across all sectors of society, not just the political. It’s unfortunate to hear, then, that most of the corruption overlaps with some state involvement, leaving Unite with few options.

        Targeting corruption involving foreign companies may be one option. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has been quoted in the press discussing noncompliance with local content requirements of in preferential procurement as leading to local job loss. Procurement issues often implicate the state, but if Numsa is correct in emphasizing foreign company involvement, these companies might be a useful target, particularly if it mobilizes the NGO community involved in Unite. Even if protested acts are not completely unconnected to the state, focusing on foreign companies may take the focus off domestic politics or even domestic companies, as local companies might be those bearing the costs of corruption here. That said, if Numsa separately seriously considers or moves toward the possibility of forming another party such as a worker’s party, United may face the same challenges of being labeled as political it’s been trying to avoid.

  2. Katie, a very interesting post. I couldn’t agree more with your opinions especially your concern regarding the ‘lack of clarity surrounding UAC’s goals’. However, sadly it seems to have increasingly become an endemic pattern. From Europe to Asia and from America to Africa, we have parties fighting against something..the Siriza against austerity in Greeze, AAP and UAC against corruption in India and SA respectively, Tamarod against Islamic State in Egypt and many more. However, each of them seem to have either miserably failed or reached an impasse foiling the enormous expectations ordinary citizens pinned on them. I believe that this is inevitable when you mobilize ‘against’ something and in galvanizing hatred and passion against that ‘something’, completely forget what you are fighting ‘for’. So when that something finally gives way in deference to your wishes, you have an ideology vacuum and dire consequences to follow. As they say, if you are not sure where you are going, any route will take you there. If UAC needs to move ahead, they need to have a clearer vision for the future around which they can mobilize the citizens of SA.

    And there comes the second dilemma, the articulation of such a vision factors in national aspirations and can be anything but apolitical. I do not think anti-corruption can be apolitical. It is a fight against entrenched power and how power buses itself. To fight it, you would need power drawn from people, moral strength drawn from your ideology and legitimacy from the consistency in your actions. UAC doesn’t seem to be ready on any of these counts. It may not be a bad time for them to stop, think, strategize and regroup.

    • Nayana, your point about how difficult it is to transition from being a group in opposition to “something” to a group offering a plan for the future seems spot-on to me. I suppose UAC’s comeback might be that since they aren’t actually a political party, they don’t need be (and in fact don’t want to be) the people to fill any vacuum they create, and that they’re hoping to create a system-wide change that means the old corrupt figures won’t be thrown out just to be replaced by new corrupt ones. Still, since so much of an anti-corruption effort is going to come down to legislation and enforcement, you need to win over politicians to your side or get your own people in place–and if UAC is foregoing the latter and the former seems so difficult, I’m struggling to see their theory of change here.

      All that said, I have enormous respect for the social justice advocacy that is taking place and has taken place in South Africa, and which has often been quite innovative and powerful. It would be great to be wrong, but a goal this big is going to take a lot of work–hopefully there’s more preparation going on behind the scenes than I’m aware of.

  3. I appreciate several peoples’ comments that targeting private corrupt actors through popular protests could make an end round to circumvent some of the institutional roadblocks to reform. However, given Katie’s point that they are harder to find and perhaps not the worst perpetrators, I wonder if the solution doesn’t instead lie in the line towards the end of the post that “perhaps a public engaged by the marches will be more likely to bring cases challenging corrupt acts, particular at lower levels.” It seems like it would be difficult for public protest to reform grand corruption, but you could have a groundswell of people refusing to bow to petty corruption. The principles would be similar to unionization: it’s easy for the police to demand a bribe from individuals, but if everyone binds together to refuse to pay, it becomes much more difficult. Of course, that counts on individual people either bowing to the dire consequences of not appeasing the police or agreeing not to pursue individual illegal benefits, a very tough ask. But with a popular movement behind it, it might become more doable than it was before.

  4. Katie, perhaps you have already seen the below article, but I found it extremely fascinating that recent developments are confirming your suspicions about challenges United Against Corruption will face in executing its campaign. Specifically, your projections that politicization of the movement and role/degree of court involvement have popped up internally within UAC’s ranks in its execution of the much-anticipated strike: http://beta.iol.co.za/business/news/anti-corruption-march-faces-hiccup-1921475
    In writing your article, did you anticipate some of your projections to not only apply to UAC’s outward facing operations and movement, but also to its internal operations?

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