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.