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:

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Guest Post: A “Guatemalan Spring”? — Not Yet.

Alicia Robinson, a student at Harvard Law School, contributes the following guest post:

Guatemala has long been beset by persistent poverty, corruption, and a culture of impunity – an Unholy Trinity that has afflicted much of Central and South America. Moreover, Guatemala has the misfortune of being geographically located at the center of major drug trafficking routes to the North American and European markets, where the unrelenting demand has allowed organized crime to strengthen its hold over the country’s institutions of governance. Yet as Mathieu Tromme’s recent post on this blog highlighted, there are some encouraging signs of change. Most notably, the recent uncovering of a massive tax fraud orechestrated at the highest levels of the executive branch triggered protests that forced the resignation of the vice president – a major victory against impunity in the country.

However, despite this success, and the broad popular support for more action against corruption and impunity, Mr. Tromme may be overly optimistic when he characterizes this this event and the surrounding protests as the inception of a “Guatemalan Spring” that will bring an end to the era of impunity in Guatemala. Corruption still very much riddles every corner of Guatemalan society and the toughest part of the battle lies ahead. Continue reading

Guest Post–Reflections on the “Guatemalan Spring”

Mathieu Tromme, Senior Research Fellow at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, contributes the following guest post:

Guatemala is in the midst of its worst political crisis in the two decades since the end of the country’s civil war in 1996. Weekly marches, sit-ins and demonstrations keep drawing tens of thousands to the streets, denouncing corruption and demanding the President’s resignation, as well as a purge of politics and the judiciary (among other things). The scope and size of the demonstrations has been something of a surprise, given that the Guatemalan public often seems uninterested in political affairs or reluctant to express dissent. Although the protests originated in the capital, they have now spread to the whole country, and brought lower and middle classes together. The main cause of this discontent? Public anger over a string of corruption scandals.

The demonstrations—which some believe are the start of a “Guatemalan Spring”— began this past April, when the Office of the Public Prosecutor against Impunity, together with the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish) published an investigative report linking fraud in the Customs Department to the Vice President’s Office. Specifically, Vice President Baldetti’s private secretary, Mr. Monzón Rojas, stands accused of being at the helm of a wide tax and customs fraud scheme known as La Linea (“the line”), which has defrauded the state of about US$120 million. Although Vice President Baldetti, tried to distance herself from her Secretary (who’s still on the run), mounting public and political pressure forced her to resign on May 8. In addition, there were further revelations that lawyers representing detainees in connection with La Linea attempted to bribe Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. And there were other scandals as well: the head of the Ministry of Energy and Mining lost his post over corruption charges, the Ministers of the Interior, Environment, and Energy resigned, and the President of the Central Bank and the head of the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security (who was formerly the President’s personal secretary) have been forced to resign after being accused of fraud and influence peddling.

Although there are many interesting aspects of these anticorruption protests, let me highlight what seem to me especially important features of both the protests and the underlying problems that triggered them—features which, though specific to Guatemala, may have broader implications for the fight against entrenched political corruption. Continue reading