Residents of Motsoaledi informal settlement collect food parcels at Power Park in Soweto. Picture: Freddy Mavunda
Residents of Motsoaledi informal settlement collect food parcels at Power Park in Soweto. Picture: Freddy Mavunda

President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to deal “harshly” with those found to be involved in corruption in the distribution of food parcels meant for the poor during the ongoing lockdown. On Monday he described the hoarding and selling of food parcels by these political mercenaries as “disturbing and disgusting”. Both statements amplify just how impotent Ramaphosa is in the face of his party’s corruption, and how he cannot survive politically without allowing it to continue.

First, the chances of “harsh” treatment of politically connected individuals in this and any other corrupt activity are nearly zero. It has not happened before. Why would it happen now? Second, except for the fact that it is taking place in an extraordinarily difficult time for SA, there is nothing “disturbing” about the food parcel corruption. No-one who lives here and works in government would be disturbed by these reports because this is par for the course in government procurement.

The minute Ramaphosa invoked the Disaster Management Act, the hyenas were at the door to re-enact what they had done during Winnie Mandela’s funeral, during declarations of flood or hail damage, or during any instance we have had in the past to disburse money urgently. In fact, many government tenders operate in this manner in ordinary times.

What is disturbing, however, is for Ramaphosa to say that harsh action will be taken against those responsible for this scandal. He has used the word “harshly” many times before in relation to corruption. It has come to mean nothing.

At an ANC KwaZulu Natal fundraising dinner in October 2018, Ramaphosa said he wanted the VBS scandal to be dealt with swiftly. “If people have done wrong against the people of SA, they must know that there will be consequences, and that the consequences are going to be quite harsh against them …. We need to speed up the process of ensuring that those who have done wrong against our people [are] made to account without delay,” he said.

Yet here we are, 18 months later, and the VBS looters and their political enablers (particularly ANC councillors who illegally deposited ratepayers’ money with the bank despite the law expressly forbidding this) are still walking the streets, and very possibly distributing food parcels to their friends.

In January this year, reacting to a report by Transparency International that claimed SA ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries, Ramaphosa said the scourge must be dealt with “harshly”. “This should now be the last time that SA is described like that,” Ramaphosa said in a conversation with business leaders.

Those business leaders must be shaking their heads in consternation right now. After communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams violated lockdown regulations, Ramaphosa placed her on special leave for two months and made her apologise. Meanwhile Mark Munroe, CEO of Impala’s Rustenburg mines, was last week charged with contravening lockdown regulations for asking workers to return to site. He has been released on R60,000 bail. Ramaphosa said: “The law should be allowed to take its course” with regards to Ndabeni-Abrahams’s case. The law is clearly taking the long road on this one. She hasn’t been charged.

So, will anyone really be dealt with “harshly” for any of these outrageous abuses on food parcels? The point is that those responsible for this looting are political actors: dodgy ministers and their friends, MECs, political appointees to public service jobs, councillors and their friends and families who are fronting for the political appointees. The history is that they hardly ever get touched by law enforcement authorities.

When Ramaphosa rose to power in the ANC just over two years ago, he had to make two tough calls: first, how to rid the ANC of corruption and, second, how to fix the economy.

On corruption, he had to investigate, prosecute and jail those responsible for corruption and state capture. To achieve that he had to appoint the likes of National Prosecuting Authority head Shamila Batohi and others. They are failing. Police minister Bheki Cele’s charges are today more interested in the temperature of Woolies’s rotisserie chicken and beating up black people in townships than they are in investigating and arresting politically connected bad guys.

But without their prosecution, Ramaphosa has to work with these miscreants in the ANC. Worse, to stay in power – the party chooses a new leader in 2½ years – he has to keep many of them on-side to ensure a second term. Many of the councillors who are running around giving food parcels to ANC supporters or keeping them for their families and friends were in the Ramaphosa or David Mabuza election machinery in the run-up to the Nasrec conference. They are not going away any time soon, and they will be pivotal to party elections in December 2022.

Ndabeni-Abrahams was a powerhouse of the Ramaphosa machinery in the Eastern Cape. Ramaphosa’s crew may have removed the fish’s rotten head by kicking out Jacob Zuma, but it may be too late – the entire body was infected and the fish now stinks to the rafters. Ramaphosa also failed to double down on his market-oriented approach to development. He kowtowed to the likes of the tripartite alliance, his secretary-general, Ace Magashule, and others whose power derives from their ability to dispense government largesse – including at state-owned enterprises or through food-parcel tenders.

Loosening the party’s grip on the economy (by running SAA on market principles, for example) would have given more power to ordinary people and taken it away from the small, corrupt elite which is now responsible for the corruption we see.

So, there will be no harsh action. The corrupt are going nowhere. And there is nothing “disturbing” about it. It’s just the way it is. Ramaphosa may in future still be able to rid himself of the Gordian knot that is ANC corruption, but for now he is its captive.

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