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TIME Daily
TIME Magazine

TIME Magazine

Special Reports

AFRICA AUGUST 10, 1998 VOL. 152 NO. 6

Money For Nothing

South Africa's new government suffers some of the same corruption within its ranks as the old one


In the sometimes riotous era of South Africa's transition to racial equality looting was also known euphemistically as "affirmative shopping." The same cynics are now saying "affirmative action" in reality means affirmative extraction, as more and more newly-democratic fingers find their way into the national till. There is growing evidence that many local politicians and administrators are not only on the make--they're on the take.

Hardly a day goes by that some incident of theft, graft or corruption is not reported. The country is being "criminally milked of millions" by officials and public representatives, the Cape Times charged last month. "Few government departments, provincial governments and local authorities can claim to be free of the cancer of corruption."

At the top, the African National Congress government repeatedly declares that it is committed to transparency in its affairs and has drawn up an anti-corruption Executive Members Ethics Bill to put before Parliament this year. President Nelson Mandela, frequently speaking out against corruption, has called on all South Africans to "firm up the moral fiber of the nation," and has set up a special corruption investigation unit headed by a senior judge. The national leadership itself has a relatively clean sheet, despite allegations by press and parliamentary opposition members of upper-level waste and nepotism.

But not so further down the line. At almost every level of local government South Africa is caught up in what Judge Willem Heath, head of the special investigative unit, describes as a "culture of corruption"--from traffic cops taking bribes in the street to civil servants stealing government checks and politicians putting taxpayers' money directly into their own pockets. Heath's unit, established at the beginning of last year, has so far uncovered theft of government assets, including land, cars and office equipment such as computers and funds of more than $1.5 billion. And that, he says, using an African phrase, is "only the ears of the hippo."

Administrative graft is not exclusive to the new South Africa. Cronyism and waste were hallmarks of the apartheid government which, says Tony Leon, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, "could give master classes, if not Ph.D.s, in the art of corruption." Heath's investigations, although concentrating largely on recent cases, go back as far as 1976. Some involve nefarious dealings in the so-called "independent" black states of apartheid South Africa, which have now been incorporated into the country's reorganized nine provinces. Lucas Mangope, 74, former president of one such state, Bophuthatswana, which was divided between the North-West province and the Free State in 1994, was last month found guilty of fraud and theft involving about $760,000, including some $400,000 of tribal money he put into his own bank account. But deep in the apartheid past the skulduggery was usually cloaked in secrecy. Now, the transparency of the new South Africa brings it alarmingly into the open.

Leon accuses the government of behaving like Shakespeare's Macbeth--its senses numbed to the corruption that is taking place. "We are getting accustomed to the continuous depreciation and decay of our public life and services," he told Parliament. He has also pointed out that Judge Heath's unit--currently investigating "irregularities" in 17 local authorities--needed $6.3 million a year to operate successfully but was working only on a budget of $2.5 million.

The Democratic Party has a thick dossier--some call it a Swindler's List--of recent cases of theft, graft and corruption that have been exposed in the public administration. They include dubious dealings in the issuing of state or local government tenders, allegations of fraud against provincial leaders, a $16 million national housing fraud, $800,000 missing from an empowerment training school in the Western Cape, 8,000 checks worth $3.6 million stolen from the Department of Justice over the past two years, 1,200 "ghost workers" who siphoned off $8 million a year in salaries from the Northern province administration and $475,000 missing from the funds of a National Intelligence Agency Unit set up to investigate corruption.

One provincial leader, Mathews Phosa, Premier of Mpumalanga (formerly Eastern Transvaal) last month fired a senior member of his legislature who now faces possible criminal charges for fraud. "The picture is one of dishonesty, of collusion to defraud, of theft, of perjury, of maladministration, of misuse of authority and of corruption that is rife," he said. "It leaves one with a deep sense of shame." In Parliament however the opposition is saying that the government, unlike Phosa, is failing to take decisive action to deal with the problem. Public sentiment appears to be in agreement: in a national survey organized last year by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa almost half of the people polled said they believed that national government officials and local governments were corrupt. That is a stinging commentary on a leadership that allows the servants of its newly-won freedom to make free with the people's wealth.