South Africa’s corrupt and corrupting culture

Posted on November 20, 2010


(First published, March 2010)

For South Africa there is nothing new in arrogant claims to be above the law, in the enrichment of the few, the mythologising and distortion of history and the thuggish behaviour of security units in the service of a political elite. This corrupt and corrupting culture was dominant both in the apartheid state, and in the ANC in exile. It is a culture that appears now to be resurgent, so it seems vital that we confront the past honestly in order to ensure that we do not repeat it.

This fundamentally anti-democratic culture found dissent anathema and unwavering obedience a praiseworthy attribute. Questioning, let alone challenging, the leadership, its behaviour or decisions, was tantamount to treason: you were either for us or against us, a loyalist or an enemy. Loyalists at all times toed the line, however much it wavered or defied logic.

But while the systemic abuse of the apartheid state is quite well documented and known, that of the ANC in exile is still most often denied, despite publicity to the contrary; abuses within the camps of the exiled movement, where they are acknowledged, tend to be seen as aberrations within an organisation fundamentally committed to the democratic norms and humane practices espoused in its published policies. This is, however, a myth and one that needs to be confronted as the country seems in danger of going back to a future of authoritarianism, to a culture of gross intolerance behind the flimsy guise of democratic rhetoric.

To enforce this culture, the apartheid state had the security police who were given a free hand to threaten, abduct, torture and murder with impunity in the name of protecting the state. The ANC in its exile establishments in Africa had Mbokodo — literally, the grinding stone or stone that crushes — a security department that, like its mirror image in South Africa, often acted as a law unto itself. And the culture that it embodied also poisoned the movement in exile outposts such as in Britain, aspects of which are dealt with in my latest book, Comrade Moss — a political journey.

All members of the ANC political leadership, under that extremely shrewd politician, OR Tambo, were aware of the excesses and Tambo did, from time to time, act to ameliorate the situation, usually by transferring personnel accused of abuses from one locality to another in much the way the Roman Catholic Church transferred abusive priests. But Tambo was also capable of deploying what he called “a heavy stick” — the more thuggish elements of the security apparatus — if he thought it necessary.

He did this in 1985, sending Andrew Masondo, a man known for his brutality and abuse of young women, to the ANC school, the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) in Tanzania. Under a weak authoritarian regime, dissatisfaction and discipline at the school complex, where I served as founding head of the primary division from 1980 to 1982, had deteriorated to such and extent that it was decided that tougher measures were needed.

Sjambokkings, threats and various deprivations had failed to halt the resentment felt among the membership mass about grossly unequal treatment at the hands of the privileged, appointed, leadership. Anything that could be “fried” (stolen) and sold to the Tanzanians disappeared in an environment where only two South Africans and 39 Tanzanians staffed the the much vaunted ANC furniture factory that was supposed to be an example of education with production for exiles.

This was an environment where, even before the formal drafting in of Masondo, torture was used to extract, from students, confessions about dagga smoking and information about who might be using the drug; where, on one occasion that precipitated me and my family leaving Somafco, three ANC women, seen talking with PAC men in Morogoro town, were dragged before a nighttime kangaroo court and flogged so badly that two had to be hospitalised.

After Masondo’s arrival the ill-discipline and dissatisfaction apparently continued, as did Masondo’s widely reputed behaviour regarding women students. Complaints reached such a level that he had to be transferred — he became chief representative in Uganda — and a commission of enquiry into his conduct was established. Details of that enquiry have never been released.

The appointment of Masondo and the commission of enquiry were desperate measures taken by Tambo in the name of preserving the unity of the ANC. This was, to him and the rest of the leadership, paramount and is, in effect, the root of the problem. It amounts to insisting that the ANC equals the people, the leadership equals the ANC, therefore anyone who threatens this arrangement is an enemy of the people.

The overwhelming majority of the rank and file that fled the country from 1961 did not see things this way. They left for fear of persecution and because they believed in the vague, democratic promises contained in documents such as the Freedom Charter. This Charter prompted many public pronouncements from the ANC about democracy, debate and freedom of expression. But these were, at best, expressions of vague hope for the future; at worst, cynical sops to an anti-apartheid donor community.

Unity of the movement and loyalty to it as it existed, warts and all, was demanded. Yet the ANC was an admitted broad church, united only by opposition to the system of apartheid. It contained within it capitalists and socialists, revolutionaries and reformists, crooks, gangsters, the bold and the merely fearful.

From the earliest days of exile it also held within its ranks numerous infiltrators, agents of the apartheid state. But it was almost certainly not true, as President BJ Vorster once claimed, that the majority of those joining the ANC in exile were agents of his security apparatus. However, such claims helped foster paranoia within the exile movement, an atmosphere that provided the leadership with an excuse to crack down on any perceived dissent and in which the agents could better operate.

And number of exiles were agents. They were usually lured into service through bribery and the promise of non-prosecution for serious criminal offences and given special training on a farm, Rietvlei (Reed marsh) near Pretoria. This was the forerunner of the Askari operation that was to feature so prominently during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings more than 30 years later.

Most of these infiltrators apparently left the country in the company of genuine exiles, via “escape routes” established and run by the security police. Many rose to senior positions or held critical posts in the exile machinery, both in the ANC and PAC. This enabled the police to compile an album containing the photographs of almost every individual who joined the liberation movements in exile, a fact confirmed again this year in the book, The Honour to Serve by James Ngculu, a veteran of the ANC’s armed wing, MK.

Mbokodo, crucial to maintaining order and allowed a relatively free hand to sniff out supposed spies and traitors, was an obvious — and successful — target for infiltration. Because of this, senior ANC member Joe Gqabi attempted in 1981 to set up a parallel security organisation. He considered Mbokodo and the ANC “up to the highest levels” to be compromised and detailed evidence of this fact. But shortly after putting in place the first parts of his planned network, he was assassinated in Harare — and nothing changed.

There was also never any serious investigation into Mbokodo and its excesses. Almost no-one was immune as executive member Pallo Jordan discovered when he was detained and held in appalling conditions. The intervention of Tambo saved him and the Mbokodo thug who was responsible for his incarceration, Francis Malaya, was later discovered to be an apartheid agent. Malaya was arrested in Lusaka, managed to escape through a conveniently open window, returned to South Africa and joined the security police.

This was all part of the “rot” in the ANC that Chris Hani and others complained about in a 1969 memo to the leadership. But it was a rot that was probably inevitable in a movement that lauded unity at all costs and relied heavily for its organisational structure, physical and financial support on the then Soviet Union and its satellites. Because the ANC claimed — as some of its leaders still do today — that the ANC is the only “true representative of the South African people”, dissidence could not be tolerated.

This attitude, coupled with corruption, nepotism and gross inequality between the conditions of the leaders and the led, encouraged dissent that was often dealt with in the most brutal and barbaric fashion. It also led, first in 1964 in Tanzania and then, 20 years later in Angola, to mutinies within MK, where the basic demand of the mutineers was to be allowed to return home to fight and, if necessary, die rather than rot in camps in exile or be drafted into an Angolan civil war.

A dominant ANC leadership was able to stifle such outbursts and maintain unity using an iron fist. In the case of Angola, detention, torture and judicial murder finally brought matters under control. For, in the exile environment, the ANC was the government and its security apparatus in Africa had a free hand, whether influenced by Pretoria or Moscow, to crush any perceived problem. It was, effectively, a minority dictatorship that could hold its citizens in thrall. This could work in the conditions of exile. But, as the various “unrest incidents” around the country show, it cannot operate in a parliamentary democracy.

NOTE: Apart from the two books mentioned there are a number of others that cover aspects, from different points of view, of this period and detail something of what transpired. Most recently, there is Paul Trewhela’s regurgitation of his earlier Searchlight articles in Inside Quatro, and Hani: a life too short by Smith and Tromp. There is also Education in Exile by Morrow, Maaba and Pulumani, Comrades Against Apartheid, by Ellis and Sechaba, Vladimir Shubin’s View from Moscow, and my own Unfinished Business — South Africa, apartheid & truth.

Posted in: Human Rights