Patronage: rotting social fabric from within

Posted on March 29, 2016


Skeletons seem to be rattling around in several ministerial closets in South Africa at the moment in what appears to be a case of political patronage gone severely toxic. But there is nothing new in patronage, in business, both legitimate and illegitimate buying — or trying to buy — the favours of politicians, judges, police and trade union leaders.

And patronage has a long and largely dishonourable history. It all too often distorts and poisons the political and social environment. Politicians are usually the prime targets, but trade unions and campaigning groups are not immune and nor is the justice system. In fact, there are cases where unions and campaigning groups have been established by business, the creations and clients of patrons.

As this column has pointed out over the years, quoting that father of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman, any company director who prioritises social responsibility — a form of patronage — should be sacked on the spot. That is the rule although, very occasionally, genuine patronage, without strings, does exist.

So there is nothing new about business attempting to buy favours or, if it can be managed, to turn politicians, ministers, trade union leaders and other decision makers into clients. To capture a state and be able to decide the direction of all policies would be the aim of many business groups — if they could get away with it.

For the most part, however, subtle pressure is applied and persuasion exercised. In this context it may be worth remembering that the prime function of that rich man’s club, the World Economic Forum (WEF) is to bribe, bully and otherwise influence governments, trade unions and other decision makers in societies to toe their economic line.

The dropping, at a WEF gathering, by the ANC of the policies developed over years by its own Macroeconomic Research Group is a good example. And, in the United States, the gun and tobacco lobbies have been shown virtually to own members of both the Congress and Senate.

In some areas, within parliamentary democracies, state capture has even been achieved. Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest and most populous state and home to South Africa’s controversial Gupta family, is a case in point. There the conflation of the political and business elite became such that it was difficult to tell who was pulling whose strings.

But no matter what device is used or how various “captures” are organised, the overall effect is to enrich the few at the expense of the many. Profit is usually the sole or major motive, but power and prestige are also sought.

The problem, within a parliamentary democracy or, for that matter, a trade union, is that a captured leadership has still to deal with other ranks and the greater mass of voters or members on which their wealth and power is built. And there are always those honourable men and women who spurn patronage and the corruption it entails and who speak out.

As a result, patronage at a high level is seldom conducted in any overt way. Yet in some cases, when it may be quite obvious, it can go largely unnoticed, such when business grants payments and privileges to full time union leaders and shop stewards.

It has been argued, for example, that one of the reasons for the tensions at Marikana was that mining company Lonmin had, through the union leadership, effectively outsourced line management to union shop stewards. The rank and file finally rebelled — and 34 were subsequently killed by police.

So patronage is a curse of our system, an inherent virus that, when it gets to a toxic level, rots the social fabric from within. So far, judging from the amount of circumstantial evidence, of the statements made by reputable individuals, it appears that political patronage in South Africa, involving the Gupta family, has reached a level of dangerous toxicity. It must be countered — and urgently.

It is no solution to propose, as ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has done, that such serious outbreaks of a social disease be dealt with by “robust discussion” behind closed doors. And it is no consolation when he assures everyone that all existing evidence and allegations will be investigated to “tell the facts from the truth”.

This begs the question: why are debates that concern the country held in private and why are there concerned individuals who are afraid to speak out publicly?

Lengthy commissions of inquiry are also no solution to this urgent problem. What we require is transparency, now and in the future. Then all can be held accountable and diseased elements can be excised.