Get tough on ANC ‘blurring’

Public protector Thuli Madonsela issued two reports recently that went relatively unnoticed. They involved the department of social welfare and development, and the premier of the Free State, Ace Magashule. 

Both reports focused on abuse of state resources by the party-in-government.

The findings confirm what we’ve already known, but the timing of their release is opportune.

Surprisingly, though, the proposed remedial actions fail to appreciate the gravity of what they are grappling with.

In a report titled “State and Party, Blurred Lines”, Madonsela shows how the ANC Youth League colluded with the department of social welfare to abuse state resources for party political gain.

The incident happened on December 1 in 2009, in Cape Town, and involved the distribution of food parcels to shelters for orphans and abused children.

Edna Molewa, who was then minister, denies colluding with the leaguers, and insisted that the event was theirs alone.

The youth league’s presence and Julius Malema handing out government food parcels was unplanned, Molewa told Madonsela.

Supporting Molewa’s version, officials claim that Richard Baloyi – who had succeeded Molewa just before the event took place – was meant to hand out the parcels, but was delayed in traffic.

The league’s account and activities on the day, however, dispute the officials’ version. They maintainthat the minister secured food parcels at their request. Youth leaguers didn’t just show up on the day, but were involved in the planning for the event. Vuyiswa Tulelo, who was then provincial leader of the league, had been introduced to the provincial officials by the minister, and subsequently liaised with them, drafting the programme and making logistical arrangements.

In other words, the youth league and the department co-hosted the event. Both their flags were displayed, alongside each other. The youth league led the programme, giving officials some airtime to explain their mandate and activities.

Then Malema, together with his then deputy Andile Lungisa, distributed the food parcels the department had brought along. The party used state resources to gain political capital. Government, as Madonsela concluded, was complicit in that abuse.

It’s worth noting though that some officials protested at the involvement of a party in what was supposedly a government activity. One insisted, for instance, that the league’s flag should be removed, but was countered by another senior official. In his response to Madonsela’s inquiry, the senior official reasoned that the involvement of the league was entirely legitimate. He said the league was an NGO, which made the event a usual collaborative activity with a stakeholder.

The league’s insistence on the association with the department was obviously deliberate. It gives some semblance of “truth” to the ANC’s rhetoric that it is them that brings social grants to the people. They claim that if people voted for a different party, the issuing of grants would cease, for those parties don’t subscribe to pro-poor policies.

The claim, of course, is false. The Democratic Alliance, of all parties, has even gone further to call for basic income grants for the unemployed.

But, the ANC’s propaganda appears to be resonating, largely because of frequent public displays of collaboration between the party and state, as happened in Cape Town.

What the premier of the Free State did, as Madonsela also reveals, was no different to what the youth league and the department of social development had done.

Madonsela’s report, titled “State and Party Colours”, tells us that Magashule launched what he called “Operation Hlasela” ahead of the 2011 local elections to supposedly accelerate service delivery. But this programme did not focus solely on government activities. It also promoted the ANC, displaying its logo and the ace of its president.

Upon investigation, following a complaint in 2011, Madonsela was told that there were in fact, two programmes with a somewhat similar name. The other was a private initiative, called the “Hlasela Fund”. This was supposedly funded by private individuals, who supported the ANC, and had nothing to do with the officially-created Operation Hlasela.

But Madonsela found little that separated the two Hlaselas. The fact that they shared the same name was in fact, deliberate. As an official initiative, Operation Hlasela couldn’t be openly partisan towards the ANC. This is why the supposedly privately administered Hlasela Fund was created – to do all that its public counterpart couldn’t, but still enable it to share the credit due to the similarity of names.

In fact, Madonsela found there was little suggesting that the private Hlasela was indeed independent of the state. It was afforded easy access to state platforms and utilised its resources. For a private initiative, this programme enjoyed considerable benefits from the state. It was effectively a state-funded initiative despite claims to the contrary.

When Madonsela pointed out to Magashule that people confused the supposedly private initiative for the public one due to the shared name, he conceded that this was possible. But he didn’t think the confusion benefited the ANC.

Madonsela was not persuaded. Her report concludes that Operation Hlasela benefited the ANC in the run-up to the local government elections.

Frankly, the Hlasela Fund was a convenient after-thought. It was fabricated immediately after the complaint by opposition parties, that Operation Hlasela was actually a campaign for the ANC.

The Hlasela Fund, if it ever actually existed, was never independent. Rather, it was an extension of the public-funded Operation Hlasela. It was a front to use state resources for a party campaign.

Both reports highlight what is an entrenched and common transactional practice in our politics. The ANC does this all the time during elections. To some degree, buying voters shows the leverage they have over politicians.

They may be ignored for most of the time between elections, but are guaranteed attention during election campaigns. At this time, politicians are at their most responsive selves.

Why vote buying is so wrong is that it is a cynical, downright opportunistic act. Soliciting votes through the provision of material gain denudes democracy of all its moral value. It is void of any emotive connection to the democratic system, which is what nourishes popular conviction in democracy.

This is dangerous – it means people accede to a warped notion of “democracy” so long as their material needs are met. If “democracy” fails on the material front, they can easily switch their consent to an authoritarian order so long as it provides materially.

It is for this reason that Madonsela’s recommendations of remedial action are surprisingly timid, if not entirely thoughtless. To suggest that abuse of state resources can be thwarted through educating public officials is outright ridiculous. It supposes that the abuse is occasioned by ignorance. But these have been willful acts, based on a belief of entitlement and a sense of impunity.

One trembles at the thought of what else has been done and what could be done in future.

Abuse of state resources for electoral gain warrants legal prosecution. One is not just dealing with mere misconduct here, but behaviours that have ominous implications for the future of our democratic republic. There is nothing scarier than a party believing it is the state!

Mcebisi Ndletyana is associate professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg and a fellow at Mistra

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