Skip to content

Is Corruption South Africa’s Oldest Tradition?

couraption sa

A few days ago, the UK government took its strongest stance yet against global corruption by slapping financial and travel sanctions on the three Gupta brothers, their associate Salim Essa, and 18 other individuals involved in what UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called “notorious corruption cases” in Russia, South Sudan, Latin America and South Africa.

The move comes as the UK’s new Global Anti-Corruption Regime kicked off with asset freezes and travel bans aimed at stopping “corrupt individuals using the UK as a safe haven for dirty money.”

“Corruption has a corrosive effect as it slows development, drains the wealth of poorer nations and keeps their people trapped in poverty,” Raab said. “It poisons the well of democracy. The individuals we have sanctioned have been involved in some of the most notorious corruption cases around the world.”

James Duddridge, UK Minister for Africa, believes the Regime sends an important message: The UK will stand up for fair and open societies around the world by taking action against those responsible for serious corruption.

“The South African people know better than most the corrosive effect corruption has on a country, its economy and its people,” he said. “The UK is supporting the important efforts of the South African authorities to tackle corruption, by imposing sanctions against Ajay Gupta, Atul Gupta, Rajesh Gupta and Salim Essa for their roles in serious corruption which caused significant damage to the South African economy.”

There’s absolutely no doubt this is an excellent move, and one which, I hope, proves to be highly effective.

But it does somewhat perpetuate the widely held belief that corruption in South Africa is a relatively new phenomenon.

Mandisi Majavu, for example, writes in an article in The Wire, “One of the shameful achievements of the African National Congress in its 25 years of governing post-apartheid South Africa is that it’s living up to the political stereotype of what is wrong with post-colonial Africa – unethical and corrupt African leaders who exercise power through patronage.”

But here’s the thing:

If you think corruption in South Africa only dates back to the post-apartheid era (specifically the Zuma years), it’s time to for a complete rethink.

As Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall reveal in their book, Rogues’ Gallery – An irreverent history of corruption in SA from the VOC to the ANC, dodgy dealings have been a national pastime for a long as South African history has been written down – and probably a lot longer than that.

The book goes on to show that, as much as it may suit some of us to credit former president Zuma with being “patient zero” when it comes to tracing the origins of the corruption epidemic in our country, pretty much everything he allegedly said and did already have precedents in history.

Rogue’s Gallery also relieves us of the misconception that the “Zuptas” were the first to capture the South African state, citing examples of “Oom Paul” Kruger being “captured” (although the phrase had not been coined at that time) by prominent gold mining magnates of the day.

A wonderful article in the Daily Maverick illustrates just how far back government corruption goes. They cite the following examples:

  • Zuma’s Nkandla may have cost the taxpayer over R200 million, but Willem Adriaan van der Stel, Governor of the Cape Colony from 1699 to 1707, built the Vergelegen Wine Estate on land given to him for free by the Dutch East India Company, using company labour, materials, seed and livestock.
  • Just over a century later, another Cape Colony Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, built his luxurious mansion using British government money.
  • Cecil Rhodes used both colonial and imperial governments to pay for a railway that would further his ambitious business interests.
  • Former President Paul Kruger’s home, although more modest than some, was a gift from a businessman who stood to gain much benefit from being in the president’s good books.

While on the subject of “Oom Paul,” it would be remiss not to mention one of the most widely cited examples of historic corruption – the dynamite concessions.

Introduced in the 1880s as a way of promoting industrial development in a near-bankrupt state, monopoly concessions became a central part of Kruger’s method of government – awarded to favoured individuals and companies to establish factories and a whole range of public utilities: a state bank; water, gas and electricity supplies; road repairs, tramways and much more.

The policy was widely criticised for creating high prices, and for the fact that many people actually used their concessions not for their intended purpose but for speculative reasons, hoping to sell them for profit.

The most controversial of all these concessions was dynamite.

In 1887, German concession-hunter Edouard Lippert was granted the exclusive right to manufacture dynamite, gunpowder, explosives and ammunition for a term of sixteen years. At a time when gold mining was, pardon the pun, booming, this was the most highly coveted concession of them all.

He was permitted to import all raw materials and machinery duty free, but not dynamite itself. Once the factory produced enough to meet local demands, no further imports of dynamite would be allowed.

Lippert promptly sold the concession to a French consortium. Not long after, it became evident that they were not actually importing the raw materials for manufacturing dynamite but the dynamite itself – all duty-free.

To cut a very long story short, there was an uproar of epic proportions. The eventual result was that the government cancelled the dynamite concession and allowed English, French and German firms to import the explosive.

In 1893, the government took over the dynamite monopoly and then signed a contract with the South African Explosives Company to act as agents. Our old friend Lippert was one of the many who were awarded shares in this company.

Of course, this was by no means the end of the dodgy deals, prompting the opposition newspaper at the time, Land en Volk, to write, “The friends of the President are becoming rich while the burghers sweat.”

Even the pro-government Pretoria Press was forced to conceded there was “wide-spread corruption in the civil service.” They also complained bitterly about the way in which senior government officials cared more about lining their own pockets than they did about the interests of the state, and how petty officials routinely expected bribes for small favours.

Over two centuries later, the government may have changed, but the complaints have stayed exactly the same.

Unfortunately, it seems that corruption is one of our country’s oldest traditions – and one of the few that spans across many generations and cultures. Throughout our history, outraged South Africans have been feeling the same way towards their leaders as many of us do today about Jacob Zuma.

Our hope now is that, with the support of international initiatives like the UK’s Anti-Corruption Regime, President Ramaphosa’s government will be the one to disrupt our long-held culture of corruption and give us all a leadership we can be proud of.