THE facts are simple: addressing the businesspeople attending the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) 101st birthday celebrations, President Jacob Zuma is reported to have said: "Everything you touch will multiply. I’ve always said that a wise businessperson will support the ANC, because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business."
Any possible ambiguity in the meaning of the word "support" as used by Zuma has been cleared up by ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu, who claims his leader was wishing prosperity to those who offer gifts, apparently in accordance with what he calls "African cultural practices".
The implication is accordingly clear: those who offer gifts to the ANC can expect their "investment" to "multiply". Notice that it is a gift that is expected and that Zuma appears to have been promising rather than wishing prosperity to those who support the ANC.
The ANC is a political party. It does not of itself have the means to make investments multiply.
On the contrary, like all political parties, it is a voracious consumer of resources in its efforts to garner support at the polls and remain in power, election after election.
No "dividend" is ever declared by the ANC, it spends and spends again on staff, election campaigning, offices, transport, T-shirts, flags, banners, posters and entertainment.
It follows inexorably that the way in which the encouragement to donate renders a return to "investors" is via the procurement machinery of those levers of power in the state that the ANC is able to control by virtue of its dominance in politics.
But the resources of the state do not belong to the ANC, they belong to the people of SA.
Our freely elected representatives are meant, in the words of the preamble to the constitution, to "improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person", not merely benefit donors to the ANC.
The nation’s system of procurement is designed and intended to ensure that the type of outcome Zuma envisages cannot eventuate. Section 217 of the constitution says the procurement of goods and services must be done "in accordance with a system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective". These principles are fleshed out in the Public Finance Management Act; they leave no room whatsoever for ANC donors to have everything they touch multiply simply through being donors. Conduct inconsistent with these principles is invalid. Nepotism, cronyism, indeed all forms of favouritism, are in essence outlawed by the principles according to which procurement is meant to be effected. It is impossible for the ANC to multiply the investments of its donors in a way that is countenanced by the law and the constitution. On the contrary, the provisions of the ANC-inspired laws on corruption make Zuma’s utterance good grounds for investigating the probity of what he said at the fundraising dinner. Here is the description of what the law defines as the general offence of corruption: "Any person who, directly or indirectly: (a) accepts or agrees or offers to accept any gratification from any other person, whether for the benefit of himself or herself or for the benefit of another person; or (b) gives or agrees or offers to give to any other person any gratification, whether for the benefit of that other person or for the benefit of another person, in order to act, personally or by influencing another person so to act, in a manner: (i) that amounts to the: (aa) illegal, dishonest, unauthorised, incomplete, or biased; or (bb) misuse or selling of information or material acquired in the course of the exercise, carrying out or performance of any powers, duties or functions arising out of a constitutional, statutory, contractual or any other legal obligation; (ii) that amounts to: (aa) the abuse of a position of authority; (bb) a breach of trust; or (cc) the violation of a legal duty or a set of rules, (iii) designed to achieve an unjustified result; or (iv) that amounts to any other unauthorised or improper inducement to do or not to do anything, is guilty of the offence of corruption."
Whether some nebulous African cultural practice is in play does not matter on the basis of the definition set out above and the applicability of the criminal law to everyone. If there is a practice of the kind contended for by the ANC, it is illegal due to the broad ambit of the law on corruption.
It is accordingly appropriate that the opposition parties and others have called for the retraction of the statement made by Zuma.
The Inkatha Freedom Party has called on business not to be party to the promotion of corruption. It also suggests that the ANC should distance itself from "this unfortunate statement or else admit that they are paying lip service to the fight against corruption, which threatens to sink our country".
Somewhat more circumspectly, Lindiwe Mazibuko, the Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary leader, relies on an appeal to good governance and has given notice that she will submit a parliamentary question about whether multiplying the fortunes of businesses that support the ANC is in fact government policy. She points to the blurring of the line between party and state, the Nkandla upgrade and the ANC’s unwillingness to support private members’ bills aimed at preventing state employees from doing business with the state and at keeping business and politics separate.
The response of the ANC is instructive. "If business wants to prosper in SA, they have to support the ANC as their prosperity is dependent on the ANC being at the helm of SA’s government." Before issuing this official statement, Mthembu remarked: "I am not sure whether Lindiwe is African", which is a new way of playing the race card that is used whenever no rational response to accurate criticism suggests itself.
Hitachi Power Africa, 25% owned by the ANC via Chancellor House, has certainly prospered in business in SA.
William Gumede says the ANC will receive a dividend stream of about R5,8bn from its "business" involvement in the construction of new power station boilers for Eskom, a state-owned enterprise. Whether fair elections are even possible in these circumstances is a matter the Independent Electoral Commission should investigate as part of its mandate to "ensure free and fair elections".
If the ANC’s protestations that it is serious about tackling corruption are sincere, it should embrace the reasoning of the Constitutional Court and put in place an independent, effective and efficient anticorruption entity, either in the form of a new chapter nine institution or by way of expanding the mandate of the public protector.
Until it does, the ANC’s critics who claim that it is soft on corruption and that it pays lip service to combating corrupt activities have a valid point.
Litigation concerning the review of the decision to drop 783 charges of corruption against Zuma, the outcome of the arms deals inquiry and a sound and sober investigation of the activities of Chancellor House, the ANC’s investment arm, could reveal the extent of the commitment of the ANC to winkling out corruption wherever it is found.
Businesses that are concerned about their long-term sustainability, their ethical standards, the accountability of their management to their shareholders and the proper role of business in society, will have no difficulty in seeing the beguiling words of the president for what they really are.
They will throw their weight behind serious efforts to deal with corruption conclusively in SA.
Thirty-three leading business figures have already done so; it is to be hoped that their lead will be followed.
• Hoffman is with the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa.