Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

IF THE fight for honest and accountable government is the sole preserve of some of us, it will be lost by all of us. On the same day that the public protector released her Nkandla report, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) staged marches in major cities. The event was largely ignored by the media in the rush to cover Nkandla and so, days later, it is still unclear how many joined the march.

This is a problem, firstly because a major event was missed — even poorly attended marches would be news because Numsa is expected to lead a significant challenge to the African National Congress (ANC,) and so we need to know whether it is gaining traction. But it also seemed to say something about the way the fight against misuse of public trust is being fought.

Numsa may have been protesting against the youth wage subsidy. But protests rarely restrict themselves to one issue and concern about misuse of public money was not far away — at its December conference at which it distanced itself from the ANC, Numsa also called on President Jacob Zuma to resign. Campaigning against corruption has become a core concern for sections of the union movement and among antipoverty campaigners on the ground. Given this, what unions and other campaigners do in the streets is as much part of the fight against corruption as what the public protector said in her report.

The fact that the march was almost ignored, then, may say something about how the mainstream sees the fight for clean government — as a concern of the suburbs, not of working people and the poor.

This is largely how the problem has been viewed until now. We hear little or nothing about feelings in townships and shack settlements about misuse of public money. This is despite evidence that there is at least as much concern as in the suburbs — as David Lewis of Corruption Watch pointed out last week, many demonstrations explained away as "service delivery protests" are aimed at corruption and waste. So even when the poor try to speak about corruption, what they say is misrepresented, and they are silenced.

This obviously hampers the fight for cleaner government. It is far easier for politicians to ignore complaints when they come only from the better-off. In the main, those who grumble do not vote for the majority party so it does not have to hear them — they can also be dismissed as people who use complaints about corruption to express their dislike of majority rule. Union members and people living in poverty cannot be dismissed in this way.

Nkandla confirms this point. While the ANC may have closed ranks for now, it is more worried about these allegations than it has been about many others: treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize has acknowledged that Nkandla is a problem for the movement. The reason is clear — grass-roots members of the ANC are worried about Nkandla. On the one occasion on which they were given an opportunity to express themselves directly, a by-election in the area, they voiced their displeasure by voting out an ANC councillor.

One reason the ANC seems to have failed to come up with a convincing political strategy on Nkandla may be that it expected this to be another issue on which it could rally support by portraying its critics as enemies of the movement. This has worked in the past — Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang received significant support from within the ANC when they were accused of wrongdoing because they were seen as victims of anti-ANC prejudice. This time, the strategy has not worked because opposition within the ANC’s base runs too deep. And so it seems likely that Nkandla will cost the ANC votes, and may well become an issue in internal disputes within the governing party.

If grass-roots citizens can have a significant effect on how Nkandla plays out without being heard directly, how much more of a difference would they make if they had an organised voice? Organisations representing workers and the poor are not an optional extra in the fight against abuses of trust — they are its lifeblood if it is to become a successful campaign rather than merely a grumble of the connected.

Largely ignoring the Numsa march in particular and the battles of the poor to fight corruption in general define the fight as one for the well-heeled and well-connected only. So do some anticorruption campaigners — which is why, to name an example, the Protection of State Information Bill is still seen as a threat to the mainstream media rather than to the grass-roots poor.

Nkandla shows how short-sighted this is. It confirms that opposition to corruption is not restricted to the suburbs — and that gains in the fight against it depend on encouraging and giving voice to organisation at the grass-roots so that we hear those whose need for clean government is desperate but whose cry for it is usually muted.

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.