President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SAM MKOKELI
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SAM MKOKELI

THE latest global perception survey on corruption by Transparency International ranks South Africa 69th out of 176 countries, a decline from last year’s 64th that is a sad indictment of the African National Congress’s 18 years in government.

At the same time, a 2006 report by auditor KPMG published in the Mail & Guardian has revealed a string of benefactors who are alleged to have paid President Jacob Zuma and his extended family millions of rand over the years, allowing them to live well beyond their means. Yet the ANC seems determined to return Mr Zuma to office regardless of his track record or his personal shortcomings.

At this point, it is almost irrelevant whether Mr Zuma triumphs in Mangaung. The fact that a once proud and principled revolutionary organisation such as the ANC has allowed itself to be captured in this manner points to a rot that goes far deeper than just one man.

The flood of new corruption allegations involving party and government representatives in the run-up to Mangaung is undoubtedly partly attributable to political infighting, but it is also a sign of the extent of the corrupt and questionable relationships that exist in the ANC. There is simply no political will to address corruption, an attitude that comes from the top.

It is clear from the KPMG report that before and during his first term in office, Mr Zuma benefited from a deep and complex patronage network; in exchange for his considerable influence, various donors have ensured he has lived and acquired assets in a manner that would not be possible on his salary.

Corruption under the Zuma administration has taken on the appearance of a Ponzi scheme — those who got in early seem to have got away with the lion’s share of the loot, but there isn’t enough for everyone. The pickings are getting thin, and those who were late to the party or fear they will be sidelined after Mangaung are starting to speak out.

The trouble with state corruption, apart from the fact that it is the poor and disadvantaged who are ultimately compromised most by it, is that it is insidious. A bit creamed off here and there initially benefits a few individuals and is hardly noticed, but if it isn’t nipped in the bud, it spreads like a cancer.

In 1996, when the Department of Health paid R14.27m to the producer of the play Sarafina 2, ostensibly to boost public awareness of HIV/AIDS, there was an outraged reaction in the media but little official response. By today’s standards, the numbers are inconsequential, but they were the beginning of the culture of corruption we see today.

Even then, the lack of consequences led international commentators to remark that the ANC was developing a poor record on handling corruption and misconduct in its ranks. Since then, things have only become worse.

It is only when the scale of the corruption becomes large that the extent of the losses is felt by the public, and by then the culture is so pervasive that it affects every facet of service delivery. By then it is almost too late, because once this culture is embedded in an administration it is extremely difficult to reverse the process.

There is no small irony in the fact that the fight against corruption was one of the cornerstones of Mr Zuma’s campaign for the 2009 election. Four years later, his complaint at a rally organised by the South African Unemployed Workers Union, that people should stop calling the ANC corrupt because it is not true, is now so far removed from reality that it beggars belief.

There is little question that if Mr Zuma is re-elected as president of the ANC, and in 2014 for a second term as p resident of South Africa, the corruption will not only continue but worsen. Unfortunately, it now appears that even if by some slim chance he is not re-elected, the expectations that arise from patronage networks such as that which has become established in South Africa mean any ANC leader is going to struggle to stamp it out, no matter how pure his intentions. If the ANC is to have any hope of halting the spread of this cancer in the organisation, it needs to demand transparency from its leaders and institute a proper internal democratic system so there is an alternative to patronage as a means of advancing within the party and in the government. This will necessarily require changing the culture of secrecy that still prevails in the ANC, specifically moving to an open leadership contest.

More important, the party needs to come clean on its past, starting at the top. In the wake of the KPMG report, it is clear that Mr Zuma should have had to answer the criminal charges that arose from his relationship with his corrupt "financial adviser", Schabir Shaik.

It is only with transparency — at branch, provincial and national level, and within the highest office of the country — that the culture of entitlement can be tackled in a meaningful way.

And it is only through accountability, both to the rule of law and to the electorate, that corruption will be eradicated.