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Former South African President Says ANC Corruption Survivable

Former South African presidents F.W. de Klerk, Kgalema Motlanthe and Thabo Mbeki, from left, in Johannesburg on May 5, 2017. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON – The turbulent state of affairs in South Africa — a country beset by corruption that has fractured the African National Congress – is survivable, but leaders need to prove their worth, former President Kgalema Motlanthe said Tuesday.

The ANC came to power in 1994 at the end of apartheid, and the party has not faced a serious political challenger since. But recent corruption scandals have plagued the ANC, leading to a disastrous showing in the 2016 municipal elections, the party’s worst performance since apartheid’s end.

Motlanthe last month called on President Jacob Zuma to resign, amid mounting allegations and calls for impeachment. Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released a report in 2016 suggesting widespread corruption under Zuma. In March of that year, South Africa’s highest court found that Zuma had violated the constitution by spending public funds to finance construction of a ranch and swimming pool on private property in Nkandla. The president drew controversy this past March when he fired well-liked ex-finance minister Pravin Gordhan in a controversial cabinet reshuffling.

Motlanthe served as president from 2008 to 2009, following the resignation of Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki resigned in 2008 following a high court finding that he had colluded with prosecutors in bringing corruption charges against Zuma, who had replaced Mbeki as ANC president in 2007.

Motlanthe, during an appearance at the United States Institute of Peace on Tuesday, was asked how the ANC can reconcile with a seemingly open display of corruption.

“One cannot ignore recent events that have given many anxieties,” Molanthe said. “Investors need to know that South Africa remains a stable, strategic investment outlet even during fluid and uncertain political times. … We fell prey to the temptations of power. I think one of the greatest sayings and quotes is from Benjamin Franklin, who said, ‘Nearly all men can withstand adversity, but if you want to know a man’s true character, give him power.’”

When asked whether observers can expect more of the same in the next major election in 2019, Motlanthe offered tepid optimism.

“All we’re praying for is an honest group of people. That’s all,” he said.

Motlanthe said that the vibrancy that created the ANC has dissolved from the organization, resulting from a power structure that has become too centralized. The ANC used to be driven by a collection of ideas and input from its members, he said, but “now it’s confined to leaders, to the exclusion of members, and this is what paralyzes the ANC.”

“We need to prove our worth on a number of socioeconomic indicators, such as political stability, cultivating an investment-friendly environment, creating economic transparency, predictability, as well as fair economic policies,” Motlanthe said. “The current state of affairs is survivable, and it’s unlikely that we’ll slide into a state beyond regress. The contours of South Africa’s future are rooted in our present and post-apartheid efforts.”

Motlanthe’s appearance came the same day that South African riot police clashed with protesters near Johannesburg. Protests have erupted in townships all over the country with growing unrest over economic conditions under Zuma. According to Reuters, at least 15 people were arrested during the demonstrations, which stemmed from frustrations over a lack of housing and employment.

Quoting former president and revered South African leader Nelson Mandela, Motlanthe said the country has only made initial strides toward establishing true freedom, despite the accomplishments in the early 1990s. Bloodshed and civil war were considered inevitable leading up to 1994.

“However, democracy was realized without much of the doomsday prophecies coming to pass,” Motlanthe said. “As such, those who hold high levels of trust, public office and power of various kinds have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure we’ll maintain our hard-won democracy.”

Those concerned about the current political state in South Africa, he added, should know that there are strong checks and balances in place to ensure accountability. Between separations of power, a fair legal system, the constitution and the bill of rights, there are systems in place to preserve democracy in South Africa and address present challenges, he said.

“Our task is to unite South Africans and promote democracy and do it in an operational fashion and a non-sexist manner,” he said.