South Africa's new leaders vow to end corruption – but they are part of the problem

The ruling African National Congress pledges education and opportunity for black people – but embezzlement in the deputy president’s province has left schools so decrepit that children plunge to their death in toilets

Norimitsu Onishi,Selam Gebrekidan
Tuesday 14 August 2018 13:17
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School at Orange Farm, near Soweto: one of the ANC’s policies is to improve education for black South African children
School at Orange Farm, near Soweto: one of the ANC’s policies is to improve education for black South African children

Ziyanda Nkosi hated going to the bathroom at school. The pit toilets were so dark, dirty and crumbling. Many children were so afraid of them that they simply relieved themselves in the schoolyard to avoid the ordeal.

But as she played with her best friend during recess, the little girl, a six-year-old first-grader, really had to go. She stepped warily inside the closet-like latrine.

Even with the gentle pressure of her tiny frame, the floor caved in. Ziyanda flailed wildly, clinging to the edges of the hole, frantically trying to keep herself from falling in and drowning in the fetid pool below.

“Mommy! Mommy!” she screamed, managing to hold on long enough for an older boy to run in and save her.

Hundreds of parents, enraged that their warnings about the dilapidated school had been ignored for years, burst into protest a couple of days later, upending their quiet rural town for two weeks last August. They burned tires, blocked roads and demanded justice from the provincial government led by David Mabuza, a former maths teacher who had become one of the most powerful figures in the African National Congress (ANC) and was positioning himself to become South Africa’s deputy president.

One of the party’s historic promises had been to provide a good education for black people, who had been deliberately denied the opportunity under apartheid. ANC leaders like Nelson Mandela often spoke about freeing black South Africans through school and Mabuza, whose first big post in the province was education minister, got his political start by promising just that.

But under the ANC the education system has been a shambles, so gutted by corruption that even party officials are dismayed at how little students are learning, in schools so decrepit that children have plunged to their deaths in pit toilets.

The rage in Ziyanda’s town grew so intense that protesters hurled stones at a local ANC leader, who narrowly escaped by whipping out his handgun and shooting randomly into the crowd, wounding two children and roiling the community all the more.

Mabuza never came to the school or met with the parents – and for good reason, local officials contend. The dangerous conditions were a clear reflection of his control over the province, where millions of dollars for education have disappeared into a vortex of suspicious spending, shoddy public construction and brazen corruption to fuel his political ambitions, according to government records and officials in his party.

But the uprising and allegations against Mabuza did not crimp his political rise. To the contrary, only a few months later, as the ANC tried to quash national outrage over misrule by its leaders, Mabuza scored his biggest triumph by far. He was picked to become second-in-command of the entire ANC, launching him into an even more prominent post as South Africa’s deputy president, second only to the nation’s leader.

Mabuza may seem an odd choice, especially at a time when the ANC is desperate to purge its reputation for graft and restore its image as the rightful heir to Mandela’s legacy. After all, Mabuza’s rural province, Mpumalanga, is fairly small, has little economic clout and is widely regarded as one of the country’s most corrupt.

But that is the vexing secret behind Mabuza’s spectacular climb, current and former ANC officials say: he siphoned off money from schools and other public services to buy loyalty and amass enormous power, making him impossible to ignore on the national stage and putting him in position to shape South Africa for years to come.

President Cyril Ramaphosa (centre) came to power with the backing of the allegedly corrupt David Mabuza (second right)

“He didn’t become what he is now because of his political capability,” says Fish Mahlalela, a senior ANC figure in the province and a national lawmaker.

“No, no, it was out of money and manipulation,” he adds. “Nothing else.”

Perhaps more than any other member of South Africa’s new government, Mabuza undercuts the promise of a “new dawn” in the country after the removal of President Jacob Zuma this year.

Besieged by scandals that have hacked away at the ANC’s legitimacy and electoral prospects, the party installed a new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, in February. From the start, he pledged to root out corruption and finally deliver on the promise of a just South Africa for all of its citizens.

But to seal his new post, Ramaphosa first had to secure the backing of Mabuza, 57, who built such a formidable political machine that he became kingmaker in the back-room negotiations to choose South Africa’s new president. After campaigning for a rival, Mabuza abruptly switched sides and joined forces with Ramaphosa, helping the two emerge from a pivotal party conference last December as the country’s undisputed leaders.

Then, to the surprise of many in his province, Mabuza gave a speech just weeks after being sworn in as deputy president this year, lamenting the poor state of the schools and the “tragedies that take away the innocence of our children”. He spoke movingly of a kindergartner electrocuted at school. Of a toddler who drowned after falling into a broken pit latrine. And of a five-year-old boy whose body was discovered by his mother at the bottom of another dilapidated pit, his hand sticking out of a pool of faeces.

Such deplorable conditions were all too common, he noted, symbolising the failure to provide black South Africans with a decent chance at life.

“Where is our care?” Mabuza said in the speech. “What has gone wrong with our nation?”

Yet under Mabuza’s leadership, millions of dollars for schools in his province have been misspent year after year, according to the national government. His province routinely spent less on poor students than required and school construction projects have been riddled with inflated costs, government records show.

Nearly a quarter of the primary schools in Mabuza’s province still have only dilapidated pit toilets, despite ample government funds to fix them. And during his tenure, his province was caught fabricating the passing rates on the annual national exam, enabling him to claim big leaps forward that never happened.

The schools Mabuza did champion provided an easy way to funnel large amounts of money into politics, according to ANC officials, high-ranking defectors and anti-corruption groups. He pushed to build big boarding schools whose costs tripled for unexplained reasons to $30m (£23m) each, alarming education experts. Some construction was so shoddy that roofs sprouted leaks soon after being finished, toilets barely worked, students lacked water, retaining walls collapsed and dormitories were missing doors, according to a provincial report.

Over the years, Mabuza’s province also became known as one of South Africa’s most dangerous. Nearly 20 politicians, most from inside the ANC, were assassinated in the past two decades, some after exposing graft in public works projects.

All the while Mabuza’s political career flourished. He attracted legions of new ANC members with government contracts, cash handouts and even KFC meals, according to current and former party officials.

His sweeping recruitment drive turned his relatively insignificant province into the ANC’s second biggest voting bloc. Under the party’s delegate system, his territory became more influential than even Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria with a population three times the size and an economy nearly five times as big.

Now, critics contend, Mabuza’s role as the country’s second most powerful politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of the new government and its assertions that the ANC is turning the page on corruption.

Under the ANC, Mandela’s once-heralded liberation movement, tens of billions of dollars meant to lift poor black South Africans have been stolen by party leaders. Strong institutions like the tax agency have been hollowed out by party officials bent on shielding their illicit activities.

But the nation’s poor schools are perhaps the ANC’s greatest betrayal of the dreams of black South Africans – some of whom have turned to burning down such institutions in protest.

Mabuza, who declined to be interviewed, built his political career on the schools. Unlike other, more celebrated anti-apartheid leaders, he did not go into exile; he was not imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island. Instead, he fought for the right of black South Africans to receive an equal education, a call he echoed in his recent speech.

As many South Africans pin their hopes on Ramaphosa’s pledge for a fresh start, analysts say that much of the country is looking past an unpleasant truth: the new president owes his victory in part to corruption, and much of his administration’s future – as well as the country’s – rests in the hands of Mabuza.

“If there is any powerful person whom Ramaphosa’s presidency actually relies on, it is Mabuza,” says Ralph Mathekga, the author of Ramaphosa’s Turn: Can Cyril Save South Africa?

“We are being reluctant as a nation to face the reality of Mabuza,” he adds. “If Ramaphosa gets hit by a bus, Mabuza is going to be the president.”

Scandal from the start

A broken toilet in a school in Nkandla, South Africa

The numbers just didn’t add up, even at the beginning.

After apartheid ended in 1994, Mabuza got his first big break: he became Mpumalanga’s education minister, a chance to shape the schools and generations of students attending them.

He had the perfect resume. The son of farmers, Mabuza grew up here in the province, walking miles from his village to the only primary school in a nearby town. Though he often had no shoes, he always tucked in his shirt and buttoned it up to the neck, recalls Reginah Mhaule, a childhood peer.

“He was never late,” says Mhaule, a longtime ally who recently became one of South Africa’s two deputy foreign ministers.

A bright student, Mabuza ultimately took one of the few jobs available to black South Africans back then. He taught maths at the local high school and later became a founding leader of a teachers’ association.

Poor schooling was a major spark in the anti-apartheid movement, most notably in Soweto in 1976, when thousands of students protested the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction. In Mabuza’s province, teachers and students began organising against white minority rule in the early 1980s.

The teachers were at the centre of the movement, says Sandile Sukati, a teacher who recruited Mabuza into the main student organisation. Mabuza quickly stood out, he says, travelling far and wide to build ties among anti-apartheid groups.

“He was a leader in his own right,” Sukati says.

But after apartheid ended, Mabuza quickly ran into trouble, leading to the province’s first big scandal of the democratic era.

In 1997, three years into his tenure as education minister, the schools were performing poorly, especially on the national obsession: the annual matriculation exams that determine whether students graduate from high school. The passing rate in his province was 46 per cent that year, slightly below the national average.

Mabuza was feeling the pressure, particularly as powerful ANC leaders returned from exile, often with military credentials that overshadowed his own, several current and former ANC officials say.

Sukati, who worked under Mabuza at the education department, recalls Mabuza telling some of the teachers: “I am in a tight situation.”

The next year brought a stunning improvement. The passing rate inexplicably jumped to 72 per cent – an incredible turnaround that catapulted Mpumalanga to second place among the nation’s nine provinces.

“I was suspicious,” says Sukati, who is now a senior education official. “It couldn’t just happen like that.”

A whistleblower exposed the cheating a few weeks later. The real passing rate, authorities announced, was under 53 per cent. Moreover, the doctoring had taken place inside Mabuza’s residence, where he met with a small circle of bureaucrats, some of whom were later fired.

An investigation was never completed. Mabuza never admitted wrongdoing or suffered any significant consequences. Dropped as education minister, he was named head of housing instead.

Ever since, Mabuza’s career has been remembered for that scandal, one that helped establish the kind of culture of impunity in his province that has tarnished the ANC across South Africa..

“I think the man, he had to be charged, but unfortunately I don’t know what went wrong,” says Ronnie Malomane, an ANC official who was taught maths by Mabuza in the early 1980s. “They were just giving him position after position.”

Nationally, Mabuza’s standing kept rising, propelled by his success at attracting new party members. In 2009, Zuma appointed him premier of all of Mpumalanga province.

But Mabuza raised more red flags, stripping some of the decision-making power over government projects from local officials and concentrating it in his own office. He justified the move – called the “Rapid Implementation Unit” – as a way to act quickly. Others had a different explanation.

“That’s how he managed to loot,” says Collen Sedibe, a former ANC leader who grew up on the same street as Mabuza and worked under him in the provincial housing department.

Treasury officials in the province say they are now investigating the irregular expenditures “incurred through the contracts arranged centrally by the Office of the Premier”.

But parents, officials and educators had warned about the damage from corruption and neglect for years, pointing to the painfully overcrowded classrooms and decaying, apartheid-era schools.

‘They wanted to kill me’

Pupils in their classroom in Eastern Cape, South Africa

It took four days of rage before the local ANC councillor showed up.

The councillor, Justice Twelve Siboza, explained that he had been busy the week Ziyanda fell into the toilet, tending to another corner of his ward. Other activities had also drawn his attention: he is a gospel singer with his own radio show, so he crisscrosses the region to perform at weddings and funerals.

By the time he got to Ziyanda’s school, hundreds of parents had closed off the unpaved roads, furious that their grievances had been met with near silence from the ANC’s leaders.

Siboza made sure to bring a gun. Politics is dangerous in South Africa, sometimes lethal, he says.

The ANC has a grip on the area around the school because most residents, aside from the lucky few working at the sugar cane plant, are poor and rely on the party for government jobs, contracts or monthly welfare grants.

It is an area Mabuza knows well. He began his ascent inside the ANC as the head of this part of the province. It was once part of a homeland set aside for black people by the apartheid government. To this day, several ANC officials say, Mabuza has kept a hold on it through powerful proxies.

Some see a deep cynicism behind the conditions in the schools. When black South Africans become educated and move into the middle class, their loyalty to the party tends to wane, recent elections have shown. So by perpetuating a culture of dependence, critics contend, the ANC ensures its dominance.

But Mhaule, the childhood peer of Mabuza, rejects any suggestion that the ANC had failed to prioritise education.

Officials like Mhaule say the rising pass rate on the national high school exam provides clear evidence of progress. But the figures can be misleading. The number of students taking the exam has declined in the past two years. Weaker students who would drag down the rate are being held back, education experts say.

About 600 protesters gathered at the school that cold Friday morning when Siboza, the local ANC councillor, arrived with a police escort. As he moved to talk to the parents, demonstrators showered him with rocks.

“They wanted to kill me,” the councillor says.

Siboza made a run for it, reaching for the hip holster under his brown overcoat. He took out his gun – firing three times and hitting two teenagers, a girl and a boy.

Agreement Mashele, the school board chairman, was shocked. “This man is a church member,” he says.

A few days later, the ANC councillor visited the children he had wounded.

“The councillor said he was very sorry,” says the girl, Siphesihle Ngobeni, whose left leg was grazed by a bullet. The councillor pleaded with her not to press charges and gave her about $15, she says. She used the money to buy sanitary pads.

The boy’s injury was more severe. His father, Petros Thobela, who had gone to the same primary school and did not have a job, accepted a similar apology and compensation of, according to the councillor, about $150.

The boy’s mother, Nobuhle Ndlovu, who does odd jobs, deplores the state of education.

“They promise,” she says, “and they just disappear.”

Still, she would remain loyal to the governing party.

“Yes, of course, I vote ANC,” she says. “It’s our freedom.”

‘He always had money in his house’

Pupils in their classroom in Eastern Cape, South Africa

The protests spilled into September, but the country’s attention was fixed on another battle: the national push to replace Zuma as South Africa’s president.

The all-important ANC party election was only a few months away, and officials in Mabuza’s province were bracing to see whether his years of hard work had paid off.

In early October, the ANC released the delegate breakdown, with good news for Mabuza: his previously low-ranking province was now the ANC’s second most powerful.

Mabuza owed his outsize influence to a single feat. In the past decade, ANC membership in his province had skyrocketed nearly 190 per cent, eclipsing the national increase of less than 60 per cent. No other province came close to matching Mpumalanga’s explosive growth.

But Mabuza’s numbers were as cooked as his high school passing rates, current and former ANC officials contend.

In South Africa, taxes are collected by the national government, which distributes the money to provinces. The provinces then use the money – with little oversight from above.

Treasury officials in Mpumalanga say that “irregular expenditures” more than doubled in the previous two budget years, particularly in education, housing and health.

Wages account for most of the education and health budgets. So money is usually siphoned off by politicians and business allies through contracts for services or construction, ANC officials say. When costs are suspiciously high, schools are poorly built or facilities are badly maintained, they say, it is often a warning that money is being skimmed, at the students’ expense.

As premier, Mabuza promoted the construction of big boarding schools, or mega-schools, in farm areas to improve rural education. Since 2012, the province has completed five, with two more in the pipeline.

For reasons that have not been explained, the price of each school has ballooned from $11m to around $30m.

Asked whether Mabuza wanted the mega-schools to facilitate the theft of public funds, Mhaule, his former education minister, laughs and says: “I don’t know.”

But other officials say the mega-schools were overpriced projects to reward Mabuza’s allies and finance his ANC membership drive.

Mabuza was sworn in as deputy president in February. “His passion,” reads his official biography, “still remains in education.”

Minutes after the swearing-in, he faced questions about corruption and political killings in his province. “There’s nothing to set straight,” he told the national public broadcaster.

“I’m here to serve South Africans,” he added. “Let’s give this government a chance.”

© New York Times

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