Corruption under apartheid South Africa, 1976-1994 (and its present institutional legacy)

Since the ANC took over in 1994 several top government officials in South Africa, including the current president Jacob Zuma, have been implicated in grand corruption. This has led some commentators to make the controversial claim that governance in South Africa has actually deteriorated since 1994.

apartheidLet’s just say that this is a rather odd claim to make. Of course, from a governance standpoint, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to appear uber efficient if all you have to do is milk over 90% of the population of its surplus and resources to make less than 10% happy (for more see history of South Africa).

Don’t get me wrong, South Africa under the ANC has been a massive disappointment (both for South Africans and for Africa in general). But when analyzing the ANC’s failures over the last 20 years, the comparison should never be to the “good old pre-1994 days.” Anyone who does this either has a minimal understanding of history, or is (inadvertently) letting known their stand on the morality of apartheid.

But I digress….

Like any good student of institutions will tell you, institutional habits die hard and outlive even the most sharp of discontinuities – like decolonization or the end of apartheid. And as we’d expect, many institutional habits of the apartheid era survived the 1994 transition. Indeed a 2006 report on grand corruption under apartheid appears to show that post-1994 corruption in South Africa is not a new phenomenon, and to a large extent is actually a mere continuation of the bad old habits inherited by state institutions from the apartheid era.

The report indicates that between 1976-1994, the equivalent of US $54bn (in 2005 ZAR) went through secret “government” accounts controlled by a small clique within government. It is not clear exactly what proportion of this wound up in the pockets of those with access to the lootable cash.

On the question of the quality of governance under apartheid South Africa, the report rightly notes that:

Racist nationalism is as vulnerable to corruption as most systems of authoritarian rule. In closed societies, which are highly militarised under dictatorial rule, the truth is hidden from public view by design. Access to power (and a monopoly over it) provides the elite in the public and private sectors with a unique opportunity to line their pockets. In so doing, the defenders of an illegitimate and corrupt system start to defy their own rules and laws that criminalise such behaviour. In terms of common law crime they are simply crooks dressed in the guise of patriots representing the interests of their volk, their race or their narrow class. They have effectively corrupted themselves.

Such a system can also only survive for as long as a monopoly over power is maintained. Its survival is therefore tenuous—common knowledge to all functionaries of the system, who are the first to ensure that they are taken care of should there be a break with the past. This leads to a reliance on ‘insurance’, usually in the form of cash or other easily moveable assets that can be moved abroad in the event of regime change. It is in the period before regime change that the elite, in particular, are likely to accumulate as many resources as possible for fear that they may soon be out of a job or, at worst, have to flee the country.

Adding that:

A key tenet of the apartheid state was secrecy. This manifested itself in the creation of secret organisations such as the Broederbond, a group of white male Afrikaner Nationalists that numbered 12,000 by the late 1970s (almost all loyal members of the NP), who were the invisible hand directing NP policy and who held enormous influence over government policy and its implementation

In other words, implementing the total domination of a minority or a majority population by the state necessarily requires the curtailment of everyone’s rights, EVEN the rights of those in whose name the state is supposedly carrying out the domination. Also, the authoritarian nature of such domination necessarily leads to the emergence of a select few who must be above the law in order to maintain the system. And like we’d expect, those above the law habitually abuse their power for their personal benefit. This was true in pre-1964 America (to a greater extent in the deep South than elsewhere), was true under Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, and is true in the modern states that continue to institutionally discriminate against sections of their populations.

Check out the full report (pdf) here (H/T Kenyan Pundit).

For those into the study of the rule of law and governance check out these two new papers – Paul Gowder on the egalitarian underpinnings of the rule of law (Law and Philosophy) and Marcus Agnafors on the meaning of good governance (APSR).

13 thoughts on “Corruption under apartheid South Africa, 1976-1994 (and its present institutional legacy)

  1. Interesting post (as always).
    I think this is something generally under-explored, at least in the historiography on colonialism in Africa. The National Party was responsible for instituting other forms of patronage- and corruption-based politics through organisations like the Broederbond which in the early years of apartheid catapulted Afrikaaners with few qualifications into positions of great power (an irony to which critics of programmes like BEE are utterly deaf). During its wars against the front-line states, the SADF plundered the natural resources of those countries.
    More generally, I think the Catonism of colonial administrators (which would surely find echoes after independence in places where the district administrations remained strong) encouraged an arbitrary, personalised, and informal exercise of power which could only fuel corruption of one sort or another.


  2. Pingback: Corruption under apartheid South Africa, 1976-1994 (and its present institutional legacy) - The Nigerian Telegraph | The Nigerian Telegraph

  3. Very interesting…but problematic in the way that it shifts reponsibility for South Africa’s current problem away from the ruling party which also has its own history and institutionalised culture of authoritarianism and a lack of accountability. While apartheid was able to account for this as security, the ANC cannot account for it in the same. Perhaps we should interrogate what happens when liberation movements turned political parties meet institutionally undemocratic political structures?


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  11. The is not a way to justify apartheid corruption those who gained from it must be attended to and everything they gained from this corruption their possessions must be attached and accounts frozen and the responsible must face the law.Also white people still hold high positions in the private sector even though they don’t have the relevant qualifications,such must also be investigated and salaries must be the same and based on qualifications and experience not the colour of your skin.


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