In a recent Business Day article, former DA leader Tony Leon argues that, despite the brutality of its system, the apartheid political elite had better accountability than we see today.

Time, it appears, may both heal wounds and erase memory. In his recent Business Day column, Mr Leon makes an argument that falls into an all-too-common pathology: that economic crime has blossomed in the post-apartheid era, and that public accountability has withered. While acknowledging apartheid’s brutality, he writes that “we should not avert our gaze from the undertow that came in its [apartheid’s] wake: the rapaciousness of public life and the lack of consequences for leading transgressors.” The suggestion is that the new dispensation is both more corrupt and lazier in applying the rules of accountability.

Also see our article: The Good Old Days? 8 ‘Crony Capitalism’ Case Studies

This shouldn’t be reduced to an argument about which system of governance is more corrupt – that allows the apartheid apologists to draw a laager that silences all debate. When people sit back and stew in anger they are unwittingly providing support for the people who made mega-profits from apartheid.

Rather, we need a serious conversation, involving all South Africans, about the long tail of corruption in South Africa. We need this because we are in a messy middle ground in which the democratic government has been unwilling or unable to investigate the economic crimes of the old order – some of which may far outstrip the scale of corruption alleged in the multibillion-dollar post-apartheid arms deal.

Most countries that undergo transition from a secretive autocratic state to an open democracy grapple with this. We’ve seen it from Kenya to Indonesia and Egypt, where corruption charges against Hosni Mubarak are likely to be dropped this week. Wherever there have been attempts to include economic crimes as part of the transitional justice process – they have simply failed. Where corruption has been excluded from the transitional justice agenda, either by design or oversight – such as with South Africa’s TRC – the problem festers. Those networks stay in business, and rather than face justice they invite members of the new elite to the table. Arguably, this is where South Africa finds itself today.

The baffling silence on apartheid corruption benefits the powerful and carpetbaggers within the new and old elite. Any attempt to pick at this issue is a threat to the status quo, and thus a threat to the interests of politicians and businesspeople across the political spectrum. Hence, these are open secrets which few people wish to tackle. Given the difficulty we face in grappling with the alleged network of elite criminality in the post-apartheid arms deal, one can imagine how vested interests will push back against investigations that implicate the country’s old elite (who still hold considerable economic influence) and their new business partners. (We wrote about some stalled investigations of apartheid corruption here.)

These networks extend well outside South Africa’s border to include multinational corporations, financial institutions and individuals who all benefitted from apartheid graft. Sanctions-busting for arms, oil and sophisticated technology relied on a mix of ‘good-will’ by supporters of the apartheid ideology, and those who were simply willing to profiteer off the back of injustice (see for example, the oil trader Marc Rich). This was not an ideological pursuit but rather relied on criminal enterprise that made some people fabulously rich. For these reasons, it is an issue that is fiendishly difficult to investigate. Yet, our refusal as a society to investigate these issues is undermining our stated Constitutional commitment to the rule of law.

One recent investigation of apartheid grand corruption is being led by the Public Protector, who is reportedly investigating the role of financial institutions (possibly also implicating the South African Reserve Bank) in economic malfeasance during apartheid. At the centre of this is the so-called ‘lifeboat’ scandal, involving loans by the Reserve Bank to some of the country’s largest banks in the 1980s and early 1990s, that were essentially converted into gifts (‘lifeboats’). The former Finance Minister Barend du Plessis signed off on these – to the benefit of his brother, among others, who sat on the board of one of the banks.

See this list of other ‘open secrets’ that may have slipped from public memory: The Good Old Days? 8 ‘Crony Capitalism’ Case Studies.

However, there are a litany of other issues which demand equal attention from state bodies tasked with tackling corruption. Addressing these and other allegations of economic crime (there is far more to uncover!) will require a deeper understanding of the problem, an inclusive conversation and a form of justice to find resolution. But before this process can begin, Mr. Leon and millions of others need to swallow the bitter pill of truth: In secretive societies all people – including white folk – are prone to unimaginable crimes of blood and money. This is the lesson for a free South Africa. It should no longer have to be the poor man’s burden to carry.

See also: The Good Old Days? 8 ‘Crony Capitalism’ Case Studies

A version of this article appeared in Business Day on 22 August 2013.

Image: Political posters from South Africa’s 1994 National Elections. Available at the Unisa Institutional Repository.

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