Prof Mnwana facilitates web seminar on Rethinking Corruption

Read time: 5 mins

The University of Fort Hare’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, in partnership with Friederich-Ebert-Sifting South Africa, recently hosted a web seminar under the theme: Rethinking Corruption.

The session was facilitated by Professor Sonwabile Mnwana, an Associate Professor at the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Fort Hare and Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

 The objective of the seminar was to challenge prevailing views on corruption in South Africa’s democratic era. The seminar came at a time when the country is overwhelmed with media reports on allegations of corruption in the tendering process for personal protective equipment to combat the spread of Covid-19.

In his opening remarks, Prof Mnwana said the time has come to ‘Rethink Corruption’.

“When we conceptualized this idea last year, things were not as bad as they are now. There were still residual elements, arguably of a ‘new dawn’. People still thought that corruption in SA’s political, social and economic landscape could be dealt with decisively, by change of leadership”, he lamented.

The panel comprised two prominent speakers:  

  1. 1.      Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana:  A well-known political analyst and an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Johannesburg.  He is also a writer and his latest book is titled Anatomy of the ANC in power: insights from Port Elizabeth, 1990-2019.
  2. Professor Karl Von Holdt: A Senior Researcher and Professor at the Society Work and Political Institute at Wits University.

Excerpts from Speakers’ Notes:


He focussed his arguments on four points:

  1. The mechanism for elite formulation rather than a moral or criminal issue
  2. The manifestation of a pervasive  informal political-economic system in South Africa
  3. Violence
  4. President Ramaphosa’s trajectory and the shape of corruption in SA  will  be determined  by the character  and stability of the coalition he can forge within the ANC

He argued that apartheid was a formation of the oppression of the black middle class, with jobs reserved for white people.

“On the other hand, democracy provided an opportunity for people to advance, and in many ways, to move to middle class, get qualifications that are required to improve lives, enter into business and become rich”, he said.

According to him,   there were two legally established mechanisms - Black Economic Empowerment and Land Redistribution, but both only achieved little. This led to an informal political-economic system.  This, he argued, preceded the Zuma-Gupta political project that syphoned money from the state-owed companies and extended way beyond.

“The power of former President Jacob Zuma at national level was sustained by provincial groupings and cities, an enriched network to fund the ruling party, side-lining of technocrats and cadre deployment and a plethora of consultation firms from abroad,” argued Prof Von Holdt.  

He argued that violence is an integral part of the corrupt system, sighting a number of death threats in local municipalities.

He further stated that elite formations through wealth accumulation are intrinsic to the work of the political-economic formation which consists of friends and business associates.  He however warned people not to think that everybody involved is corrupt.

 “There are genuine businesses and there is blurring of lines between politics and business across the board.  President Ramaphosa promised to clean up but the task to do so is not clear.  So it is no surprise that it is continuing during his presidency,” he said.



Professor Ndletyana’s talk was inspired by his latest book.  His focus was on corruption being a systemic issue rather than an opportunistic activity.

“It does not come when opportunities present themselves. It is inherited from the apartheid system and continued up to 1995”.

According to Prof Ndletyana, the old system allowed councillors to do business with municipalities and it expected mayors to be rich.

 “It became normal and acceptable in the new system for councillors to fight over who becomes the city manager. The city manager’s opposition to looting was threatened with violence”, said Prof Ndletyana.

“When you realise you need competent people, the embeddedness within the system resists whatever improvements you want to do.  The system is reconfigured to perpetuate corruption”, he argued. 

He further pointed out that when there is an allegation, councillors vote and initiate the investigation themselves, but when they are involved, such never happens.

“Reports should be brought to the council in order to bring in the influence of society. Participation by members in the audience during the question, commentary and answer session produce more fireworks”, argued Ndletyana.

Prof Ndletyana indicated that he was glad about the awareness that it is not just some institutions, but that all sectors are engulfed by corruption.

“For politicians not to behave in the way they do, there has to be intolerance and consequences. That part of our fight is that institutions should be a  lot more accountable and transparent so that we are able to get a lot more of what is happening within such institutions”, he said.

“I think there is a reaction by politicians in terms of electoral response to corruption. Part of the reason the ANC has been performing badly is that people are not voting for it. While some decided not to show up in the polls, some decided to change and vote for other parties. On legislation, the call that people should be voting directly for their leaders, and the constitutional court ruling that individuals should be allowed to stand for election, is part of the reaction.”

He further alluded that the anger over the past few years is caused by political parties being protective of corrupt politicians. “You cannot expect leaders to exact punishment on their wayward leaders.  So, the parties are themselves implicated.”

“State institutions outside the judiciary were knee capped intentionally not to fight corruption.  But we have been seeing lots of changes now with new appointments. From the sides of the courts, there has been some interesting development.   If one insists on a frivolous case and loses that case, the individual is forced to pay out of pocket.”

The seminar concluded with a Questions, Answers and Comments session.


Please click on the link to listen to the recording:


By Mawande Mrashula