An unfolding corruption scandal involving a South African minister’s expensive trips to see his jailed mistress in Switzerland is expected to undermine the ruling party ahead of local elections next month.
The African National Congress, which has had a stranglehold on politics since it took over when apartheid ended 17 years ago, is expected to roll to victory in the May 18 vote, but the scandal could costs it control of urban areas and undermine President Jacob Zuma as ANC rivals look to unseat him.
Zuma, who pledged to stamp out corruption in Africa’s largest economy when he took office two years ago, this week said he has noted media reports that Cooperative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka was suspected of spending R335,000 (nearly US$50,000) in state funds to visit his imprisoned girlfriend.
Shiceka, who is also being investigated for spending nearly US$100,000 in state funds on stays for him and his staff at a posh Cape Town hotel, has not commented on the reports. His office said he has been on sick leave for several weeks.
Corruption is nothing new in South Africa, with analysts saying it has become worse under Zuma. This has angered the ANC’s base of poor blacks whose fortunes have improved little since the party took over as well as a growing multi-racial middle class who feel their taxes being wasted.
Analysts see the May election as the first where non-racial differences in class come into play in the country that suffered massive racial repression of non-whites for most of the 20th century and expect them to grow larger in the years to come.
“We are going to see an increasing alienation of the urban middle classes and labour aristocracy, who are deeply opposed to those who are looting the state,” said independent political analyst Nic Borain.
The ANC is expected to stay in power for years to come with voters supporting it for helping bring down white-minority apartheid rule and with no serious opposition party that can challenge it nationally.
But cracks are showing in its grip on power, with the ANC facing violent protests in recent years from poor blacks who are still waiting for the party to deliver electricity, running water and basic health care to their communities.
The ANC’s governing partner, powerful labour federation COSATU, has taken shots at the ANC for doing little to end corruption or curtailing what it calls a “predator elite” while ignoring the plight of the masses of poor.
Excesses among the ANC include sweetheart deals that have benefited the politically connected, pricey cars purchased for ministers and lavish parties for ANC Youth League leaders where sushi was served on the bikini-clad bodies of models.
Analysts worry the ANC may react by trying to create barriers that cut off information from the public as its various factions scramble for funds to help their power grabs.
“For the first time, the ANC is going into an election having lost the moral high ground,” political analyst Justice Malala wrote in a recent editorial in the local daily The Times.
“The party of Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli now resembles something more like a corrupt, inept entity leading us to a police state,” he wrote.