Tawana Kupe: Vigilance is the price of sustaining democracy

A media that enjoys editorial and programming independence against the powerful was a critical contributor to defending South Africa’s democracy in the past 10 years.

In particular, investigative journalists played a key role in exposing the rapid spread of corruption through public and, to a lesser extent, private institutions – although they exposed the intersection between the corruption of public institutions and private commercial interests.

To be specific, investigative journalism collective amaBhungane’s exposé of the Gupta emails has been cause to celebrate what the media ought to do to defend the public interest and to expose the unapologetic pilfering of public resources. These emails revealed systemic corruption at the highest levels of government and in state-owned enterprises.

These exposés contributed to the subsiding power of former president Jacob Zuma, who is implicated in what has come to be known as state capture. It could be argued that his diminishing power and legitimacy contributed to his loss at the ANC leadership elections. It was the public perception that the faction he supported would not have decisively halted and reversed the systemic corruption in state and society.

In the minds of many, the slide towards systemic corruption has been stopped. It is true that President Cyril Ramaphosa has not been personally associated with the kind of corruption linked to Zuma and will not allow corruption to take root. He campaigned on an explicit anti-corruption stance. ANC chairperson and Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe stated in the run-up to the ANC’s leadership election that selecting a wealthy person was a guarantee that they would not steal public resources for personal benefit.

It might, therefore, be that the vigorous kind of investigative journalism that is true to the watchdog role of the media is no longer necessary. On the contrary, the price of sustaining, defending and deepening democracy is eternal vigilance. We cannot afford to be complacent and to lower our guard.

The election of a person who appears incorruptible and who publicly espouses an anti-graft agenda does not, in itself, uproot corrupt tendencies. It is simply not true that those who support Ramaphosa in the ANC are not implicated in corruption. We must not fall into the simplistic analysis that the corruption associated with the Guptas and Zuma happened like a cash-in-transit heist, as a single event. Even cash heists are often meticulously planned. We must accept that those in the ANC government did not know about the systemic corruption that developed under Zuma. It cannot be that we again have a situation where no one appears to have been a racist and that no one ever supported apartheid before 1994.

State capture as a form of corruption developed over time. It was not a once-off event in a vulnerable place without security. In fact, the media revelations show degrees of collusion, including the complicity of those in the ANC and the government who kept quiet.

Corruption is often enabled, not just by people who are morally weak, greedy and who embark on thieving sprees, but rather by those who remain silent when they should shout and act. The latter are more culpable than the former because, when it suits them, they can condemn that which they allowed to flourish. To be fair, they may have feared for their interests or even their lives. However, these fears do not detract from their culpability.

Investigative journalists and a robust, editorially free media often adopt the Mandela doctrine: if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. Despite this commitment, there has been a noticeable drop in donations for investigative journalism collectives like amaBhungane.

For journalists to continue the good work of exposing corruption, ensuring it is investigated and keeping in check those in powerful positions, requires the support of the public and other social actors. Crucially, they need the public donations that flowed freely when good citizens wanted an end to corruption and looting of public coffers.

- Kupe is chairman of the boards of amaBhungane and Media Monitoring Africa