Are South Africa’s anti-corruption crusaders racist?

Racism has crept into the debates over government corruption in South Africa.

President Jacob Zuma gestures as he addresses the parliament in Cape Town
President Jacob Zuma gestures as he addresses the parliament in Cape Town, South Africa [Reuters/Sumaya Hisham]

In the last few weeks, more attention has been focused on South African President Jacob Zuma than usual because of the release of an explosive new book – The President’s Keepers, by Jacques Pauw. The book details the extraordinary ways in which Zuma’s alleged corruption is enabled by criminals and spies.

It is a chilling read and – unsurprisingly – Pauw has come under considerable pressure in the aftermath of its publication. The state security agency has threatened to ban the book, and as a result, pirated copies have flooded the social media accounts of many South Africans eager to know more and to defy the authorities’ desires to squash an important story. 

Pauw’s book has enjoyed strong support from South Africans of all races. Black and white people have been equally incensed – the middle classes who have data and the money to buy the book have generally been very supportive of his efforts. 

Still, at Pauw’s book launch in a tiny Johannesburg suburb this past week, the looming question of racism couldn’t be ignored. The large crowd – over a thousand people are said to have attended – was predominantly white. Many of the black people in attendance felt uncomfortable. 

Quanitaah Hunter, a journalist at the Sunday Times, the most widely read South African weekend paper, was there. Shortly after the launch, Hunter posted a message on social media in which she noted she felt there was “a smug sense of ‘see what happens when you put blacks in charge’.” She suggested that for some of the white people attending the launch, their motivation for attending, indeed for reading the book, was suspect. The contents of the book, she suggested, were being used to “justify racism and anti-black sentiment.” 

For those familiar with daily life in South Africa, this is no surprise. In recent years racial tensions have run high. There have been a range of high-profile incidents of white arrogance and racism, which have sent shockwaves across a country where black people have done so much to demonstrate their forgiveness of the collective racism of the white population that oppressed them for so long.

The most fearless and prominent anti-corruption campaigners in the democratic era have not been whites.


Many black South Africans who had hoped the end of apartheid would signal the end of white privilege, have been disheartened by the way race relations have unfolded in the post-apartheid period. This disappointment is compounded by the fact that the economic and social systems that made black South Africans poor remain firmly in place. The townships where black people were forced to live under apartheid remain largely removed from the centres of economic activity where whites live.

It is no surprise that whites continue to occupy a disproportionate space in economic affairs: wide-scale change takes time. Yet it is the attitudes and behaviours of many whites that have led to the sort of disillusionment voiced by Hunter. Many black South Africans had hoped the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) would inspire their white compatriots to eschew the sort of racism that now colours the corruption debate. 

For some of the white South Africans who attended Pauw’s book launch, the state of governance is emblematic of the failure of black people to manage the affairs of the country. For them, government corruption is not simply linked to the dangers of any political party that has enjoyed the kind of super-majority the ANC had since it was no longer banned. They see Zuma’s scandals and the allegations of corruption that trail him, as a function of his race: Jacob Zuma is corrupt, because he is black. 


Jacques Pauw’s book does not imply this racial connection at all. The book is meticulously documented and covers much ground that has been previously reported. He joins the dots around previously public information, bolstering it with new evidence, and he does so without resorting to stereotype. 

Still, it would be foolhardy to suggest that discussions about corruption in South Africa – which have spiked in volume as the excesses of President Zuma and his friends and family have become more and more outrageous – are race neutral.

Journalists like Pauw – who track corruption in the post-apartheid era – may simply be doing their jobs, but their stories land in a public domain that is already deeply divided across racial lines. Many of these journalists are themselves black, but this does not change the way the larger narrative of race and mismanagement is framed. This problem is not unique to South Africa of course – yet because of the country’s history, the challenge is especially close to the surface.  

Some political commentators have begun to question why it is the black officials – rather than the (often) white people who corrupt them – who are under more scrutiny in the press. A case in point is the coverage of an important new book – Apartheid Guns and Money by Hennie van Vuuren and Michael Marchant.

The book has received far less press than the president and his keepers. However, it is no less deeply researched, and importantly; it shows the extent to which white South African billionaires paid money to the apartheid regime in return for favours. It is easy to forget that the South African state under apartheid was deeply corrupt – not simply in a moral sense. Under apartheid, the rot was both of a racial and an economic nature. 

Pauw’s book has been published at a time when white South Africans are mobilising in new ways. While their organising is ostensibly on the basis of the effect Zuma is having on the country, it is hard not to view their concern as being motivated by self-interest and an outsized sense of their importance in a country where their importance is no longer guaranteed merely by virtue of their skin colour.


In April of this year, many white people took to the streets after the value of the currency fell due to market jitters related to poor governance. In general, black South Africans were pointed in their avoidance of these rallies. Some have suggested that until whites are collectively prepared to protest against the effects of government corruption on the poorest black citizens, they will withhold their support for #ZumaMustFall campaigns. The president is unfit for office, many believe, but his demise cannot come on the basis of racist ideas about black people’s capabilities. 

As the crowd gathered to listen to Pauw, a curious thing happened along the sidelines of the massive book launch last week. Members of the audience who had broken away from the ruling party – those who are the chief protagonists in the book – were asked to autograph the book. Most of them happened to be black South Africans. They were cheered and patted on the back by their white compatriots. 

Cynics will suggest that these brave South Africans are seen as exceptions. This may be the case. Still, it served as an important reminder for those who may be tempted to suggest there is an inherent relationship between Africans and poor governance. The most fearless and prominent anti-corruption campaigners in the democratic era have not been whites. People like Thuli Madonsela, the former anti-corruption head, and opposition leaders Mmusi Maimane, Julius Malema and Bantu Holomisa, who jointly took the president to court over the scandal involving his presidential palace have been on the front lines in challenging Zuma’s leadership.

Former ANC insiders have also broken ranks, and church leaders and various members of civic groups have all spoken out – all of these good people, fierce opponents of greed – have been black people. 

The good news is that many South Africans are adamant that neither corruption nor racism has a place in the society they fought for. Exposing corruption – as Pauw and others have done with such courage and professionalism – will only yield results when the crimes of white South Africans and global corportations are as thoroughly investigated and debated by whites as those of their black compatriots. Until then, President Zuma and his keepers may have little to fear. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.