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High-level corruption cases mount in South Africa

South Africa's national police chief stands accused of spending taxpayers' money unlawfully. A Cabinet minister reportedly used public funds to live in a luxury hotel and fly first-class. And this week, the wife of another minister was convicted of dealing drugs.

As the scandals mount, South Africans have yet to get explanations, let alone action.

South Africa has the continent's most diverse economy. It's an example of stability for Africa, having held a series of peaceful elections since apartheid ended in 1994. This week, businesspeople and government officials from around the world attended a World Economic Forum meeting in Cape Town, discussing prospects for development and good government on the continent.

But analysts say those successes have been undermined by a deep undercurrent of corruption since the advent of democracy. Before becoming president, Jacob Zuma was implicated in a corruption case relating to a multibillion-rand (dollar) arms deal bribery scandal. Charges were dropped weeks before the 2009 election that brought Zuma to power, with the nation's top prosecutors saying the case was tainted by political meddling and would not be revived, though they insisted their evidence was solid.

For the most part, corruption in South Africa, as anywhere in the world, is driven by greed.

But some critics say there is also a sense that some of the men and women who sacrificed during the fight against apartheid now feel entitled to financial payback.

Zwelinzima Vavi, a top trade unionist and key ally of the governing African National Congress, is among many who have expressed concern about that sense of entitlement, and condemned the values expressed by politicians who throw extravagant parties and drive luxury cars. Vavi says growing rich at the public's expense is not what ANC leaders like Nelson Mandela stood for.

In a speech last year that drew wide attention, Vavi said that if the battle against corruption is lost, "there is no hope of preventing the collapse of our democracy and a descent into a banana republic dictatorship."

Nonetheless, South Africa prides itself in having key weapons against corruption, including an independent judiciary and feisty media.

Still, Ayesha Kajee, who has served on the board of the South African branch of Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, said it is becoming increasingly difficult for ordinary South Africans to get government jobs — or even basic services such as electricity connections — without bribes.

"It sends a message to those people who really are amongst the have-nots that the government of the day is not concerned that so many South Africans live in abject poverty," she said.

More broadly, she said, corruption disappoints those elsewhere on the continent who look to South Africa as a model, and could scare off foreign investors.

"It is starting to destroy the notion many have of the potential for an African renaissance," Kajee said.

On Thursday, the wife of a Cabinet minister and her co-defendant were found guilty in a court in eastern South African of recruiting women to smuggle drugs from Turkey and South America. One of the women was arrested in Brazil in 2008 with more than 20 pounds (10 kilograms) of cocaine in her luggage and is now in a Brazilian jail.

Sheryl Cwele's husband, intelligence minister Siyabonge Cwele, has not commented publicly on the case.

In an editorial Saturday, Johannesburg's Star newspaper said prosecutors and judges had done their jobs in Sheryl Cwele's case, and hinted that the minister should step down.

"We have a huge crime problem in this country, but more than that we've got a massive ongoing perceptual problem — abroad and at home — that there are two sets of laws, one for the elite and one for the rest of us," the editorial said. "We need the executive to show ... fortitude — and for Minister Cwele to do the honorable thing."

Top officials have also been silent on police chief Bheki Cele. In February, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, a government official charged with policing the civil service, said in a report that Cele violated laws and regulations by failing to seek competitive bids when leasing police offices. The real estate company involved is headed by a close friend of the president.

Cele's "conduct was improper, unlawful and amounted to maladministration," Madonsela said. The report that came less than a year after Cele's predecessor was convicted of corruption. He had gone on shopping sprees with a convicted drug smuggler.

Cele called a news conference to respond to his own situation, saying other officials and another department are to blame if there was any misconduct. South Africa's Cabinet has said it is studying Madonsela's report. There has been no other official response.

In another case that grabbed attention in South Africa, Sicelo Shiceka, the Cabinet minister in charge of ensuring local and national agencies work together to better serve the public, "abused taxpayers' money to lead a lifestyle befitting a multimillionaire," the Sunday Times reported in April.

Among other extravagances, the Johannesburg newspaper reported, Shiceka and members of his staff used public money to live for a year at a luxury Cape Town hotel. Taxpayers footed the bill again when he flew first class to visit his girlfriend, a flight attendant jailed in Switzerland on drug charges.

Parliament's ethics committee has referred Shiceka's case to the public protector for investigation.

At a news conference, Zuma, speaking to reporters April 28, said the Shiceka matter was being addressed.

"Once we make out conclusions, we'll take action," the president said. "It's going to be very quick, because we think the matter is serious."

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Donna Bryson can be reached on http://twitter.com/dbrysonAP

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