Fighting corruption with amnesty

2011-06-15 00:00

THERE could be truth in the paradox: a qualified amnesty could be the most effective way of combating corruption. This may seem contradictory, but corruption has become so endemic that we may not have the luxury to be purist and may be forced into pragmatism and unconventionality.

Widespread corruption is the most pernicious evil threatening our republic. It has the capacity to undermine the rule of law to the point where legality itself becomes an exception.

Corruption is also the vehicle through which a tyrannical oligarchy could be empowered. Corruption has already enriched not only those at the top of the political and economic system but an entire system in which political and economic power are intertwined. In this manner, a vast underworld of relations develops underneath a central corrupted oligarchy. Corruption has the capacity to create a parallel state and system of power which will turn our democracy into an empty shell.

The Special Investigative Unit headed by Willie Hofmeyr reported to the Justice Committee (JC) that it estimates that a shocking 50% of contracts resulting from government procurement are the product of corruption or irregular procedures.

The National Prosecution Authority (NPA) reported to the JC that it does not have sufficient resources to prosecute more people that it does. Unfortunately, there is no money available to give it resources, and the JC instructed the NPA to settle as many cases as possible whenever reparation is possible.

Our prisons are overflowing to the point that we will soon be forced to release prisoners on account of the state being unable to keep them in jail in compliance with the minimum conditions of detention prescribed in the Constitution.

A revolution took place in South Africa two decades ago. Fortunately, it was a benign and bloodless revolution. From a historical viewpoint, some argue that one could partially ascribe the rampant corruption, maladministration and larceny of state resources of the past 17 years to the retribution imposed by the victorious revolutionary forces not only on those whom they defeated but on everything in their wake: the modern equivalent of ancient warfare's raping and pillaging of an entire town.

This may not be true, but it does offer a suitable, albeit unconvincing, excuse to commit corruption. Hundreds of previously disadvantaged South Africans have become billionaires, while the gap between rich and poor persists as before.

How does one stop corruption? We cannot even dream of jailing the entire ruling elite: besides it being unrealistic, the damage to the republic would be irreparable. The eradication of corruption has been declared a national priority by a president who escaped about 500 charges or corruption and racketeering.

Something more needs to be done to change entrenched corruptive practices and mind-sets. We must draw a line and declare a new beginning. A qualified amnesty seems the only option. However, culprits cannot go scot free. Applicants for amnesty are normally required to confess to the relevant facts and circumstances for which they are seeking amnesty. They should also be required to make full reparation so that all profits of corruption are returned to the state.

Yet, we may need to go one step further. For it is unlikely that, under normal amnesty procedures, guilty parties will come forward, as they are far too entrenched behind the immunity walls of a corruptive world to fear prosecution. They know that the police cannot cope and corruption has infiltrated its ranks. We may need new and dynamic ways to motivate criminals to come forward.

However structured, an amnesty would enable the state to regroup and reorganise its actions to fight corruption effectively at all levels. From this new beginning every tender should be properly scrutinised. As it now stands, prosecutorial and investigative resources are too engaged to deal with past corruption to provide an effective control on current and future corruption. With a new beginning, both the NPA and the South African Police Force should be able to prevent and prosecute corruption effectively.

It is not easy to admit that something went terribly wrong. It is not easy to condone those who took advantage of it. It is much simpler to stick one's head in the sand. An amnesty offers better hope of saving the republic from this cancer. Otherwise, we are fighting a battle which is lost except in the empty rhetoric of hypocritical politicians.

• Mario Oriani-Ambrosini is a member of Parliament and IFP spokesperson on justice.

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