More to corruption than what we see

2012-06-12 00:00

THE international anti-corruption NGO, Transparency International, recently released yet another report on worsening corruption in southern Africa. The report suggested that the police service is particularly riddled with corruption and is thus too compromised to protect citizens from this scourge.

This is just further evidence of the deep challenges facing the region and South Africa. It is must easier to point out this problem than to identify effective ways of containing and ultimately eradicating it. It is a difficult societal problem both to understand and to solve because it is simultaneously a problem of morals, individual behaviour, institutional culture, downright capitalist economics, kleptocratic political culture, state-citizen interface, and even a clash between culture and modernity.

The problem is that we like to make the problem appear a lot simpler than it actually is. Reports such as the one referred to above, or a statement by a judge ruling on a specific corruption case or news headlines on scandals or a statement by zealous corruption fighters have the effect of simplifying the problem to single causes, single categories of culprits and simple solutions. This gives a sense that this scourge can be overcome by a simple act done by a single actor and a single direction, that is obvious for all to see.

Take the never-ending saga of the arms deal in South Africa. The line of argument that dominates public discourse suggests that the problem is simple: government officials whose identities can be found in some government database took bribes from known arms companies and deposited their loot in bank accounts that can be traced with the co-operation of banks. It is simple, it is suggested.

On a general note, the problem is presented as a particular challenge of post-apartheid government. Explaining the exclusion of the non-West from the new world order after WW2, Britain’s Winston Churchill said it was better to have governments run by rich people rather than hungry nations because, unlike them, the former had no need to acquire more wealth. It turned out that the rich people had an insatiable hunger for even more wealth. “All for themselves, and nothing for other people”, as Adam Smith put it. And, in the process, they would work with the rich in poor countries to plunder former colonies. Similarly, the post-apartheid government has provided lots of proof for some that the poor are inherently ambitious and, therefore, corrupt. Very little is said about the corruptors who, in Smith’s world, were merchants and manufacturers, the very drivers of capitalist economic enterprise, he was embarrassed to admit.

The second challenge is that in respect of petty corruption, the ubiquitous incidence of bribes is an inextricable part of crass materialism that has caught on, especially among the largely multiracial post-1994 elite. When success was measured by one’s possession of cars, fancy clothes, and the ability to flaunt this material wealth for all to see, then the real corruption of social fabric began. The bribes are only means by which gatekeepers in public service and private business dealings seek to enter the ranks of those considered successful.

The third problem is that because we have reduced corruption to ways by which it manifests itself rather than what it is in essence, we see it as something that has nothing to do with us, but a vile act propagated by others. We have absolved ourselves of the responsibility we shoulder for promoting extreme modes of capitalist accumulation. Even those who consider themselves non-capitalist or even anti-capitalists are culpable. The fact that we work hard to distinguish our children with material possessions, rather than social values they hold; that we monetise every aspect of human activity from co-operatives to social security; and that we promote individual excellence at the expense of human solidarity means that we, too, are part of the corruption of the fabric of society. We create conditions where those who have less would do anything to catch up or live above their means.

If we fail to understand the corruption behind the symptoms of bribes and extortions, we will only deal with the manifestation of corruption while actually promoting conditions for its growth at the same time. We live in houses made of glass, so we cannot throw stones. We must accept that we are culpable, too, and be prepared to work with others to rid society of these evils.

Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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