Ferial Haffajee

Is it time to say the K-word?

2012-11-20 12:15

Ferial Haffajee

Kleptocracy. Sitting on a plane headed to Mumbai some years ago, the Indian guy next to me tells me about how his job is to sell generic Aids-fighting drugs around our continent. Business is good, but there's a problem. "The bribery...you have to pay everybody."

"Even in South Africa," I asked, horrified, and still in my age of innocence some years ago.

It was worse in South Africa, he said. You couldn't get through a door without greasing a palm. And the grease got thicker the further you climbed the state procurement pole.  Now, it's a common story where public office equates enrichment.

Richard Levin, the director-general of the Public Service Commission, told Parliament earlier this month that almost R1bn had been lost to misconduct of public servants doing business with the state. He explained that the rules governing the business affairs of civil servants needed changing because it risked corrupting the state. It is a lot of money, but we have become inured to the lost and squandered value.

In any modern state with a functioning armoury of anti-corruption laws and a sense of outrage, this would have held national attention until there was action. But not in our country, even with its modern Constitution and armoury of anti-corruptions laws and institutions.

Lost our common outrage

After a day, the story vanished whereas it should have resulted in a judicial commission of inquiry. It is time to say we live in a kleptocracy where we have lost our common outrage at theft and corruption because it is now ingrained in who and what we are and how we do business. At City Press, we study communities in protest and at its root, flare-ups of rage happen because of local level corruption where the systems and budgets meant for local development are being eaten.

Meet a good civil servant with the best intentions and they will tell you that trying to stop the flow of illicit funds (through kick-backs, inflated tenders, contracts to families and spouses) is like sticking your finger in a dyke. We can't stop it now because there is no moral leadership to set the compass for zero tolerance against corruption. President Jacob Zuma came to office in a Faustian pact with his party and with us, the citizenry. As Adriaan Basson has meticulously documented in his book Zuma Exposed and as the Sunday Times reminded us at the weekend, there was a water-tight case of corruption, fraud and racketeering against him, but for the sake of unity and peace, those charges were dropped amid anger and consternation of good prosecutors.

Friends in Nigeria and Kenya used to say: "But that's nothing," in relation to the alleged bribe request of R500 000 which then MEC Zuma made to an arms company.  We were still small fry then, now we play in corruption's premier league.

The pact ended in the way unprincipled things do: human beings tend not to learn that history repeats itself, often as farce and then as tragedy. And, so, we have another scandal. This time, with the presidential estate of Nkandla, on which about R240m has been spent.  (Notice that as the zeroes have multiplied, our outrage has diminished in the past decade).

The minister who authorised the spending, Public Works' Thulas Nxesi, will not confirm if it has been spent because the estate is a national key point and so it is covered by an information dragnet - you may not know anything about it.  But, is it in fact a national key point - has it been so declared by law? The police won't say because it's classified information.

An abomination

In fact, the president says no public funds have been disbursed on his private parts of Nkandla because he is paying off a bond. We now find it's not a bond, but a loan from a friend, Vivian Reddy. Turns out that President Zuma told the court during the trial of his former friend Schabir Shaik that all those alleged bribes and emoluments were, in fact, loans. Farce. Tragedy.

We live in a kleptocracy. How do we square this with the other country I live in, captured in my column Strive the beloved country? Uncomfortably but not impossibly. China, India, Brazil and Russia all have similar institutional corruption, but I think we top the Brics table now. City Press is getting a lot of heat from people who want us to leave it alone - "don't touch me on my president" is the call - and to let the authorities do their work.

But leaving it alone, entering bad pacts, walking away is how we ended up becoming a kleptocracy. Isn't it our duty to make this k-word as much of an outrage, an evil, an abomination as the other one?

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

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