Dealing with corruption

2009-04-30 00:00

The elections are over, the dust is settling. The results were not very different from what most people expected. Now is the time for starting to deliver on promises. It is, of course, the winners who have to perform, not the losers. The price of winning an election is a high one.

In this article I want to talk about corruption. It is a big problem in this country — as it is, it has to be added, in many countries. Everyone agrees that corruption is fairly widespread and needs to be taken very seriously. President-elect Jacob Zuma has said it; many other leaders of the ANC have said it. And they have all vowed to root it out.

But one must recognise, and I hope that those who have made promises recognise, that dealing with corruption is no easy matter. Corruption is a subtle, largely hidden disease that contaminates quietly and may work its way through an organisation or through society as a whole. It’s particularly difficult to eradicate because, unlike other diseases, it’s an ailment that the sufferers are very pleased to have; and indeed they get angry, sometimes dangerously so, at the doctors who wish to cure them. A new head of a department who arrives with a determination to rid his or her section of corruption may well discover that the senior people, those who will have to take the lead in the anti-corruption struggle, are corrupt themselves, are perhaps even the main culprits.

Corruption is a phenomenon that needs to be studied, to be worked on. Some people are corrupt without being aware of it, either out of sheer ignorance or out of slackness. I remember Andrew Layman, the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business, describing in one of his articles a group of business people who sat around complaining about the prevalence of crime and corruption, and then proceeded, without missing a beat, to recount some of the tax dodges that they had succeeded in pulling off.

In some respects the rules of procedural correctness, those rules that corrupt people deviate from or undermine, run counter to cultural traditions and human instincts. In many societies, certainly in African societies, it has in the past been assumed that a person with authority or power of any kind would help his or her relatives and friends. It was even considered wrong not to do so. But according to the law and the regulations of a properly run society, that is illegal: it is what is called “cronyism”. And persuading people to change inherited mind-sets is not at all easy.

Another problem is the contrast between the public sector and the private sector. In the latter it is legitimate, for example, for an entrepreneur to employ his son. When I was in local government I became vividly aware of the differences between the two sectors. If a self-employed businessman needs a bit of building work done, he might phone up a builder friend and the work might be done the next day. But in the public sector such a way of acting would be corrupt. Everything needs to be done properly, as one is using public money: the need for the work would have to be carefully assessed, tenders would have to be called for, and so on. The whole process might take several months. Doing things correctly takes time.

The main thing to be said about corruption within national, provincial and local government is that it is important, if the citizens of the country are to be properly served (and one thinks particularly of the vulnerable poor), that elected representatives and civil servants should be people who are fully capable of performing the tasks that they have been selected for, and sufficiently humane and decent to perform them diligently and honestly. Eradicating corruption means making sure that that happens. And that requires vigilance and courage on the part of people in authority. Whistleblowers are very important too, and they must always be protected, never victimised.

I mention these difficulties not in order to be pessimistic but to illustrate the magnitude of the task. Politicians who say cheerily “Yes, we are going to get rid of corruption” are almost certainly unaware of the implications of what they are saying.

Legislation has done what it can to reinforce the cause of anti-corruption. For example in the local government sphere, which is the one that I know best, there is the weighty, complex and impressive MFMA, the Municipal Finance Management Act. But a piece of law like this is impotent unless the people who live under its aegis understand it, take it seriously and apply it rigorously.

What is needed above all is inspiring moral leadership at all levels — political leaders, directors and managers who, by what they do and by what they say, make it clear that they and those under them are elected or appointed above all to serve others and not themselves.

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