Monday, May 9, 2011
On corruption in South Africa
On corruption in South Africa
Jul 5th, 2010 by Pierre De Vos.
As the Marx Brothers might have put it, ‘this man may look like a corrupt idiot and act like a corrupt idiot, but don’t let that deceive you – he is a corrupt idiot.’ – Slavoj Žižek
On 30 May 2003 then President Thabo Mbeki published one of his politically and analytically most brilliant internet letters. The missive, which became one of his most famous, attempted to challenge the widespread perception that had taken hold (and remains to this day) that the government arms deal had been riddled with corruption.
The letter laid bare some of the deeply problematic ideological assumptions underlying the discourse on corruption in post apartheid South Africa. It then used this insight – which was not only spot on, but also tapped into a widespread resentment amongst members of the newly emerging post-apartheid elite – to defend what seemed to be indefensible.
(This was a tactic often used by Mbeki in his letters: correctly expose and analyze widespread racist or Afro-pessimistic assumptions, then use the insight to deny the existence of obvious problems or to discredit the valid criticism of progressive voices in our society. He used the same tactic against the so-called “ultra left” in Cosatu and the SACP and against those who pointed out the folly of his HIV stance.)
In the letter Mbeki wrote (and I am quoting at length):
In the Biblical Gospel according to St Matthew, it is said that Jesus Christ saw Simon Peter and his brother Andrew fishing in the Sea of Galilee. And He said to them: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Perhaps taking a cue from this, some in our country have appointed themselves as “fishers of corrupt men”. Our governance system is the sea in which they have chosen to exercise their craft. From everything they say, it is clear that they know it as a matter of fact that they are bound to return from their fishing expeditions with huge catches of corrupt men (and women)….
[W]e should not, and will not abandon the offensive to defeat the insulting campaigns further to entrench a stereotype that has, for centuries, sought to portray Africans as a people that is corrupt, given to telling lies, prone to theft and self-enrichment by immoral means, a people that is otherwise contemptible in the eyes of the “civilised”. We must expect that, as usual, our opponents will accuse us of “playing the race card”, to stop us confronting the challenge of racism.
The fishers of corrupt men are determined to prove everything in the anti-African stereotype. They rely on their capacity to produce long shadows and innumerable allegations around the effort of our government to supply the South African National Defence Force with the means to discharge its constitutional and continental obligations. They are confident that these long shadows and allegations without number will engulf and suffocate the forces that fought for and lead our process of democratisation, reconstruction and development. However, what our country needs is substance and not shadows, facts instead of allegations, and the eradication of racism. The struggle continues.
Re-reading this letter, it seems almost inevitable that Mbeki would have attempted at first to protect former Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi. It also explains (better than anything anyone else may have written) why he refused to believe the evidence of Selebi’s corruption provided to him by the Prosecuting Authority and even continued to claim that nobody had provided him with any information that Selebi did anything wrong – even after Vusi Pikolu had briefed him on ten different occasions on the evidence against Selebi.
For Mbeki, his (often perceptive and accurate) ideological insights often trumped the proven facts. His tragedy (if you are sympathetic to the former President) or his evil genius (if you are not) was that these general ideological insights were often brilliant and perceptive, but blinded him to the specific facts and the valid criticism of individuals and about particular problems facing the government and the country and its people.
Which brings me to the set of questions I want to try and address in this post: why did an obviously brilliant, courageous and seemingly deeply principled struggle hero like Jackie Selebi became corrupt? Why are we confronted almost every day by news of crooked cops, Home Affairs officials and tenderpreneurs? Why does it sometime feel as if we are being engulfed in a tidal wave (or is it a Tsunami) of sleaze and corruption in South Africa?
The easy answer would be to blame everything on the racist stereotypes that Mbeki rightly warned against and to deny the very facts before our eyes. But this approach would not help us to understand the root causes of the problem and neither would it help to eradicate them. Although the Afro-pessimistic master narrative which Mbeki warned us against may well have helped to exaggerate the perception of corruption in our society, it cannot explain away the problem, which is very real and very dangerous for the long term well-being of our country.
For the same reason we should reject with contempt the racist and offensive claim that there is something in the DNA of the ANC and the government it leads that predisposes it and its members to corruption.
I would like to suggest that the problem can at least partly be attributed to the nature of our transition to democracy. South Africa did not experience a true revolution, but a managed transition. The state remained in tact and the private sector was largely left untouched. During the transition period the crony capitalists and the opportunists, who had exploited the conditions created by apartheid to make vast amounts of money, went to work to capture the new elite in order to protect their own financial interests.
Thus some of the big mining houses and other big business institutions who had resolutely supported apartheid, jumped ship and went to work to woo the members of the incoming government in order to protect their profits and their vested interests. They donated money to the ANC, forged close personal ties with some ANC leaders by wining and dining them and by providing them with all kinds of material “assistance”. They claimed they were doing this out of altruism or out of a deep sense of shock about the horrors of apartheid which – so they laughably claimed – they had only belatedly become aware of.
In essence, what large sections of the big business community did, was to offer legal bribes to the ANC as a movement as well as to individual ANC members to ensure that their own financial interests would be secured. They would offer fantastic riches to a few lucky well-connected individuals through BEE deals and directorships with the understanding that there would not be any fundamental transformation of the economic system in South Africa. Workers would still work and die for a pittance, while bosses would be allowed to continue to draw huge salaries and bonuses and subvent profits to London and New York.
Was it then not all too human and understandable that some (but not all) members of the new elite – who had not benefited from these legalized bribes – began to feel hard done by and tried to do something about it? Thus the mutually beneficial relationship between crony capitalism and some members of the new elite became firmly enrenched. In the feeding frenzy that followed, the lines between the legalized bribes paid by the apartheid capitalists and the criminal bribes paid by people like Schabir Shaik and Glen Agliotti became somewhat blurred.
And as more and more people seem to get fabulously rich (perhaps not as rich as those who exploited the apartheid system) and the culture of accumulation and consumption firmly took hold, it was perhaps inevitable that somebody like poor Jackie Selebi would begin to think that there was not really anything wrong with a gangster buying your very own child a nice pair of shoes. Ironically, it is exactly against this new kind of colonization that Mbeki himself warned in his Nelson Mandela Lecture when he said:
Thus, everyday, and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realizable dream and nightmare. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity – get rich! get rich! get rich! And thus has it come about that many of us accept that our common natural instinct to escape from poverty is but the other side of the same coin on whose reverse side are written the words – at all costs, get rich!
Is it too late to turn around this ship? Well, extraordinary political and moral leadership is required to address the capturing of our hearts and minds by the crony capitalists. We have the perfect Constitution and the perfect laws to fight the good fight and to stop the rot, but without the political leadership there will be no success. That is why the fight raging currently inside the ANC between the tenderpreneurs and those who believe in the creation of a more fair and just society is pivotal for the long-term well-being of our society.
Sadly, because he is himself compromised and implicated in the culture of greed through his association with the fraudster Schabir Shaik, President Jacob Zuma is probably not the best leader to lead the fight. Time for a change in ANC leadership perhaps?
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