Corruption is both a major cause and result of poverty around the world. It occurs at all levels of society, from local and national governments, civil society and the private sector. Corruption affects the poorest the most in rich or poor countries. It permeates society as a whole.
The recent multi-faceted crises which included credit rating agency downgrades, recession, the damning revelations of corruption at Judge Zondo’s Commission of Enquiry into State Capture, the alleged Zuma-Gupta capers, the Steinhoff saga, the looting of VBS Bank and the Eskom orchestrated load-shedding has had a profound effect on South Africa. Within this perspective the issue of corruption both in the public, private and civil society arenas is significant and it has taken South Africa further away from its goals as a middle-income country that offers an opportunity for all who live in it. South Africans are not happy.
Despair pervades the country. According to a 2017 Bloomberg’s Misery Index, South Africa is the second-most miserable country on earth. Hope of an inclusive, prosperous and peaceful South Africa is fading.
The scourge of corruption is most defining, especially given the effects it has on the exacerbation of poverty. There is a growing chasm between haves and have-nots and poverty seems to be rising at an alarming rate. Currently we are the most unequal society in the world. Consequently, the poor in South Africa have little chance of improving their lives and they become ever more reliant on the provision of state services.
Gross inequalities, poverty and poor governance are imposing challenges in the creation of an inclusive society. It deprives people from even the basic needs of food and shelter and thereby leads them to being marginalised to the moribund backwaters of society.
Corruption perpetuates poverty. It skews decisions and diverts scarce funds, denying poor people access to basic social services and resources to improve their livelihoods. While the rich work around the problems the poor use service delivery protests to try get the government’s attention over failures to provide services such as water, education and energy. Where better off people can find private solutions to public failure the disadvantaged poor have no alternative. For them, corruption creates a vicious cycle.
This situation is in stark contrast to the hope and expectations that most of us had during the early period of independence and immediately after that. The euphoria of that period died a slow and painful death. Despite knowing that in the new developmental state we would experience the proverbial ‘pangs of growing pains’ in the early post-independent years, no one would have expected that similar to other African countries, South Africa would be in the development doldrums – about a quarter of a century later. We now have a completely distorted political economy where dysfunctional state-owned enterprises and private enterprises work in cahoots to create fertile ground for rent seeking, looting and the major cause of grief for the citizenry – especially the poor.
There are some critical questions that beg answers. Why did we become one of the global capitals for corruption? Where did we go wrong in our development trajectory that was once brimming full of hope? Given the noble intentions of the post-apartheid Mandela development agenda of reducing inequality and poverty, why did we engage in in corrupt activities that militated against the very same problems and challenges that we aspired to overcome in the first instance?
As we reflect on these critical questions, we must be mindful of the prophetic observation by acclaimed Algerian liberation theorist Frantz Fanon that the post-colonial reality provides some evidence that national liberation movements ultimately became transformed into their opposites and often replicated the style and practice of their oppressors. The neo-colonial socio-economic trajectory that they adopted for their liberated countries degenerated into a patronage-based and corrupt system that progressively eschewed freedom of expression and human rights and also marginalised the poor.
For Fanon there was a distinct possibility that post-liberation culture and politics might take the road of retrogression, if not tragedy. “After liberation, the native elite had been ensconced in intellectual laziness and cowardice. In its will to imitation and its inability to invent anything of its own, the native bourgeoisie had assimilated the most corrupt forms of colonialist and racist thought. Afflicted with precocious senility, the educated classes were stuck in a great procession of corruption. The innermost vocation of the new ruling class seemed to be part of the racket or the loot. It had annexed state power for its own profit and transformed the former liberation movement into a trade union of individual interests while making itself into a screen between the masses and their leaders”.
Fanon’s work, written five decades ago still bears a prophetic power as an accurate description of what happened in Algeria and many African countries including South Africa. Reading Fanon’s words and especially ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’ his famous chapter in The Wretched of the Earth one cannot help being absorbed and shaken by their truth and foresight on the bankruptcy and sterility of national bourgeoisies in Africa. The bourgeoisies that tended to replace the colonial force with a new class-based system replicating the old colonial structures of exploitation and oppression. Today’s crises in South Africa confirm this assertion as we can see a scandalous and endemic corruption and ‘legalised’ robbery.
The sad contemporary reality that Fanon described and warned against five decades ago gives little doubt that were he alive today, Fanon would be hugely disappointed at the result of his efforts and those of other revolutionaries who lost their lives for our independence.
Corruption has become distressingly a new normal in South Africa. People are socialized into committing all sort of ‘crimes’ and encouraged to believe that corruption is an inevitable and necessary response to the hard commercial realities of the ‘new’ South Africa. Just as Fanon had forewarned, in South Africa there is often a lethal mix of end users, intermediaries, and even competitors who all share a corrupt intent. A frontline mentality which suggests that ‘if we don’t do it, someone else will’ permeates society.
South Africa now stands at a crossroads and requires urgent attention for the country to refute Fanon’s prophetic warnings. At the same time we have to accept that corruption poses critical challenges to economic and social development, and diverts resources from legitimate causes beneficial to society at large. It also restricts millions of people on a daily basis in their enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, contributing to the perpetuation of poverty and hindering economic opportunity.
As a sober reminder, Fanon does alert us that the scandalous enrichment of this profiteering caste will be accompanied by ‘a decisive awakening on the part of the people and a growing awareness that promised stormy days to come’. The popular masses will inevitably rebel against the violence of the contemporary leadership offering them only growing pauperisation, marginalisation and the enrichment of the few at the expense and damnation of the majority.
Indeed, it is a fitting moment for all of us, and in particular the corrupt to reflect seriously on whether our liberation strategy has delivered the material socio-economic improvement and reality that the majority of the poor and marginalised hoped for and desired. We owe it to the future of South Africa. As Joe Biden said “Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It’s self-defence. It’s patriotism.”
Professor Dhiru Soni is an academic and researcher and writes in his personal capacity.