Inequality the problem, not corruption

Hundreds of people are continuing to build informal homes on private land in Kraaifontein. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Every morning while waking up for the last eleven days, the realisation that South African tax-payers are paying for my stay has made me appreciate the conditions and circumstances; even if they are sacrifices.

After being stuck in Beijing for more than four months, at the end of July a number of students who had had the rare privilege of studying in China landed at OR Tambo International Airport. Our group in particular had been funded by Chinese and South African tax-payers. 

Missing my family in Cape Town terribly, we are enduring the mandatory quarantine period while not being able to leave our rooms. The conditions are strict. Yet for the accommodation and three meals a day, again all funded by tax-payers, this is a small price to pay.

The silence and the time alone have once again allowed for a time of reflection of what is happening in South Africa. The disturbance in normal life that Covid-19 has caused has been described before as a moment of liminality. 

Moments of liminality are periods of transition, ambiguity or disorientation. A threshold, as it were, the moment causes, usually, an extreme reaction of the characteristics of a society. The good and the bad of a society are in stark sight. 

While unemployment, poverty and inequality have become a rhetorical description of South Africa, Covid-19 has displayed the vast inequalities, in particular, that exist within our towns and cities. 

It does not surprise that the exposé and subsequent responses to stories of corruption, especially in respect of Covid-19 funds, happens a mere few weeks after the outbreak of looting in our townships. 

Both corruption and looting are reflections of this deep inequality that exists within our country. 

In 2004, You Jong-sung and Sanjeev Khagram, both at Harvard University at the time, in their working series paper for the John F. Kennedy School of Government titled “A Comparative Study of Inequality and Corruption” pointed out the correlation between corruption and inequality. 

They state that “income inequality increases the level of corruption through material and normative mechanisms. The wealthy have both greater motivation and opportunity to engage in corruption, while the poor are more vulnerable to extortion and less able to monitor and hold the rich and powerful accountable as inequality increases.”

The authors go on to explain the blatancy and the audacity of the well-off to engage in corrupt activities because of inequality. For these who are wealthy, there is nothing wrong with their activities until it is pointed out to them. 

Those who are politically connected, whether in business or in the public service, find it acceptable to engage in corrupt transactions precisely because they, and not the poor, have access to these opportunities. 

Yet a major challenge with corruption in South Africa is our understanding of corruption and what we view as the cure. We believe that law enforcement is the silver bullet when it is not.

In fact, law enforcement is part of the problem. 

In a seminal essay on corruption written in 1969, James C. Scott notes that often societies, especially in Africa and Asia, approach and view corruption through a western lens when the nature of the beast is very different in these parts of the world. 

Titled, “Corruption, Machine Politics, and Political Change”, in the “American Political Science Review”, Scott points out how corruption is often perpetrated in the west in the process leading up to the passing of laws or policy. 

Instead, in the developing world, corruption usually takes place not in the legislative process but in the implementation phase. In other words, in the enforcement stage. 

As a result, public officials, tasked with the enforcement and implementation of these laws and policies, are often coerced into corrupt activities. Law enforcement agencies, no different from other public officials, are therefore also vulnerable to this coercion. 

South Africa cannot therefore put its trust in the Special Investigative Unit (SIU), the Hawks, the SAPS or even the NPA to bring corrupt officials to book. Given the nature of corruption in our parts of the world, these remain part of the problem. Instead, we must start by ensuring a defeat to inequality which is a bit more absent in the developed world. 

Forced to watch continuous sensationalist media reports during these quarantine days, we see academics interviewed pointing fingers at government for being corrupt and failing to come up with the answers. When in actual fact it is academics themselves who should be providing answers.

If only academics too realise that they too are living off tax-payers money and reflect a bit better on corruption in the context of our deep inequalities as a country. 

Dr Wesley Seale has just returned from Beijing and writes from Johannesburg where he is now in quarantine.