Ask enough people what they think is wrong with our country and you are bound to eventually come across the word “corruption”. Corruption is bad, we can all agree on that. What we feel to grasp however is that corruption isn’t just an immoral, unbecoming but excusable practice that our leaders will eventually “grow out of”. It is illegal. Corruption is theft, and constitutes an economic crime against the citizens of this country who have a collective and equal stake to public funds. Whenever funds are misappropriated and misused, this isn’t just an unfortunate delinquent act by rogue leaders – it is, as per the formulation of the People’s Tribunal against Economic Crime which consists of several civil society organizations, an economic crime. Corruption is a fundamental problem of governance.
Our country is roiled over by a slowing economy, rising poverty and crime levels – turning us all into cynics of just about everything. We are, as Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh rightly points out, deluded with the state of our democracy. Despite this delusion, we are so involved in the simple every-day struggle for our immediate survival to do anything about our growing discontent. There is an old well-known parable told which describes a frog being slowly boiled alive. It is said, that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out in response to the heat. However, if the frog is placed in lukewarm water which is then brought to a boil slowly, then it will not perceive the danger that it is unable to perceive the danger that it is in. The water will gradually increase in temperature and the frog will eventually be cooked to death. The first giant leap for us would be in recognizing that corruption, in all its forms, is an economic crime and approaching it with a zero tolerance. This means arrest, prosecution and possible jail time for perpetrators.
Strengthening our democracy
At the heart of democratic promise is the widely loved maxim ‘The people shall rule.’ The ‘rule of the people extends far beyond being able to make a choice at the ballot – it is having leaders that rule and govern with you in mind. The will of the people is not merely who will rule, but effectively also how they should rule. People’s Power means the people having a voice at every level of the democratic process and not solely during elections. Like the many systems of governance which have preceded it, relies on the goodwill of leaders to make on their promises to their electorate. The relevant is goodwill is often lacking when it is most needed because self-interest can be harnessed in the cause of peace, justice and equality. Democracy cannot continue to be reduced to a leadership contest of which holds no intrinsic value post-elections. The right to vote on its own means very little without the accompanying the ability to have influence on our leaders once they are elected. The power that should belong to the people has migrated into the hands of a handful of powerful firms and companies who quite brazenly shape the decisions taken by the state when it comes to creating policy and implementing it. Complex interactions between firms and the state threaten socio-economic redress and the upholding of our democratic principles – which seek to put the interests of the people first.
The vote has, over time, become a regulatory and disciplinary tactic which has been to the detriment of radical politics of South Africa. The state should be accountable to and should prioritise the very people it purports to represent.
The generational curse of grand corruption
Contrary to widespread belief, the symbiotic relationship between the state and business is not a new phenomenon. Neither is it limited to the Gupta-Zuma family network. This is said not to absolve the Gupta-Zuma family network of their culpability in eroding state institutions and perpetuating economic crimes against the people of South Africa in the present, but instead, is to awaken us to the extent of the generational manifestation of state capture and its ubiquity in South African politics. We must follow the breadcrumbs to find where it all actually began – the inconvenient truth is that the rot runs very deep.
In the newly released Apartheid Guns and Money by Hennie Van Vuuren, the role of corporate South Africa as the lifeline of the apartheid state has been brought to the fore. Private companies, such as SaFair (which owns commercial airline, flysafair) were actively involved in purchasing weapons on behalf of the state to circumvent the arms embargo that had been placed on the apartheid government and facilitating the illegal supply of weapons to apartheid South Africa between 1977 and 1994. This was not only corrupt by modern legal standards, but was a clear of the international law of that time. This act came with kickbacks from the government and protection of the business interests of corporate-allies.
In 1999, a private investigations company called CIEX found that R26 billion had been laundered and held offshore by apartheid regime bankers, arms dealers and senior politicians. In addition, numerous secret loans from the South African Reserve Bank were approved to Bankorp, which was later purchased by ABSA. Here is the sinister plot: The then Minister of Finance, Barend Du Plessis was a brother to one of the board of directors of Bankorp.
The difference is we won’t tolerate it – no one is going to “eat on our behalf”.
Our strategy should be not only to confront the current leaders who are siphoning off resources, but to begin deprive state capture of its oxygen – regardless of who is the perpetrator. This means treating corruption with the contempt that it deserves and prosecuting individuals who are participants. The current challenge to this is the fact that the National Prosecuting Agency has been captured by strategically replacing any individuals who would have the backbone to institute criminal proceedings against guilty parties. It is concerning if there are no consequences for theft of public funds in a country where there is an urgent need for socio-economic redress. We are in desperate need of a caring government that is capable of driving genuine development programmes, and not one that is simply interested in controlling access to state tenders and retaining political power. This has brought the economic transformation and decolonization programme to a halt. It is clear that more oversight of citizens is required to mitigate against the misappropriation of public funds and grand scale corruption and to bring about the restoration of the public’s confidence in the government. This will place the power back into the hands of the people – where it belongs.
Anele Nzimande is the senior researcher and content producer for The Big Debate is currently studying law student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg