South Africa


Preying on the poor by those who claim to represent them sums up SA’s plague of corruption

Preying on the poor by those who claim to represent them sums up SA’s plague of corruption

Corruption thrives in societies undergoing rapid change. Time becomes a resource to be exploited by officials, so that bribes, or ‘gifts’, are an emollient to unblock intractable log jams. With endemic corruption, public services are informally but effectively privatised.

“The king gave us the law — he also taught us how to break it” — Neapolitan proverb

There are spiralling circles of corruption, with the murkiest recess reserved for those so debased that they no longer seem to know that they are corrupt.

The pillaging has been exhaustively documented, but less attention has been paid to the deeper roots which may explain this frenzied aberration. Our focus has chiefly been on mega swindles, but when corruption becomes entrenched at all levels, and accepted as inevitable, a watershed has been passed.

Three months ago in Mpumalanga, for example, driving school owners blockaded the Mbombela testing centre to protest a hike in bribes to buy driving licences, from R1,700 to R2,000. The general attitude seemed to be that the lower tariff had been reasonable, but the extra R300 was sheer greed. In that case, bribery was a necessity for poor people who needed a licence to earn a living.

At higher levels, where the excess cannot be explained by necessity, there’s also a warped inheritance, and the great anatomist of this inverted post-colonial psychology was Frantz Fanon.

In The Wretched of the Earth he chronicled “the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages which are a legacy of the colonial period …”. At the heart of this failure to create a different ethos, liberated from colonial aspirations, he suggests, is the demon of self-contempt inherited from past subjugation. This implies a corrosive lack of respect (for self and those fleeced), allied to a self-justificatory arrogance.

Here our “Accused Number One” is Jacob Zuma, who repeatedly abased himself shamelessly to a gang of racists.

At the crass 2013 Gupta wedding at Sun City, they requested only white staff. On the day, there were some black waiters, who were ordered to wash before approaching any guests.

On other occasions the Guptas insisted on a “whites only” policy, revealing the contempt they must have felt for a mercenary black president who virtually allowed them to run the country. It was a Faustian bargain: pride corroded by greed.

Our former president’s narcissistic assumption of the right to pick the pockets of the state required that he suborn accomplices. Such predatory instincts are grounded in contempt for others. High on Zuma’s charge sheet should be the roll call of those he soiled, including vulnerable women and wives.

Nor does he appear to have much respect for the son he rented out to the Guptas. Of Duduzane, Zuma said: “the Guptas were the only ones who helped him out when he couldn’t get a job.”

Charitably, “Dudu” might even be numbered as another weak casualty of his father’s venality. Even so, this scrounger boasts that he plans to run for the presidency of the ANC (and by extension, South Africa): another symptom of the virus of contempt and entitlement hollowing out the ruling party. 

Appeals to decency fall on deaf ears.

Heading south

A famous study of what worked and didn’t work in modern Italy is relevant to South Africa. The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam studied Italian regions between 1970 and 1990 and found a sharp distinction between civic success in the north and centre, compared to failures in the south.

He deduced that the former had for centuries developed strong civic traditions, with guilds and banks, etc, while the latter had inherited autocratic feudal traditions. Those diverging models filtered into late 20th-century governance.

His conclusion, applicable to us, was that civil society creates wealth, not vice versa. The results are apparent in southern Italy (half-built factories abandoned, motorways going nowhere) and in rural South Africa (derelict “prestige” projects) — while much of the cash is creamed off by powerful interests.

The point of such comparisons is to widen our horizons and, removing race from the equation, recognise that similar dynamics unfold elsewhere.

In South Africa, competition for office and access to funds can be fatal. The stakes are high for those on the lower rungs.

In a quiet village I visit, the ANC was previously elected. Their councillor had no evident abilities and failed to produce a single initiative. At the last municipal election, he was thrown out. In a drama replicated all over the country, this former councillor plummeted overnight from having a salary, expenses and other perks to being, with no skills, virtually unemployable.

It’s a recipe for pilfering while in office.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Respectable bribery

Corruption triumphs when a sweetener is seen as part of the social fabric. Once the habit becomes rooted in a complex network of gifts, patronage and reciprocity, it’s almost impossible to monitor, let alone eradicate.

The book Everyday Corruption and the State: Citizens and Public Officials in Africa emphasised that “corruption has two faces: the first overtly illegal one is broadly condemned and the second, which is legitimised by social practices, is tolerated and sometimes even encouraged — albeit ‘unofficially’.”

Corruption thrives in societies undergoing rapid change, narrowing the gap between regulations and reality. Time becomes a resource to be exploited by officials, so that bribes, or “gifts”, are an emollient to unblock intractable log jams. With endemic corruption, public services are informally but effectively privatised.

There is, say the authors, a “moral economy of corruption”, where those who “overdo” extortion are condemned as greedy, while those who abide by the unwritten rules are condoned.

Much corruption busting comes unstuck by only focusing on mega-scandals (the route South Africa has embarked on, without success), rather than trying to change social expectations (such as paying R10,000 for a teaching job).

That’s different in magnitude to the Guptas offering our former deputy Finance Minister R600,000, in cash, to do their bidding. That caused national outrage.

But R10,000 to buy a teaching post does not spark the equivalent fury in poor communities which could exorcise such routine criminality. Instead, everyday corruption slithers on insidiously: first shrugged off, then gradually normalised, until low-level graft becomes so rooted that it seems socially acceptable, almost lawful.

To build a school

Today I drove past the scruffy township school which by now should have been completely renovated. Fifteen years after the project collapsed, the sloping property is crammed with shed-like classrooms with little space between: a dumping ground for deprived kids, mostly preparing them for disappointment.

It could have been different. But the venture, begun with such zeal, unravelled when major funds had been raised and the local ANC “strong man” thought he could get his hands on them.

It wasn’t all in vain. There’s now a double-storey building with four sun-lit classrooms and modern toilets, plus a purpose-built Grade R, with its own kitchen and playground.

One South African corporation had been sufficiently impressed with our plans, financial controls, community involvement and parent-teacher committees, that they pledged to inject R1-million a year over the next decade to ensure the total renovation of the dilapidated school.

But even the best-laid plans can be foiled when well-placed plotters succumb to the lure of greed.

Twenty-five years ago, with the then principal, we set up an amateur appeal hoping to patch up the worst decrepitude, like a huge crack between the boys’ and girls’ toilets.

After raising several thousand rands, we wrote to then-president Nelson Mandela. Weeks later, there was a startling call: the president planned to visit. His office scheduled half an hour. He stayed for two.

The forecourt was packed with parents, white business owners, and ecstatically singing school children. It was clear who Mandela wanted to meet: the kids. Nevertheless, he had pulled off his usual ploy, arriving with the CEO of a big corporation.

As Mandela addressed the crowd, the CEO sidled up and murmured, “how much do you need?” Moments later, I realised I could have asked for 10 times more. Even so, Mandela’s appearance prised open the money bags.

Instantly the project needed a more systematic approach, so we set up a trust and roped in expert help. Race inevitably threw up suspicions. The majority of pupils were Xhosa-speaking while most staff were coloured. Teachers admitted they were scared to visit the township, and with planning delays parents began to whisper that the staff had “eaten” the cash.

But after five increasingly harmonious years, the dynamic principal died — and suddenly the evil genie of greed was released. The man behind this betrayal, a powerful voice on the school governing body, was the local ANC bigwig. He’s since died so let’s call him “Elias”, as he had a Western first name.

When jobs were going in the township, Elias and his pal “Jimmy” seized them. He knew how to work committees, but behind the scenes was a plotter. And a bruiser. Abruptly meetings were cancelled, calls not returned, financial accounts withheld.

When I challenged the chair of the governing body, she replied, “you don’t understand. Cross Elias and he’ll kill you!”  Then a senior pastor of the church which owned the land phoned. “Elias,” he warned, “is scheming to get you off the Trust, to be replaced by himself and his buddies.”

Not long before I’d attended a packed meeting in the community hall, with Elias and Jimmy in charge. Young men started yelling “thieves, crooks, you steal our money!”

The leader of these angry youths (let’s call him Bandile), was particularly vociferous. “You never produce accounts or hold elections.” Eventually, there was some kind of election which Bandile won.

He started out with enthusiasm. A few months later, however, I drove past the local ANC office, and on a mattress outside, basking in the sun, were Elias and Jimmy — with Bandile lounging between them. Later, when I called Bandile, he was embarrassed. “I know. I know,” he groaned. “But these guys sabotage absolutely everything unless they’re cut in …”

It’s a scenario playing out all over the country. Everywhere regulatory bodies fail. As to the fate of that township school, education officials were indifferent. With deceit proliferating and Elias attempting to get his hands on the funds, we had to wind up the venture and within months the Department of Education simply dumped more temporary sheds on that already overcrowded slope.

There’s a postscript. A couple of years after his treachery, Elias called: could I help find sponsorship, as he’d sent his own daughter to a Model C school and now owed them R16,000? Later, after Elias died, the home of his crony Jimmy was burned to the ground by “the community”.

Vigilantism remains the faceless vengeance of the powerless.

Arise ye starvelings

As a child, I recall hearing my parents fulminating about the latest National Party land scam. And who today recalls that with the apartheid Bantustans, South Africa boasted 11 presidents or prime ministers, 14 Ministers of Finance and 18 Ministers of Health?

Yet of all the varieties of corruption, perhaps, the nastiest was the mental and moral derangement among whites, most of whom believed they were superior beings entitled to nearly all the fruits of the land. 

Today the flagrant screwing of the poor by those claiming to represent them sums up our current plague of corruption. Elias, for example, was a member of both the ANC and SACP, but they were mere vehicles for his advancement. Despite his rhetoric, like the major state looters, Elias remained psychologically unliberated.

The question is: what can be done? Resignation and necessity lead to the acceptance of bribing a driving instructor, so the place to start rooting out everyday corruption is at local level.

Unopposed, the strong will always prey upon the weak. To reverse this will require less sporadic protest violence and far more sustained public challenges. Not top-down action, but civic insistence from street level up.

Otherwise, we will become a failed, authoritarian state, with a cowed populace. Only through overwhelming popular rejection of graft and fierce mass demand for accountability, will we see, beyond the stale rhetoric, a delayed dawn of liberation. DM

Bryan Rostron’s latest book is a memoir, Lost on the Map.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    This hijacking of local projects by the local ANC branch and its minions is repeated all over the country: swiftly followed by their demise. Local solutions are needed because everyone local knows who is who in the greedy zoo. But report to who? SAPS? Government departments?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.