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Contemplating corruption — the apotheosis of the bureaucratic criminal art form

Contemplating corruption — the apotheosis of the bureaucratic criminal art form

It is easy enough, although very unpleasant and deeply painful, to keep encountering the growing number of exposés about the massive corruption of so many public institutions in South African life. But is such a perversion of public life a feature of humans more generally? Do smaller versions give insights into a basic human angle of this behaviour?

South Africa’s ongoing challenges with the many tentacles of corruption, now reaching pretty much everywhere, have become features of our everyday lives, it seems. People are forced to come to grips with the actual impacts (and very real costs) of all the small, petty versions of corruption, as well as those bearing down on us with the energy of a nearby, exploding supernova.

For a while, it was easy enough to say, well, okay, never mind, it is much worse in Nigeria (and probably still is) or in some appallingly governed Latin American nations, or other places “up north,” or in the now independent parts of the old Soviet Union. Perhaps that is all true — we can sort this one out, if only we just bear down and do the hard work — or maybe it is not.

Is corruption now too ingrained to be extirpated from the body politic and government? Serious scholars such as Tom Lodge and Steven Friedman argue that current corruptions have real roots in corrupt behaviours inherited from the past.

Sadly, in the end, it may be that local versions, now, really are worse than elsewhere — at least compared with some places we think of as leaders in that race — or in comparison to past practice. In that sense, the local versions of state and corporate corruption have become pace-setters, especially when a national commission issues voluminous reports detailing just how bad it has been, or when international financial oversight bodies make adverse judgments about how easy it is for criminal networks to manipulate the local banking system to their benefit. No torrent of anguished weasel words from government figures can wave away these very real problems.

The late political science professor Samuel Huntington, in his massive study Political Order in Changing Societies, a volume that was required reading for international relations and political science theory classes in the 1960s and 1970s, argued that a modest amount of corruption could actually be beneficial to the functioning of a state.

It allowed actors the leverage to get a government to do more than simply tend to its own internal needs, and to respond to the demands made upon it for actual decisions and actions. If I recall his argument correctly, he accepted the idea that somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15% of an added cost (for corruption) for administration was a reasonable price to pay to get the government to function for the greater good.

Motive, means and opportunity

However, it can be argued that corruption relies upon the same triad of factors as pretty much any other criminal activity: motive, means and opportunity. But, importantly, corruption is also transactional — it takes two (or more) to tango. Or, to use an alternative phrase, one hand washes the other.

A key part of the problem, of course, is that since resources are always limited, corruption in government (by a senior government figure or the lowest-level employee) can mean the transfer or diversion of resources or activity away from the purposes for which it has been appropriated or budgeted. Or, alternatively, it may mean the cost of providing that benefit or service is higher because of that exercise of corruption through gatekeepers and rentier behaviours.  

A further element is that corruption also means benefits are transferred away from those otherwise eligible for them and are given to someone or some bodies who are, in the normal course of events, not eligible for those benefits. This is true whether the benefits are tangible, like the added, padded costs in the construction of roads and bridges with payoffs folded into the price, or whether they come in the form of intangible benefits that generate financial gain such as making available insider knowledge of decisions about to be taken by a government, thus allowing a criminal network to take advantage of that knowledge.  

In fact, corruption does not need to start on a massive scale. Because it is a learnt behaviour, almost like the classic Pavlovian or BF Skinner models of operant conditioning training on dogs and pigeons, successful corruption has a positive reinforcement loop built into it, as well as the possibility of punishment.

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That is to say, corrupt behaviour becomes more brazen when the cost of committing it seems nugatory and the rewards are real. In that sense, a government system can be eroded bit by bit, a little at a time, until the new, corrupt system supplants the old one entirely.  

At that point, the actual function of the government department or office has probably metamorphosed into the servicing of the corrupt relationship/s, rather than doing much about carrying out the ostensible purposes of the office or institution.

In a less than total takeover of an office or institution, the corrupted network actually allows an institution or office to continue to provide a modicum of service, but with the cost of a “rent” always attached to it, courtesy of all the corrupt actors and their quiet interactions through padded invoices, bid rigging and the rest.

The real costs of this behaviour then fall upon the rest of the population. They can still be made to be quiescent through arguments that the road was built, the bridge was repaired, the potholes were filled, the water tankers rolled in, the trains ran on time, and so forth. But at a cost. 

While the massive scandals coming out about Eskom and all the other awfulness revealed by Daily Maverick and elsewhere represent a kind of apotheosis of the bureaucratic criminal art form, along with all the other versions running through the many Gupta projects, the Covid personal protective equipment scams, the school decontamination scandals, and quiet subsidies of non-performing media companies — what about the smaller versions of all this behaviour that take place way down in the weeds? Do we find any elements in common with those big ones? Let’s consider some examples from South African and US history, drawn from the author’s personal experiences or knowledge.  

More than half a century ago, this author first received his driver’s licence in the US. Then, the licence was a small card made of paper, about twice the length of a credit card, with the state emblem printed in the centre of it. One side contained the required information — date of issue, date of birth, address, full name, and so forth. The other side was a change of address form to be filled out if the licence-holder moved. It would be mailed to the motor vehicle department, and then a new licence would arrive.

A modest cottage industry

There was actually a modest cottage industry among high school students in the use of an Exacto blade knife to cut one or two of the numbers out of the card and replace them appropriately. This involved taking a “9” and turning it so it read as a “6.” In that way, one became three years older and thus eligible to order or buy alcoholic beverages in Washington, DC, as opposed to Maryland or Virginia. In the former district, the legal drinking age was 18, while in the two surrounding states, it was 21. If the realignment was done artfully and carefully — adding just a bit of a smudge — a cursory look by a bartender or sales clerk triggered no alarm bells.  

But there was also one further bit of folk wisdom handed down by the more experienced to the younger ones. In those days of cheap petrol, the idea was to keep a carefully husbanded reserve fund of a folded $10 note in between the two halves of that licence that you never touched unless you ran out of fuel in your skedonk of an automobile. Well, yes, since you ask, there was that second purpose with this $10 note. If by some chance you were pulled over by the police at night for a speeding infraction or a broken tail light, and they asked to see your licence, well, readers can imagine the potential evolution of the rest of that story.

Was that corruption? And if so, by whom? Against whom? What kind of collusion was involved? Who benefited, precisely, and who paid the real costs, if any, to the common good? And what, exactly were those costs?

Some years later, during the first time the author lived and worked in South Africa in the mid-1970s, it was in the days of pass laws, “influx control” and the very real threat for black people of being “endorsed out” of a city where they were living and working. To get a visceral feeling for how that threat hung over a person, read the script of Sizwe Banzi is Dead or find a YouTube production of it.

And so, as it happened, one day I came into our office to find a recently hired female employee, a black woman, in tears and obvious distress. It seems her husband was about to be endorsed out because he was not in a “real job”. He operated as a golf caddy at one of the private clubs, but he had a dream of becoming a golf pro. Endorsed out meant being sent to Venda. She would need to follow since she was a spouse and had no special protections.

So, off we went, she and I, to the West Rand Bantu Administration Board (yes, that was its full, official name), the office that had the lives of people well and truly in its grasp. Under a marquee tent outdoors, there were two long tables with employees placed every couple of metres apart.

In front of each of them was a box of the various stamps used to put major life changes into the domestic passbook of an individual seated opposite the clerk. Our employee and I took our place opposite Mr X, and I explained that our staff member was in a very useful administrative job and we certainly could not do our work properly as part of a foreign mission in South Africa. Our office was, after all, from a friendly nation that would likely be unable to function without her help.

He looked at her; he looked at me; she looked at me. Finally, he said it would cost R80 to change her status. Between the employee and I, we scratched through our various pockets and wallets and eventually came up with that sum. We counted it out in front of him — so many R2 notes, a little mound of small change, a larger banknote or two. He took the money, carefully counted it, and then took her passbook, ceremoniously turned to the page with her current spouse’s permit on it, cancelled that, and then added a new 10-1-A stamp on the opposite page.

Was that corruption? By whom? And was it for greater justice, or did it serve to aid in the warping (or unwarping) of an already warped legal system?

The 10-1-A was the 24-carat gold version of one of apartheid’s administrative gifts. It effectively offered permanent, unfettered residence in a city (albeit, consistent with all the other rules and restrictions of the apartheid regime), so long as that individual remained gainfully employed.

Back in 1975, R80 was a comfortable wage for someone for a week or two. In our little drama, there had been no forms to fill out, no questionnaires to complete. The money went into a shirt pocket. Was that corruption? By whom? And was it for greater justice, or did it serve to aid in the warping (or unwarping) of an already warped legal system?

For comparison, consider the operation of the pass law violation courts (as I actually did at around the same time as our appeal to the man at the long table in the open-air office on Albert Street had taken place). It was astonishing that a pass law violation hearing and sentencing could conclude in about a minute or two before the presiding magistrate pronounced sentencing and the nearly inevitable endorsement out of the city — or even jail time. Those individuals so dealt with probably did not have a white foreigner as their champion for the moment — or perhaps the R80 needed to achieve temporary salvation from apartheid’s entanglements.

But think a bit more about this network of collusion. This middling bureaucrat was probably processing several such appeals every day, all week long, and then pocketing the “processing fees” each time — and maybe sharing a bit with a higher-up who allowed him to be such an entrepreneurial, front-line servant of the people. Little wonder, then, how such public servants could eventually end up with vacation homes, motorboats, or shares in game farms.

And for those who imagine the apartheid era was without its major corruptions (besides the system itself), it might be useful to investigate the way mining leases and permits were sometimes awarded with a wink and a nod by virtue of senior official connections. Or, how previously held lands occupied by black people or even, on occasion, actually formally owned by them, holding real titles, somehow ended up rezoned as available for redevelopment in the hands of new owners. Perhaps some of the perversions of systems we encounter now have their roots in such behaviour, passed along as sub-rosa mores from the earlier regime.

Qualifying on the rifle range

Now, return to a US experience. Back in the early 1970s, when this writer was dragooned into the army’s basic training for months, for those of us who had never fired a weapon before, the most difficult hurdle to cross was the need to qualify on the rifle range. Absent such a certification, it could be a return to square one to begin the training again.

The system for scoring the shooting was actually divided among three platoons. The platoon doing the actual shooting that day would line up and receive an ammunition box —  like a school lunch box — from a second platoon. The platoon doing the shooting would hand the members of the platoon with the ammo boxes their scorecards to be used for recording weapons firing success or failure. A third platoon was stationed in a trench beneath the actual targets. Those in that platoon were equipped with a long stick that had a small loop fastened to the end of the stick. When a trainee fired a shot, the man in the trench would show where on the target the bullet had gone. The scorekeeper could then mark it on the scorecard. Easy. 

But the system that had somehow evolved — presumably without anybody actually issuing instructions or setting out the flow chart or organogram — called for the shooter to hand over $25 or $50 with the scorecard to ensure that the shooter could succeed in this troublesome rite of passage. Without that payment, you were at the mercy of the scorekeeper’s recording one’s actual miserable score — and that meant one was unlikely to pass.

Considering that the basic pay for a private was $87.50 per month, getting a successful score was a serious investment by a private of one’s resources. But the amazing thing was that there was never any verbal explanation for this system. You just understood it, in part, because you, too, got a turn as a scorekeeper before actually doing the firing yourself. And so evolved an entire system of corruption, tolerated or ignored by officers, and managed and monitored by absolutely no one but through the mores of the three platoons operating together — all to provide fraudulent qualifications as marksman or sharpshooter to a desperate soldier.  

Here, truly was a system — and a thoroughly corrupted one — that just sprouted and operated by itself, with the willing (but unspoken) connivance of all the participants. It minimised the number (and cost) of soldiers who had to repeat their training, but it also probably maximised the number of soldiers who could not reliably be counted upon to hit the broad side of a barn with a large target painted on it. It was a perverse description of Huntington’s maxim about a modest amount of corruption being the necessary lubricant for governmental action. 

More than 200 years ago, the scholarly and well-read James Madison, the man who had largely drafted the American Constitution and eventually became the new country’s fourth president, had explained the rationale for the built-in tension between the three branches of government, and even the need for a government in the first place. Madison had written, “If all men were angels, there would be no need for governments.” He was quite right, but his observation did not go far enough.

Despite that erudition, Madison had apparently forgotten the ancient Roman injunction, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” — Who will guard the guardians? This is especially and seemingly inevitably the case when it is the very guards who are colluding with the other guardians to rob the rest of us. And that seems to be where we are now, doesn’t it? DM


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