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Cosatu and corruption, the phantom menace

Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.

Corruption is public enemy number one, apparently. But I’m not entirely convinced it deserves the title. And even if it did, there are more pernicious goings on, particularly in the public sector that, by focusing solely on corruption, will slip by unnoticed. Maybe Cosatu is aware of this in its elevation of corruption to SA’s most wanted.

Corruption, particularly in the public sector, is a crime of two offences. It siphons state resources that might have otherwise been used for government programmes to eradicate poverty, improve education and provide basic services. If you follow the billions poured into these programmes every year to their intended recipients and beneficiaries, you will see that corruption oftentimes is literally taking food from the mouths of those most dependent on the state – the poor.
Corruption also does something more insidious.
Transparency International’s 2011 corruption perception index, which focuses on the perceptions of corruption in the public sector, ranked South Africa at 64 out of 183 countries. That would not be so bad if the index score of 4.1 did not indicate that the country’s public sector is perceived mostly as corrupt – roughly 60% of the time. And a recent TNS survey of 2,000 adults living in the country’s seven metros revealed that 83% felt that corruption had become a way of life.
In this scenario, where corruption exists all around whether in fact or perception, it begins to spread like a virus through rationalising (if everybody else is doing it, why can’t I?) and co-opting, because corruption, to beat the checks and balances our public sector has, requires collusion. Corruption chips away at the social pact and, unchecked, paves the way to social collapse and the doomsday scenario of free-for-all looting.
Which is why the Cosatu-initiated Corruption Watch launched last week describes corruption as “an obstacle to democracy and the rule of law. It increases poverty and inequality.”
But as the Public Service Accountability Monitor and others have pointed out, poor governance, which is much broader than corruption, is the biggest obstacle to poverty alleviation. We can argue how much of a role corruption plays in manifesting poor governance (only a little, I say), but we can agree that the public sector in South Africa lacks a culture that attracts, rewards and retains the best and the brightest. It is a shame that, instead of being a place where the sharpest minds aspire to build their careers, the public sector largely has become an overly bloated trillion rand slow-moving slob weighed down by ineffectual leaders and uninspired public servants. Sure, there are pockets of excellence, but on the whole, mediocrity reigns.
The effects of this can be worse than those of corruption alone. It took four children dying of hunger and thirst for Verdwaal and six other communities to receive the ID documents they need to access social benefits. Were it not for cheap politicking, Moqhaka and Makhaza residents might still be using ‘cabriolet’ loos. And public schooling, the single biggest impediment to economic prosperity in this country, is not failing because of corruption. The entire system is riddled with leaders, administrators and teachers who are not simply performing. Again, pockets of excellence exist, but few and painfully far between.

At the end, when only one out of every five kids the education system churns out received grades good enough to gain university admittance, no one is panicked because poor performance has become the norm. That’s over 400,000 of the nearly 500,000 students in 2011 who left school knowing less than half of what they ought to have been taught. In a decade, that’s 4 million people denied a university education in a country that has critical shortage of university graduates, particularly in the sciences, medicine and engineering.

Poor governance, in my view, does far more harm than corruption alone could ever do. Taking this broader view is what Cosatu, civil society and anyone who’d like to see Corruption Watch’s mission – ensuring that the custodians of public resources act responsibly to advance the interest of the public – fulfilled should be doing.

It may be ‘counterrevolutionary’ to suggest that perhaps Cosatu feels more at ease going after corruption as going after the real menace would mean using some of the language familiar to unionists, galvanising the forces of the revolution to hold the party in charge of public sector governance to account. Along with the other possible ways of doing that, Cosatu, if it was truly concerned about poverty and inequality, would need to present to its approximately 2 million members the possibility of voting for another party, not the ANC, come election time. That this option is completely off the table makes Cosatu complicit in the continuing poverty and the growing inequality. DM

Read more:

  • ANC welcomes Corruption Watch initiative, on Politicsweb.

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