Defend Truth


South Africa: A republic constituted on corruption


Lesego More is projects officer of the Democracy Works Foundation.

South Africa needs to reverse the mentality of seeing corruption as a defence game, where those who don’t engage in it stand to lose out. Corruption remains the biggest threat to our democracy and to any potential social and economic reform directed at empowering the poor majority.

Similarly to many developing countries, South Africa is embedded with various social woes ranging from high volumes of crime, inequalities, illiteracy, violence and unemployment. Politicians and government administrators often point at underdevelopment, poverty and a lack of social justice as the reasons for these challenges.

As accurate as the diagnosis is, these problems will continue to persist and solutions will remain ineffective until corruption and the problems that come with it are adequately addressed.

The title of this article claims that South Africa is a state that is constituted on corruption. To substantiate these claims a brief historical reflection has to be made on South Africa’s negotiated transition. The Codesa negotiations were a result of struggle between those who had the economic advantage and the marginalised majority of South Africans seeking economic and social inclusion.

The outcomes of these negotiations resulted in a politically inclusive society as far as the right to vote was concerned.

Beyond the guaranteed right to vote and the rhetoric of a society based on social justice, Codesa failed to guarantee fundamental reforms which would ensure participation for the excluded majority of the population in strategic sectors of the economy and ensure fair redistribution of land and mineral resources to benefit all South Africa.

In maintaining the status quo of Apartheid and securing legislative protection from those who would take over governance after the 1994 democratic elections, a selected few political elites who became overnight millionaires were co-opted into the world of economic elitism and given a taste of power and wealth.

Many theorists argue that this historic period which gave birth to a new South Africa also gave the country its first encounter with corruption and a sense of what governance would be like under the democratic dispensation. This sophisticated form of corruption is explained better by political science professor Michael Johnston, who calls it Influence Market corruption, (Johnston, 2014:16) which occurs when the wealthy elites seek influence over certain processes and decisions undertaken by government administrators for the purpose of expanding economic dominance.

This often occurs through bribing officials who are keen to put their influence and connections up for sale. The form of corruption is common in the Western world and the USA but the outcomes of Codesa bring many to the conclusion that South Africa has also had its encounter with Influence Market corruption.

The fact that this form of corruption often does not involve direct looting from the treasury and state resources means that it took time before society could detect its effects. This could also be the reason why there were not too many stories of corruption under the first democratically elected government of national unity. The ecstasy that came with the prospect of constructing the rainbow nation could have also created ignorance.

Two decades after the Codesa negotiations we still find ourselves with increasing inequalities, the people’s promise of social justice remains a myth, underdevelopment characterises the everyday life of historically disempowered people and the living conditions of the poor seem to be permanent.

Many believe that things keep taking a turn for the worse. Corruption dominated the media agenda under the President Jacob Zuma administration. On a theoretical level it becomes complex to provide an efficient analysis of the reported scandals of corruption with a single lens of syndromes or forms of corruption.

Corruption under the Zuma administration manifested in various forms and characters which included the complex traits of Elite Cartels, where under the watchful eye of stable democratic institutions the former president and his cohort that included different ministries, the former premier of North West province, the current Secretary General of the ruling ANC and the Gupta family allegedly orchestrated business and political networks for the purpose of sharing proceeds of corruption that were often a result of tax payers money.

The Zuma administration also displayed features of what some experts in political corruption would call oligarchs and clans, where economic opportunities were kept exclusively for his family and close political allies. State-owned enterprises and resources were also exploited and extorted to pursue personal wealth and increase his influence and gains.

Despite bluffs from President Cyril Ramaphosa through a State Capture commission, which we are made to believe will be responsible for investigating state capture allegations and the abuse of state power by former president Zuma, the sitting president has not acted decisively and with conviction in waging a WAR against corruption. Government efforts continue to remain sluggish and questionable in this fight.

According to a corruption and perception index by Transparency International, the 2017 Corruption Perception Index, which ranks countries by their perceived levels of corruption in the Public Sector with the number 1 country being the least corrupt and number 180 the most corrupt, South Africa was ranked at a disappointing 71.

Some optimists might look at this index and see the glass as half full since South Africa is not yet in the bottom 100 of these rankings but the reality is that corruption has devastated the public sector and handicapped government administration. Many strategic offices which could play a pivotal role in economic development are under the spell of cadre deployment and nepotism. A majority of people occupying public office are under-skilled and semi-literate. This has resulted in a perpetual under-performance from the public sector affecting almost all areas of service delivery.

The priority of elected representatives seems to be the interests of business elites, at the expense of the poor and working class majority who have, for decades, been seeking genuine programmes of reform capable of improving the quality of life.

The cost of public services is increased, procurement processes are used to extort money from businesses, officials of the law happily take bribes and budgets that are meant for infrastructure, education, science and technology development and social welfare, are instead used to maintain the lavish lifestyles of political elites

It is both naïve and short sighted for the public to continue expecting a genuine commitment from government to cure its biological defects of corruption. It is worth noting that there are no accounts in the history of corruption reform where governments have, without the necessary intense pressure from the public, put in effective regulatory measures against corruption. There can never be a balance of forces when government is expected to be both the players and the referee in its own game.

The present moment requires for organised civil society, churches, citizens and active youth to lead this war against corruption. There needs to be no space for the corrupt to hide in our societies. Anti-corruption initiatives would need to find more expression in our political dialogue and ordinary citizens, professionals and religious leaders must be given influential roles in anti-corruption institutions.

South Africa needs to reverse the mentality of seeing corruption as a defence game, where those who don’t engage in it stand to lose out. Corruption remains the biggest threat to our democracy and to any potential social and economic reform directed at empowering the poor majority. To revive the confidence of South Africans in defeating corruption, a big bang approach would be necessary. The country would have to position itself in a way that the global community knows it as a country with the harshest sanctions for corruption within a democratic dispensation.

The country is on a steady road of collapsing due to corruption and the time has never been more urgent than now for us to re-evaluate our strategies and commitments to fighting corruption and laying a solid foundation for growth. DM

Lesego More is a civil society activist and a Masters candidate in political studies , with a research focus on democratic institutions.


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