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Let’s fight this together: Corruption is a devouring fire that has nothing to do with race

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Themba Dlamini is a chartered accountant, speaker, author and founder of Melanation Media, with a passion for dismantling toxic masculinity, systemic racism and fatherlessness through thought-provoking stories which challenge these narratives.

Just because there was rampant corruption during apartheid, it doesn’t mean we should tolerate it now. It is not a black or white, rich or poor problem, but a South African problem – corruption is a battle between good and evil.

Friends or foes? To this day, I cannot tell whether Biva and Xamu cared for or hated each other. Drunk or sober they were always together – drinking, dissing, disagreeing, and donnering each other.

“Muyeke (leave him)! Biva muyeke!” shouted Jolo, my gogo, after Biva clobbered Xamu with a knobkerrie on the head. Xamu lay dazed on the gravel, his blue overall now covered in the powdery dust he lay on. He rolled his head to show a long, jagged scar glistening with sudden scarlet, dust-tinged droplets on his crown. Biva stood tall with his right fist fastened to the knobkerrie, drunk with rage and umqombothi, licking his bleeding lips.

Suddenly, a loud shout pierced the air. Turning towards the noise, I saw billowing smoke and a ghastly orange grin rapidly tearing across the Nkabini (Kwazulu-Natal) village outskirts as it approached Xamu’s rondavel. Fire! In a flash, Biva dropped the knobkerrie. He scurried to help the other villagers quell the fire before it ravaged Xamu’s rondavel. Xamu also got up and limped off, clutching his head, to join the firefighting effort.  

It strikes me that South Africa’s race relations are much like Biva and Xamu. One moment, the first black Springbok rugby captain is lifting the Webb Ellis trophy and we are all swept away on a euphoric wave of national unity – and the next, we are at each other’s throats over a Helen Zille tweet… only to be jointly singing, a few days later, the tune against black oppression and white supremacy – unifying under hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. And so, the whiplash of hugs and punches continues.

Unless you live under a rock, when it comes to corruption, there are often subtle yet blatantly racist and cantankerous ideological positions and delusions on the subject – ranging from the smug “see what happens when you put blacks in charge” (which is often disguised as concern for the poor, who are being exploited by elite blacks), to the Ace Magashule crowd crying that “the white oppressive apartheid regime ate well for years from corrupt proceeds and now it is our turn.” And let’s not forget the head-in-the-sand crew that says, “Oh well, corruption happens the world over… there is no need for alarm.”

While there are grains of truth in all these postures, they are, however, dosed with microscopic but deadly distortions.

The racist is right – when we speak of corruption, we usually focus on government, and it is common knowledge that government is dominated by black South Africans.

Ace is right – under apartheid, there was zero transparency and corruption galore. In fact, some municipalities did not even produce financial statements, let alone audited ones, until the dawn of democracy; the stringent PFMA and MFMA laws only being promulgated in 1999 and 2003 respectively.

Regardless, it is government and not the private sector that has bound us to a R70-billion IMF sovereign loan, and it is the state that is the guardian of the nation’s resources, wealth, and wellbeing, and hence a higher standard is required. This has nothing to do with race.

The head-in-sanders are right too – corruption is a global phenomenon and not unique to South Africa (or the African continent for that matter).   According to the Corruption Perception Index, which ranks public sector perceived corruption in 180 countries, South Africa is not the most corrupt country in the world. Instead, we are 70th in the rankings.

Over 90% of the ingredients of rat poison is harmless, but it only takes a small amount of poison to kill. In the same way, it is the minuscule omissions and bits of misinformation that poison and polarise Mzansi racially, instead of inspiring a unified front against corruption.

In the media, the lion’s share of the corruption narrative focuses on the state, as it should, and not the private sector. However, there is a subtle danger in this singular narrative that reduces the corruption debate to issues of race. It’s noteworthy that the private sector is dogged by embezzlement, bribery, collusion, anti-competitive practices, project overpricing, shell companies, and nepotism, to name but a few ills. Dare I say, if most of the listed companies were to undergo stringent auditing by the Auditor-General, they might still receive unqualified audit opinions, but possibly not “clean” audits as per the strict definition by the AG.

Regardless, it is government and not the private sector that has bound us to a R70-billion IMF sovereign loan, and it is the state that is the guardian of the nation’s resources, wealth, and wellbeing, and hence a higher standard is required. This has nothing to do with race.

And just because there was rampant corruption during apartheid, it doesn’t mean we should tolerate it now. It is not a black or white, rich or poor problem, but a South African problem that is a battle between good and evil. 

Several studies highlight the fact that inequality helps promote corrupt behaviour. South Africa is particularly vulnerable due to having the highest inequality rates in the world, which in turn are a direct consequence of having a past marked by mass economic exclusion.

As a seven-year-old village boy, I asked uGogo Jolo why Biva ran to stop the fire from consuming Xamu’s house when they were on the verge of killing each other only moments before?

“If the fire got big enough to consume Xamu’s rondavel, Biva will be unable to stop it from devouring his shack,” Gogo explained.

Our NDP ambitions to eradicate poverty and inequality, and repair years of harm caused by apartheid, will require us to put out the fire of corruption in a way that secures our collective future.

Corruption is a devouring fire that, if left unquenched, will soon grow big enough to consume both black and white aspirations. 

As weird and senseless as Biva and Xamu’s bickering was, at least they had enough sense to put their differences aside and join efforts to fight the fire for the collective good. DM

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