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Opinionista

If corruption is the virus, auditors like Kimi Makwetu are the vaccine

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Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, and founder and chair of MBAid, which uses the energies of MBA and executive education in business schools to help SMEs and NGOs.

Corruption is a virus that has had even worse consequences on the South African psyche than Covid-19. The irony is that we have a vaccine for it, the tragedy is that we have developed herd immunity - of the wrong kind. That vaccine should be auditors like Kimi Makwetu. They’re the superstars.

Kimi Makwetu was inspired to become an auditor by his mother, Maureen, who ran a meat distribution business in Gugulethu, Cape Town.

“I was exposed to ways of checking how and whether money was complete or not,” South Africa’s former auditor-general told Business Day’s Claudi Mailovich, remembering how his mother had always kept a pen behind her ear and a notebook in which she kept track of her clients who had bought on credit. “I realised that in order for you to keep track of things, you must write them down.”

It’s a beautiful encapsulation of the art of governance; whether you’re running an SME or an SOE, pithy in its simplicity. The obituaries in the wake of his untimely death have been deservedly rich in their praise of his tenure as Auditor-General and his incredible courage during one of the darkest periods of post-apartheid South Africa, where he never missed an opportunity to speak truth to power.

His remark about the importance of managing money is profound. It begs the question: what are we teaching people about money? How are we teaching them to spend it? How are we teaching them to account for it? Perhaps the meta lesson we need to learn is what the purpose of money is. If we are honest, money is a means to an end, not the end in itself. It should, particularly in the South African context with our incredible inequality and our history of vicious dispossession, always be spent with an eye on the common good, on creating a common wealth.

John F Kennedy used to speak of the rising tide that lifts all boats; if the economy does well, if we all do well then everyone should benefit effectively from the prosperity that is indirectly created. The problem in South Africa, after our era of State Capture, is that there has been a rise in government expenditure that’s lifted some boats, but not always the holed boats of those in desperate danger of being drowned in a tsunami of hopelessness; unemployed and unemployable.

We live in a world where selfishness is subsuming selflessness, the common interest has become a swear word as the devil takes the hindmost. In an increasingly polarised world the concept of profit as an engine for prosperity has become demonised as profit is venerated in and of itself, with little thought given to its application for either philanthropy or public service.

When we teach people about money, we teach them how to make a profit, which more often than not ends up being cost-cutting and squeezing people in the private sector and using the money as if it was your own in the public sector. Kennedy famously called on Americans to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. That’s been bastardised too. In South Africa, public service often appears to have metamorphosed into public exploitation and a gateway for tenderpreneurship, as we saw again during the government’s quest early in the lockdown to source PPE for frontline health workers.

In 2020, the world was infected by the coronavirus. The worst public health crisis in living memory affected each and every one of us, disrupting economies and brutally exposing fault lines in our societies. Scientists in different parts of the globe are working together, racing against time to find a vaccine because the cost of the alternative, herd immunity, is too ghastly to contemplate.

Corruption is a virus that has had even worse consequences for the South African psyche. The irony is that we have a vaccine for it, the tragedy is that we have developed herd immunity – of the wrong kind. That vaccine should be auditors. They’re the superstars. Makwetu was a superstar, but many of his colleagues in the private sector weren’t. State Capture wasn’t just corruption involving the public sector, it was aided and abetted by the private sector with the collusion of societal watchdogs like some of our major international auditing firms.

Makwetu stood out because of his humility and his studied ordinariness. We should strive for ordinariness: Denmark is one of the most successful countries in the world – because it cherishes ordinariness. This doesn’t mean mediocrity, far from it; Denmark has one of the highest standards of living in the world, some of the highest levels of social mobility and equality, as well as some of the highest levels of happiness.

It’s like a Nordic version of what we call ubuntu because it’s premised on no one being better than the other. It’s best encapsulated in the Law of Jante: no one is anonymous, everything is premised on the benefit of the collective. Ubuntu is premised on “I am because of you”, the Law of Jante looks at the same concept through a different prism, thus: you’re not as good as we are; you’re not to think of yourself as smarter than we are, you’re not to think you know more than we do; you’re not to think you are more important than we are, and so on.

The problem in South Africa and much of the rest of the world is that we do the opposite. In a world becoming ever more narcissistic, vain and greedy, “I” has replaced “you”, while “we” only exists as a construct to “other” those who don’t fit the mould, by collecting all the like-minded “I’s” into a pot mess of racist populism.

Jante’s Law dovetails with the wisdom espoused by Lao Tzu in his immortal Tao Te Ching, where he notes: “The sage accumulates nothing. Having used what he had for others, he has even more. Having given what he had to others, what he has is even greater. The way of heaven is to benefit and not cause any harm; the way of man is to act on behalf of others and not to compete with them.”

Makwetu never competed with anyone. He didn’t have to. He acted on behalf of all of us and held up a mirror unflinchingly to every one of the excesses of many of our politicians and public servants and the profligacy with which our public funds were being spent. He did so without being boastful or bragging; on the contrary, his record in office was such that everyone had to praise him on his passing or run the risk of being considered lesser for not doing so.

Called to public service, Makwetu conducted himself in the finest example of both ubuntu and Jante. He and the many other South Africans like him will be our antidote to the corruption virus that threatens us even more profoundly than Covid-19. DM

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