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If only there was a vaccine against corruption — the virus that has infected South Africa since 1652

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By Nick Dall
29 Jul 2021 3

Nick Dall has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. As a journalist covering everything from cricket to chameleons, his favourite stories are always those about people — dead or alive, virtuous or villainous. He is the co-author with Matthew Blackman of ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (Penguin Random House).

Corruption is, in many ways, a more debilitating disease for society than Covid-19 and long corruption is never likely to be completely cured. Yet, South Africa can go a long way toward eradicating the corruption plague through non-surgical interventions, especially as there are several signs that we are already entering an age of accountability.

South Africa’s confused and initially glacial vaccination programme has (rightly) been cited as a major factor in our deadly third wave. But as vaccinations gather steam and the first figments of herd immunity glimmer on the horizon, it’s worth taking note that after more than 350 years of “long corruption” we are still no closer to a cure for that national pandemic. The time is ripe for some non-surgical interventions.

Like many of my 35- to 49-year-old agemates, I rushed to get my first shot of Pfizer last week. Six months ago I would never have imagined that I would be fully vaccinated before I turned 40 in September. Despite the challenges posed by the suspension of our health minister (after allegations of corruption!), the ravages of the third wave and the insurrection in KZN and Gauteng, the government has done a remarkable job of getting shots in arms in the past month or two.

The same cannot be said for the fight against the pandemic of corruption which must be entering its 40th or 50th wave in South Africa. I say this based on my research for Rogues’ Gallery, which traces South African leaders’ long and sordid relationship with flagrant corruption all the way back to the dawn of written records in 1652.

Granted, there have been occasional attempts to stop the spread and foster a culture of accountability. But these haven’t come close to matching the efficiency of a single jab of J&J, let alone a double dose of Pfizer. If immunising ourselves from corruption is all about learning from our mistakes, we have failed to roll that programme out again and again. And far from developing herd immunity our politicians, from Van Riebeeck to Zuma, have continually and progressively milked the state as if it were their own personal cash cow.

In 1801 Governor George Yonge of the Cape Colony was fired. In barely a year on the job Yonge had proved to be a corruption super-spreader. He placed needless taxes on brandy, billiards and hunting; gave his friends entirely unnecessary but fabulously well-paid jobs; and became embroiled in an illegal slave-smuggling syndicate.

Considering that he was described as “decidedly the most incompetent man who has ever been at the head of affairs” in the Cape, it would have made sense for subsequent leaders to socially distance themselves from Yonge’s methods. But, if anything, Lord Charles Somerset’s tenure as Cape Governor (1814-1825) was plagued by an even more virulent strain of the corruption virus. Somerset’s efforts to siphon the state coffers, to gag the press and to make a mockery of the courts spread faster than the Delta variant at a maskless ball in Ballito.

Fast forward to the end of the 19th century and none other than Cecil John Rhodes was almost single-handedly responsible for a corruption wave with a peak to rival Kilimanjaro. In 1892/3 Rhodes was at the centre of the Logan Scandal, the Digital Vibes fiasco of its day. Two years later, he stooped lower still by paying mercenaries to attempt to snatch the gold from under Oom Paul Kruger’s beard via coup d’état.

After the epic fail which was the Jameson Raid, Rhodes really should have exited the political stage for good. Instead, in 1898, he ran for the highest office in the Colony in an election that was among the most corrupt this country has ever known. The fact that Rhodes, with his actual sacks of gold, failed to buy his way to victory is one of the few bright spots in our country’s long fight against the corruption pandemic. But as James Rose Innes put it at the time, by then Rhodes had already “infect[ed the] virgin soil” of our land.

The corruption virus has proved so contagious that it has spread across eras, political divides and ideologies. One of the best recent examples of this rampant transmissibility is the infamous ANC arms deal of 1999. While the Arms Deal is often referred to as the moment things started to go wrong for the ANC government, it must be noted that the infection had its origins in relationships forged during the bad old days of apartheid.

BKS, an engineering company that had “impeccable Broederbond heritage”, according to Noseweek, and African Defence Systems (ADS), the leading military electronics firm of the PW Botha era, were both involved in the deal. What’s more, the Arms Deal would not have been possible without the unregulated and unaudited Special Defence Account set up by the apartheid government. An account which was, as Prof Jane Duncan recently told Stephen Grootes, initially designed to “enable human rights abuses against the liberation movements” — chief among them, the ANC!

Much as I’ve enjoyed stretching the virus analogy out, it can only go so far. Corruption is, in many ways, a more debilitating disease for society than Covid. Long corruption is never likely to be cured. That being said, I am confident that we can go a long way toward eradicating the plague through non-surgical interventions. In fact, there are several signs that we already seem to be entering an age of accountability.

Under Cyril Ramaphosa, the judiciary, the NPA and our SOEs seem to be slowly refinding their independence, and the surge in quality investigative journalism has been a welcome counterpoint to the attempts of Iqbal Survé and the Guptas to capture our press. Dozens of brave whistle-blowers (the frontline workers in the fight against corruption) have risked their physical and mental health to do the right thing.

As Covid has taught us, however, the only way to keep the virus at bay for any length of time is for every single one of us to play our part. Top-down interventions in government, the justice system and private and state-owned enterprises are all very well. But they will count for nothing if we the people continue to buy bootlegged booze during lockdown, to fudge our tax returns and to instinctively reach for our wallets when confronted by a boetebessie.

The coronavirus hasn’t even been with us for two years and already many of us have Covid fatigue and have fallen into bad habits. Sanitising our hands of 350+ years of corruption will be a much harder task. But we owe it to ourselves to try. DM

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  • A great article Nick. A reminder that corruption’s long-standing legacy in our country. Also it’s a useful reminder that there is no correlation between corruption and race. It’s a function of people’s environment, role models, leaders, the checks and balances in place and other systems type factors.

    • I disagree with the assertion “there is no correlation between corruption and race”, where race is clearly used in the wider sense of ethnicity in your response.

      As an example, let me cite Turkey, which is NOT a Sharia law state (yet) but secular. On our travels in Turkey over the years, we have never been mugged, pick pocketed or lost any airport baggage or the like, and never did any traffic policeman ever suggest a bribe. In South Africa, I have had two cars taken at gunpoint, my home in Gauteng was burgled twice, I have lost at least 4 cellphones to pickpockets, and every time I get stopped by JHB or Ekurhuleni metro cops, there is always the “I am hungry” bribe suggestion.

      It’s a question of racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, and/or cultural origin and background, I’m afraid. Your social background determines how you are brought up. The way you are brought up determines how you behave as an adult.

      Doing business in this country, Zimbabwe and Zambia, we frequently came across “how we do business here” suggestions. This never happened in Japan, Germany or the UK. How come?Because in these latter countries, corruption can of course be found, but it is not the norm.

      Yes, corruptible men and women are to be found in this world, but it is the preponderance of those corruptibles to be found in a given environment that is important.