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And now for some Comic Sans relief: Switching the anti-corruption vibes from analogue to digital

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Dr Matthew Blackman is co-author of ‘Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’, and ‘Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped South Africa’ (both Penguin Random House). He has written as a journalist on corruption, as well as on art, literature and history. He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia. He lives in Cape Town with a dog of nameless breed.

Considering that South Africa has more than 350 years of experience in corruption, it begs the question: Why are so many public officials and their cronies so hopelessly bad at it? The reason, it seems, is that a perennial lack of accountability and feelings of total impunity have been bred in the bone of our country.

Given the choice between the company names Digital Vibes and Ayanda Capital, which one would you think was the South African one caught in a Covid corruption scandal, and which the British? The choice is admittedly a difficult one. Ayanda, being a South African name and all, you might well have been fooled. But if you are looking for the true mark of corruption Brand South Africa style then it would have to be Digital Vibes.

You see, choosing Digital Vibes as a name is just lazy. Who in their right minds puts the word “vibes” into the name­­­ of a health communications company? A surf shop, a smoothie bar, a Hawaiian-themed massage or nail boutique emporium perhaps — but an expert in pandemic messaging? The mind just boggles.

And when you add to the Digital Vibes story the fact that suspended minister Zweli Mkhize’s son, Dedani, allegedly collected boxes and parcels stuffed with cash at a petrol station in Stanger, it becomes the perfect analogue for how we’ve rolled for the last 350 years. Let me explain…

Corruption in South Africa is not the preserve of criminal masterminds. We have never had an Al Capone, a Professor Moriarty or a Lex Luthor of government corruption. Public sector corruption in our beloved country is the low-hanging fruit, the fish lying dead in the bottom of the barrel.

The patina of legitimacy and good standing that is demanded of international companies that wish to live off the largesse of the state simply does not apply in our kleptocratic republic. No need for the sleight-of-hand switch of handmade leather attaché cases or the highly complex digital theft. No, corruption vibes, SA Style, is just laaik sommer come up with a kak name and stuff some bucks in an old mouldy gym bag. And, as I discovered while writing Rogues’ Gallery, this haphazard, unsophisticated, lazy and, quite frankly pudding-headed approach goes right to the start of our flirtations with corruption 350 years ago.

But let’s forget the early corruptors, the Van der Stels, Yonges and Somersets. Hopeless in their attempts to cover up their corruptions they may have been, but they at least could be excused. They were the big cheeses in the very small Estina dairy farm of their day. They had some right to believe that nobody would get in their way when they took what they wanted. They stole in open sight and were quite frankly totally bemused to discover that some people raised objections.

Rhodes too, who had a penchant for sending off his minions to bribe people with bags of gold, can be forgiven for his general shoddiness and lack of imagination. When he was caught with his pants down, he used the newspapers, judges and politicians he had bought to cover his posterior. Not a bad plan when all was said and done. But he too had an almost “Vibe-esque” proclivity to naming things. De Beers (named after the farmer who first owned the land the mine was on), Gold Fields (let’s think, this a field with gold in it!), Rhodesia (let’s name this land after me!)… none had the slightest spark of originality.

Heading into the apartheid era, surely you would think those Boers knew how to make a plan with cunning and sophistication? Sadly not. Eschel Rhoodie, who became the fall guy in the Information Scandal, was pretty terrible at naming things. And all the organisations he set up to bamboozle the world had a particularly prosaic tone to them.

“Thor”, the most well-known of the Scandinavian deities, was added to the word “Communications” (still better than Vibes though!). And his secret organisation set up to manipulate the international press was called, not the “Pale Dawn” or the “Society of the Sacred Ox”, but simply “The Club of Ten” (and he didn’t even get the maths right: the club had only three members.) Rhoodie also got into the news when it was discovered that he had stuffed a few bar into a bag when he flew to Seychelles to bribe the president.

And from cash-filled bags to boxes, Dedani’s Digital Vibes fiasco is not the first time cash has been handed over in a cardboard box. In 1987, Herman Visser, a self-described “consultant and negotiator” for a construction company, testified that icuba (tobacco money) to the tune of R500,000 in cash had been delivered to Chief George Mantanzima, the Prime Minister of the Transkei, in a cardboard box. The deed had been done by Visser’s brother-in-law, Hendrik Johnson, who received R100k for his “hospitality”. With this take-a-lot parcel in Matanzima’s possession, Visser’s company was duly awarded a R30-million housing contract by the Transkei government.  

Corruption in South Africa is so commonplace, so quotidian and so endemic that there is no need to be clever about it. I encountered this in my own capacity as a journalist. About a decade ago when I decided to investigate South Africa’s Venice Biennale bid, I went through the lengthy process of a Promotion of Access to Information Request. After an acrimonious battle with the then Department of Arts and Culture, I finally got all the audited invoices for the event. “Hmm,” I thought, “now what do I do?” At first, I thought that this was the end of my investigation. The department had provided audited proof that all the money had been spent correctly and that all the companies were valid and registered. I must confess to feeling a little disappointed.

Well, that was until I looked at the invoices. The first thing that struck me was that several companies in Italy and South Africa used the font Comic Sans in their invoices. Well, that didn’t seem right. Then there was another issue. Why did companies from Italy to South Africa all misspell the address Park Town North as “Park Town Wort”. Sure, an Italian might think of Park Town as a misspelt verruca and perhaps a Capetonian might consider Johannesburg a carbuncle on the seat of South Africa. But why would several Joburgers make the same error?

I quickly realised that there was one person behind the creation of these invoices who had got lazy with the copy-and-paste function. And that the amateurishly faked invoices accounted for about R4-million in a R10-million budget.

For a country that has more than 350 years of experience in corruption, the question is: why are we so hopelessly bad at it? Practice makes perfect, right? Well, seemingly not in our case. One theory might well be that for those 350 years there has simply been no accountability. From colonialism to the post-apartheid era, the powers that be have had too much control. They don’t need to really cover their derrieres. Why would they, when the department, the ministers, the bidder and the auditor are often in bed with one another? It is a perfect circle of protection and one very difficult to break.

The simple truth is you don’t need to be that good at corruption when the whole system is rigged. You can just wander around with cardboard boxes or suitcases full of money and rubbish names for flimsy companies that use Comic Sans in their invoices. Who is going to stop you? The feeling of total impunity has been bred in the bone of our country.

But there is hope now hopefully, isn’t there? With Jacob Zuma’s incarceration (which is entirely unprecedented in our history) and the relatively swift investigation into Digital Vibes, the corruption fighter’s vibe seems to have switched from analogue to digital. Let’s cross digits that this is so! DM

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  • For tacky names how about Tammy Taylor Nails, the franchise Dr Mkhize’s son and daughter-in-law spent our cash on? If we were hoping for a little faux leopard skin (at least) in the manicure stations, all we got was Jersey Shore.

  • Delectable and sobering! I trust you have already registered the company or copy-righted the name: Comic-Sans-Relief (CSR unlimited?) – and while you’re at it, perhaps also anglicised to: Unfunny Clowns (without liability) …

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