Defend Truth


The peculiar overlap between corruption and stupidity


Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

What is corruption? Reading the first draft of the Zondo Commission report I get a strong sense that the definition of corruption should be expanded to include the notion of just being really stupid.

Stupidity in South African politics is gaining its own internal logic, and it’s visible everywhere. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprising, stupidity is not confined to the ANC, although given that the ANC is in power, its stupidity is more consequential. It’s also much harder to combat because although there are lots of laws against corruption, stupidity appears to be free of legal consequences. 

So much of what is categorised in the report is as much ineptitude as it is illegality, although there is lots of illegality too, which partly explains why the National Prosecuting Authority is having such a hard time bringing cases to court.

There are lots of examples but one little story came and went with amazing rapidity last year. Shortly after the 2021 local government elections, the Amathole District Municipality put out an advert for a “political adviser” for the new executive mayor, Nceba Ndikinda. 

The story hit the news because the advertisement offers a salary of R1.5-million a year. Amathole is an absolutely solid ANC region, and the party won 74% of the vote. It’s the district that surrounds but does not include Gqeberha, and Mnquma (formally Butterworth) is the largest town and the seat of the district council. But because the mayoral position changed, new adverts were put out for new “political advisers”.

The story hit the news because here is a poor rural government advertising for a job paying R1.5-million when earlier last year it needed a R180-million bailout from the government to pay its staff. The reason it can’t pay its staff is because the previous mayor went on a hiring spree and employed about 1,000 people more than technically allowed.

The advertisement was also kinda funny. The successful candidate’s duties, according to the advert, include doing research for international conferences, because there is a big demand for that, checking the executive mayor’s emails, because he can’t do that on his own, and “scanning circumstances and environments the executive mayor is getting involved with”, whatever that means.

There was a minor outrage about the appointment. The Eastern Cape EFF described the advertised post as nothing but cronyism and vowed to stop it. But here is the real news: this happens everywhere, people. Everywhere. DA Western Cape leader Bonginkosi Madikizela is about to return to politics as an adviser to Western Cape Premier Alan Winde. The only reason the Amathole situation hit the news is because of the advertisement. 

And it’s much more widespread than we know. An academic I know was once part of the Department of Arts and Culture during the Mbeki administration. At the time there were about 100 staff members. The department now has a staff of around 400 even though the mandate of the department hasn’t changed – it has about 600 if you include the Department of Sport. Around 80% of the work is outsourced.  Most of the R5 billion budget is allocated to SOE’s . The Minister can adjust these budgets annually and has significant discretion in relation to about R400 million which is termed the Msanzi Golden Economy allocation. This money can be awarded by the Minister at his own discretion as long as he deems it to be in line with the mandate of the department. This is all just stupid.

The notional logic behind all of this creation of non-work is job creation. But to me, it’s a kind of corruption rooted in stupidity. Imagining something to be a job – monitoring someone’s emails, for example – does not create a job except in the most abstract sense. The question is, what value is being created? 

One of South Africa’s most unaddressed problems is that the government has been on a huge spending spree over the past decade and a huge number of government “jobs” create no value. Its stupid. There should be a law against it. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Lesley Green says:

    David Graeber’s book “Bullshit Jobs” comes to mind.

  • Smudger Smiff says:

    I love him for his sake;
    And yet I know him a notorious liar,
    Think him a great way fool, solely a coward;
    Yet these fix’d evils sit so fit in him
    That they take place when virtue’s steely bones
    Looks bleak i’ th’ cold wind; withal, full oft we see
    Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.

    (Alls Well That Ends Well)

  • Rod McLeman says:

    I remember firing my stores manager years ago, when I said “you are either stupid or dishonest, I can’t tell which, but either way you can’t work here any more.”

  • Sam Shu says:

    Grabbing the golden egg = corruption
    Killing the goose = stupidity.

    Yes, we have this incredible venal overlap

  • Allauddin Thobani Thobani says:

    Susan Shabangu ex Minister of Mineral Resources is hired as Special Advisor by Lindiwe Sisulu as Minister of Water Affairs. Susan Shabangu as Minister of Mineral Resources assisted Ayanda Sisulu daughter of Minister Lindiwe Sisulu shareholder of Simmer & Jack Mines Limited with Watsons in fraudulent mining of gold.

  • Tim Price says:

    This article understates the issue spectacularly.

  • Cliff McCormick says:

    How wonderful if stupidity was made illegal, or at least not a requirement for a post in government. But lets include some of those other vices, like greed, sloth and gluttony as well. These also seem to be well practiced by our government…..

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    The top layers of government are political. Unfortunately the politicians are incompetent even in politics, and admit it.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    That’s why the term “challenged” has become so popular.

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