AWARENESS of corruption implies the possibility of a sense of shame or, at least, of public revulsion. It is a far more critical matter when people don’t even know their rotten behaviour is dishonest, when they think of it as either their due or an acceptable custom.

So it was undoubtedly with no sense of irony that President Jacob Zuma recently warned an African National Congress (ANC) meeting against "the enemy within". He denounced ill-discipline, factionalism and corruption, warning: "The enemy is always present … in different guises, sizes and shapes." The embodiment of those iniquities is, flagrantly, Zuma himself.

During his tenure we have witnessed a carnival of corruption. Exposés of the squandering or looting of public money are published almost daily. Yet presidential inaction or vacillation in the face of overwhelming evidence is standard. As head of state, he sets a dire example.

Zuma and various members of his family seem to suffer from what some lawyer will one day argue is a medical syndrome: the apparent inability, like colour blindness, to distinguish between his and other people’s money. It is a compulsive disorder — displayed spectacularly by the bacchanalia of public money being spent on his homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal (helipads, security bunkers, clinic, homes for wives, AstroTurf soccer pitches, etc.). Add to that linking tarred roads costing R582m and the new town to be built nearby for about R2bn.

The other explanation for why Zuma may not have thought of himself when inveighing against the "enemy within" is that such slogans are usually the prelude to a purge of political rivals. If this is the case, those considered "ill-disciplined" are less likely to be the corrupt than critics or whistleblowers. Is it a coincidence that, almost immediately, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela came under fierce attack from government sympathisers? Disreputable administrations find it easier to shoot the messenger.

Zuma isn’t the problem. He’s merely a personification and cheerful beneficiary of this malaise: the normalisation of corruption. A wide-ranging study of three African countries, Everyday Corruption and the State (David Philip, 2006), concluded that corruption is most difficult to combat when it is part of the accepted social fabric. The authors observed: "Corruption has two faces: the first overtly illegal one is broadly condemned and the second, which is legitimised by social practices, is tolerated and sometimes even encouraged — albeit ‘unofficially’."

They also pointed out: "It is not possible to dissociate corruption analytically from a regime of ‘favours’, ‘preferential treatment’, ‘recommendations’, ‘string-pulling’, nepotism and the various and myriad advantages bestowed in the name of family, neighbourly relations, friendship, school, university and professional relationships and professional protectionism." They arrived at this stark judgment after meticulous case studies in Benin, Niger and Senegal.

That description fits the way in which the ANC and its power brokers, and would-be power mongers, increasingly operate.

Corruption thrives in societies experiencing rapid change. It helps to close widening gaps between legal rules and reality. An alternative system develops to outflank official inefficiency or executive inertia; and, at a higher level, to thrive in such a society. Citizens devise a complex network of tacit conventions involving favours, rewards, perks and patronage. When corruption becomes the preferred approach to negotiate even small, everyday transactions — such as speeding up a congested bureaucratic process or avoiding traffic fines — it has become "embedded": an accepted way of life.

You sometimes hear this reflected in the baffled tones of departmental spokesmen when questioned on radio or TV about some egregious wasteful expenditure or downright fraud. They can seem genuinely puzzled about what the interviewer is going on about. What’s wrong with spending so much public money on fruitless first-class foreign trips or on numerous, profligate office parties?

Madonsela criticised the awarding of a R50m contract to On-Point Engineering, pointing out that it was an off-the-shelf company with no experience, relevant skills or expertise. Aggrieved, the Limpopo roads and transport department issued this forthright response: "There was no requirement or system in place obliging the committee, the bid adjudication committee or the head of department to conduct a due diligence investigation before awarding the bid."

That any government official could say something like that about R50m of public money indicates the scale of this crisis. Zuma may not be the problem. But, by sheer inertia, he is its greatest facilitator.

Zuma, with his history of living off the munificence of shady businessmen, shrugs off all questions of impropriety. Some of his ministers and spokesmen, though, have scrambled to put a lid on these exposés by declaring that Zuma’s private home is, under an old apartheid statute, a "national key point" — covered by security legislation and thus not susceptible to public scrutiny. The most squalid justification was offered by Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi: "Our constitution guarantees the right to cultural diversity," Nxesi said. "So (Zuma’s) rural home cannot be judged through standards of an urban white home."

Nxesi is a former union leader and such a cavalier attitude may help to explain the furious, even violent, rejection of official unions by striking mineworkers. Too many former union leaders have become ministers or VIPs, joining the scramble for expensive limousines, luxury hotel stays, wasteful foreign travel and sumptuous mansions — without appearing to feel any shame at all.

Well, maybe that is a white urban prejudice. But if so, it is shared by thousands of miserably paid, shack-dwelling black miners who are clearly very angry. The grotesque result is that ANC politicians are too scared to visit striking miners’ shack settlements in case they are chased out or attacked.

I don’t want to sound too "urban white" about this. My feckless paternal grandfather had printed pamphlets for the insurrectionary 1922 Rand Revolt, in which the slogan was "Workers of the World Unite and Fight for a White South Africa". Though owed £500 by the Communist Party for those pamphlets (never paid, apparently), he always had severe cash problems. Some years ago, I discovered that, in 1953, there was a court case in Johannesburg over a fish and chip shop called Benny’s, which my grandfather had bought — but never paid for. He had, William Rostron earnestly explained to the judge, "forgotten to pay".

Financial amnesia on the part of some of Zuma’s family is on an altogether more gargantuan scale. Zuma’s eldest son, Edward, a wealthy businessman, threw a sumptuous wedding party last year costing R2.5m. A year later, he has reportedly still not paid for more than half of it.

Zuma’s ostentatious nephew, Khulubuse, famous for his love of luxury cars and high living, is a director of Aurora Empowerment Systems (with one of Nelson Mandela’s grandsons and Zuma’s lawyer), which notoriously and shamelessly asset-stripped the Orkney and Grootvlei mines, leaving thousands of workers unpaid and destitute. Khulubuse apparently also has a huge thatched home in Zuma’s new rural compound.

They may need those security bunkers.

Rostron is a freelance journalist and author.