SA APPEARS to be losing the battle against corruption. Some policy makers seek comfort in the fact that corruption is “difficult to define”; that it was worse under apartheid; that established capitalists initiate much of it; and that corruption may be a transitory consequence of political change.
Such responses are really only a comfort for wealthy citizens and government officials. Queuing services, optional donations to the traffic police, and private health, education and security provision mean that life can go on for the rich in a corrupt state. For the poor, however, corruption imposes painful costs. Life-saving drugs become inaccessible; housing lists are manipulated; business opportunities are closed; officials abuse citizens when they seek nothing more than their entitlements.
Why are anticorruption efforts failing to pay off? International experience suggests successful anticorruption initiatives have “horizontal” and “vertical” aspects. The horizontal relates to state institutions designed to regulate public servants’ actions. In South Africa, such mechanisms include the auditor-general, the South African Revenue Service (SARS), and the broader regulatory system for public service expenditure.
The vertical dimension encompasses citizens’ own attempts to bring governmental and private sector corrupters to justice. Mechanisms include whistle-blowing, political party lobbying, anti-incumbency voting, pressure group organisation, and media-based campaigning.
Successful anticorruption drives in other countries have usually combined these vertical and horizontal elements. Citizen groups have made use of legal and institutional mechanisms to pressure officials and politicians; state anticorruption agencies have been protected from insider political shutdowns by citizen support. In post-apartheid South Africa, state institutions and citizens have not worked hand in hand.
A first problem has concerned the post-apartheid political elite. African National Congress (ANC) leaders, as Joel Netshitenzhe has recently observed, came from difficult economic backgrounds. Asset poverty, extended families, and personal status comparisons with rich but undeserving whites, reduced the moral barriers to making money fast. Members of the new political elite have, meanwhile, been drawn into partnership with established business oligopolies, in part by means of black economic empowerment. Many ANC grandees have become rich by questionable means (and they know it). They cannot speak out with authority against undeserving enrichment in wider society. And they cannot build citizen coalitions.
A second set of complications surrounds the “white problem”. Democratic Alliance leaders have failed to explain to their supporters that apartheid was wrong and benefited (and still benefits) almost all whites. Most whites still believe their wealth was justly acquired. In consequence, it has been impossible to engage in a rational dialogue about what is a just allocation of wealth and public resources.
Third, leftist intellectuals of all kinds remain deeply uncomfortable, perhaps rightly, with the intellectual coarseness of debates about public accountability. In the coffee houses of Melville’s left bank, complaints about government corruption are now reportedly attributed to the “colonial unconscious”.
Nobody can deny we are all floundering. A decade of anticorruption campaigns has left the criminals fat and the justice system in disarray.
It is possible that we can all learn from the precarious but real successes of SARS, which has tried to avoid the kind of open targeting of wrongdoers that led to the destruction of the Scorpions — for the sensible reason that targeted interventions can easily be construed as politically or racially motivated.
Corruption, however, should not be ignored, deferred or defined out of existence. The morally upright in public sector governance institutions are right to embrace “structural” explanations of social behaviour. Corruption is produced by deeper factors in the political economy of a postcolonial society.
But corruption has been a feature of all modern modes of social organisation. It is not sensible for officials to aim to abolish capitalism and underdevelopment first, then move on to corruption later.
• Butler teaches politics at Cape Town University.
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